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Italian state broadcaster Rai, the country’s long-time major film and TV industry driver, is seeking to placate concerns being voiced by the country’s producers as it navigates the coronavirus crisis amid mounting criticism and shrinking resources.

As the pandemic paralyzes the economy in Italy — which at present is suffering the world’s highest coronavirus death toll, at upwards of 16,500 — the mammoth pubcaster, which has more than 13,000 employees, has revealed that its long-gestating organizational overhaul and 2020 budget approval have been frozen. 

Meanwhile, Rai’s ratings are oscillating as it scrambles to reprogram slots of its more than 20 channels amid appeals to provide the country’s captive audience in lockdown more “culture” and “quality” programming, as veteran film director Pupi Avati (“Il Signor Diavolo”) put it in a recent open letter to national daily Corriere della Sera. 

In another appeal to Rai’s top management, last week Italy’s indie documentary producers org. Doc/it voiced the fear that, while pubcasters in other European countries “have committed to supporting independent production,” Rai instead is “retrenching,” they claimed.

Producer Gianluca Curti, who heads Italy’s indie producers association Cna, laments that Rai’s complex re-organization and budget postponement until the end of 2020 is “alarming” because it signals that “even at the critical time when things start going back to normal, everything within Rai will still be on hiatus.”

In truth, Rai managing director Fabrizio Salini (pictured, left) who is a former Fox International Channels chief, and Rai head of drama Eleonora Andreatta have been busy holding video meetings with Italian producers and industry reps and are “guaranteeing that they will provide funding that had already been allocated,” says Giancarlo Leone, the former Rai exec who heads Italy’s TV producers’ org. Apa.

Leone also points out that Rai has assured it is “not cutting spending” on dramas, entertainment shows and docs, which he says “is very positive.” And Rai’s production spend is remaining unvaried despite the fact that the pubcaster will certainly suffer a loss in 2020 advertising revenue.

Rai’s average intake from advertising is roughly €650 million ($707 million) a year, while Rai’s annual drama budget is around €190 million ($207 million).

Leone points out that between now and the end of 2020 “there is going to be a big problem for Rai in terms of filling TV slots when it comes to drama” because lots of product they were counting on “just won’t be delivered (on time).”

Scripted programming aired on Rai channels for the past month has consisted largely of reruns, with some exceptions, such as homegrown medical drama “Docs,” produced by Lux Vide, which in late March bowed to a more than 26% audience share on flagship station Rai 1, marking the best debut of a new show in Italy this year.

Meanwhile the pubcaster — which declined to comment on any of the appeals being made — has beefed up its news division by setting up a “task force” to debunk fake news, which Salini on a Rai talk show called “a poison that risks undermining both accurate information and social cohesion.”

Rai president Marcello Foa (pictured, right) on Monday responded to Avati’s cry for more “cultural” programming by announcing that Rai 1 will start airing a “quality” first-run film in evening prime twice a week, starting with Ron Howard’s “Pavarotti” biopic.

And Leone says Salini has told producers Rai intends to air more documentaries across its three main channels, even trying to find primetime slots for docs on Rai 1, which would be a watershed.

“Rai has a very constructive attitude,” says producer Agostino Sacca, a former Rai exec, whose Pepito Productions is the shingle behind recent Berlin prizewinner “Bad Tales.”

The problem, Sacca and others point out, is that Rai simply does not have resources to make up for losses due to the coronavirus crisis as it transitions into being less beholden to ratings and advertising revenue and serving as a full-fledged public service broadcaster.

Italy’s government has not allocated additional resources for Rai as part of its national coronavirus rescue plan. And to make matters worse, the government has shaved off €15 ($16.30) from the €90 ($98.17) license fee paid by Italian households, which is the lowest license fee in Europe. The license fee currently brings some €1.7 billion ($1.8 billion) into the pubcaster’s coffers, which is peanuts compared with the more than $4.5 billion license fee bonanza that the BBC benefits from.

“Rai has the lowest license fee in Europe and the government gets a cut; it’s ridiculous!” laments Sacca, who says Italy’s TV producers are up in arms about this.

Leone, who is lobbying hard to recoup at least €100 million ($109 million) in license fee coin that the government is pocketing, says this money would be allocated for “non-commercial” public service-oriented content.

Getting that funding back for Rai would amount to “a revolution” says Sacca, according to whom in the wake of the coronavirus crisis the pubcaster is the main pillar on which the Italian audiovisual industry can rely on to get the industry going again.