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Mamma RAI: Italians’ Love-Hate Relationship with Public TV

“We’re so fond of our national broadcaster that we even affectionately call the channel ‘Mamma RAI’.”

“RAI, Italian Radiotelevision, begins its regular broadcasting television service today.”

It’s Sunday, the 3rd of January, 1954 and Italians witness the birth of their national TV service…or rather, some of them do. Those who actually see the historical moment are very few: the cost of TV appliances is massively prohibitive. 

To overcome the problem, our proverbial inventiveness turns watching TV into a social activity: bars and friends’ houses with a TV set become meeting points for whole neighborhoods. 

The Italian economic miracle will soon fix this, jumpstarting a widespread diffusion of TVs within a decade or so. In the first 10 years of RAI’s life, subscriptions to the service grow from 24,000 in 1954 to over six million in 1965. 

The first ever programme to be broadcast on the only channel available is Arrivi e Partenze (Arrivals and Departures), for which a then little-known Mike Bongiorno interviews big personalities, from writers to actors. The interview with politician Giulio Andreotti is still famous because Bongiorno began the discussion without even knowing who he was in front of. TV makes everything and everyone closer, even if you can’t recognise them. 

“The public television service started in the 1950s in Europe to be a complement to public education,” notes TV critic Carlo Freccero. And RAI (an acronym for “Radio Audizioni Italiane”, a tribute to the company’s past as a radio broadcaster) took the task seriously. 

“Television was meant to improve education using the cultural tools of the time: above all cinema, literature, and art. RAI unified Italy linguistically, as it caused the Italian language to be used all over the peninsula,” continues Freccero. 

Proof in point: the programme Non è mai troppo tardi (It’s never too late) eventually defeats illiteracy by teaching late-bloomers to write and read. With its various adaptations, the broadcast divulges the classics of literature to those who don’t read books. The first sceneggiati (scripts) are filmed live with the best actors borrowed from the Italian Theater–the only ones able to interpret such difficult texts without interruption. 

My grandma, who left the educational system at middle school, was a staunch defender of TV as a didactic tool. She would proudly maintain she had learned modern history thanks to its programmes. She became an expert in the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire thanks to the trilogy of movies Sissi, Sissi – The Young Empress, and Sissi – Fateful Years of an Empress (all interpreted by Romy Schneider), which she knew by heart and would never miss a chance to watch again.

One such occasion arose on a rainy afternoon while I was under grandma’s custody. When sassy, seven-year-old me dared challenge the historical accuracy of Schneider’s dialogues, my annoyed grandma took me to the other room (her flat had three TVs, just in case), switched the appliance to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho to keep me entertained and went back to her Sissi. The fact that I later became a fan of horror movies and not a serial killer is purely accidental.

Foreign productions aside, RAI secured the contributions of some of the best Italian intellectuals, writers and directors for its Golden Age of edutainment. 

Even pure entertainment was of high quality, done with elegance and above all, wittiness. In an aggressively male-dominated industry, variety show personalities like Raffaella Carrà and Mina managed to shine bright, replacing the stars of Hollywood in the popular imagination.

Television advertisement, at its dawn, was presented as a show in its own right. The popular programme of commercials Carosello, a series of short sketches and comedy films, featured innovative types of animation and puppetry. Characters included a Mexican gunfighter, a mute cherub and a dusty chick, enlisted to advertise coffee and detergents. Although for contemporary standards the show was naive and problematic for its racist and sexist portrayals, Carosello was immensely popular and many Italian families fixed viewings into their schedules. It was broadcast between 1957 and 1978, and it’s still longed for by my parents’ generation. 

Gradually, RAI expanded its offerings. The deregulation of TV channels in the early 1980s helped the advent of commercial TV. Everything changed. The schedule of the programmes was no longer decided by station directors, but by ratings. It’s therefore no surprise that TV lost its educational aim and commercials became aggressive. Italians went from Dostoevsky to Dallas

Today, almost half of RAI’s revenues comes from the sale of advertising time, while the rest is obtained from the annual license fee (€90/year) paid by Italian households, the so-called “canone”. This is what makes RAI a public service. 

Contrary to other European broadcasters, RAI’s board of directors is nominated by political organs, while the whole company is almost entirely controlled by the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance. This is what makes RAI a mess. 

RAI’s political structure, in addition to its chronic bad management, unjustified expenses and several episodes of censorship (a more recent example: in 2016, RAI censured a scene from How to Get Away with Murder in which two men kiss), have led to endless criticisms throughout the years. There were also a couple of issues when we ended up with a Prime Minister who happened to be the owner of the country’s main broadcast competitor…

In typical Italian fashion, we have been too busy watching TV to care too much about it. To Italians, RAI represents a substantial slice of popular culture. It means the Sanremo music festival, the Giro d’Italia, Sunday mass celebrated by the Pope (live broadcasting!), Inspector Montalbano, the Italian President’s New Year address. We’re so fond of our national broadcaster that we even affectionately call the channel “Mamma RAI”. 

In 1982, singer Renato Zero went on TV and sang the tongue-in-cheek Viva la RAI (Long Live RAI), playing with the idea of RAI as a maternal figure:

In fondo è la tua mamma
Ti allatta dall’antenna
Mamma RAI, non ti abbandona mai…

After all, it’s your mum
It nurses you from the antenna
Mamma RAI never leaves you…

Wearing a gold lamè dress while fanning himself with a giant ostrich feather fan, Zero mocks the many scandals and criticisms that were already afflicting the TV company back then. The lyrics were mysteriously cut at the best moment, and it’s time they’re reintegrated. At worst, they’ll just censor them again. 

Viva la RAI
Quante battaglie nei corridoi
poveri noi
se non si mettessero d’accordo alla RAI
paghiamo allora questo abbonamento
per mantenerli in salute e in sentimento
perché oramai
questo cervello
avrà un padrone lo sai?

Long live RAI
How many battles in the corridors
Poor us
if they didn’t agree at RAI
Let’s then pay for this subscription
to keep them healthy and happy
Because at this point
this brain
will have a master, don’t you know?

Mina e Adriano Celentano

Sanremo, 1957

Archivio Storico Barilla