Real Lives: Italian People Shows

By Rita Crisci

"In one palace of culture Renaissance Madonnas gaze unblinkingly at the spectator; under a different spotlight housewives take their clothes off in front of millions of TV viewers. Such juxtapositions of “high” and “low” continue to exercise a certain fascination over observers of the Italian cultural scene, especially when those observers come from afar." – Aleks Sierz

For many years Italian TV has been regarded as the epitome of deregulated broadcasting – the ‘Wild West’, as some have called it. Much of the output, commonly known as ‘TV spazzatura’ (TV garbage) consists in mixed genres such as programmi contenitori (‘hold-all’ shows which contain varying features and entertainment formulae to appeal to a wide audience), people shows, massive imports of (mainly American) serialised fiction, TV auctions and, in extreme cases, housewives’ strip-shows.

Beyond mentioning that there are other kinds of programme, I am not going to try to rescue the image of Italian TV. I prefer to concentrate on a specific aspect of Italian deregulated TV: people shows. These are programmes based on the principle of bringing the audience into the studio and turning them into the focus of the programme. Viewers become protagonists either by telling their own stories or by discussing social issues and/or other people’s stories. Such shows are sometimes present in the palinseto (a network’s weekly schedule) as self-contained units, sometimes as a feature within the popular ‘hold-all’ shows.

The issue I am concerned with here is whether people shows are the example of viewer empowerment described by some critics (e.g., the American John Fiske) in the context of the ‘semiotic democracy of contemporary TV’, or whether they are merely a way of exploiting people for commercial purposes, using personal stories for the creation of cheap and tacky programmes.

In Britain the latter argument is often applied to programmes like 999 and Crimewatch, which have helped fuel the debate about ‘tabloid TV’. The core of the argument is that supposedly factual programmes such as these are exploitative and voyeuristic, a way of making inexpensive entertainment. Moreover, they blur the border between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, and play on people’s fears and worries.

This kind of critical discussion is not taking place in Italy – at least, not to the same extent as it is in Britain or the USA. The reasons for this are twofold: firstly, critical discussion about TV is poorer in Italy both at a popular and an academic level; secondly, although there are a few examples of ‘TV reality’ shows – Telefono Giallo (Yellow telephone), Chi l'ha visto (Who Saw Them?), Un Giorno in pretura (A Day at the Magistrate's Court) – what now seems to be popular are people shows whose claims to inform are pretty spurious in the first place. The prototype of the genre was Portobello (literally Beautiful Harbour, transmitted in the late 70s on RAI ) and more recent examples include the Maurizio Costanzo Show (on a Fininvest network, Canale-5), Detto tra noi and I fatti vostri (Between Us and Your Business, both on RAI-2), Agenzia matrimoniale and Amici (Marriage Bureau and Friends, both on Canale-5), and Perdonami and Complotto di famiglia (Forgive Me and Family Plot, new productions on Canale-5 and Rete-4).

One argument is that a certain kind of people show, those in which a studio audience discusses various issues, challenges ‘the distinctions between entertainment and current affairs, ideas and emotions, argument and narrative’; more importantly, that they adopt an anti-elitist position because they implicitly repudiate criticism of the ‘ordinary person’ as incompetent or ignorant and question the need to defer to experts, that they assert ‘the worth of the common man’ by presenting and drawing on lived experiences of ‘lay people’ (cf. Livingstone & Lunt, Talk on Television).

This is plausible in the case of the Maurizio Costanzo Show, the most popular daily talk show in Italy, where, along with experts, ‘ordinary people’ are invited to be part of a panel discussing art, politics, and social and private issues. The audience in the studio – which is a theatre and not a fictional setting – is also part of the show. People in the audience can speak and occasionally step on to the stage to express their opinions.

Another argument is that programmes built around people’s experiences and discussions of them – ‘TV of suffering’ – perform a legitimation of public TV on behalf of the private viewer. They give people on the show the possibility to be momentary protagonists of the TV flow; they allow the viewer to feel a sense of personal involvement with the stories recounted by ‘one of us’.

This would be the argument put up in defence of Detto tra noi, and I fatti vostri and Amici, programmes which constitute what some refer to as a ‘confessional’ kind of TV where loneliness, difficult relations, domestic violence, love affairs, and private stories in general are recounted in public. Detto tra noi revolves around interviews with famous personalities who are invited to reveal details of their personal lives. I fatti vostri, on the other hand, relies entirely on stories of ordinary life. Amici brings to the fore the personal experiences of young people and the agony of growing up. Even when the focus is on social issues, debate around them is still conducted through subjectivity and personal experience.

There are, however, strong arguments against the view that such programmes empower the viewer, claiming instead that they constitute a theft of people’s personal emotions and worries, that they draw on a populist/individualist ideology which preaches the irrelevance of politics to the business of everyday life, that they present as private issues which, in fact, have distinct socio-cultural roots.

Such arguments are more readily applicable to programmes such as Perdonami, Agenzia matrimoniale or Complotto di famiglia. In Perdonami, the confessional style reaches its peak as the participants share with millions of eavesdropping viewers accounts of unresolved rows and quarrels with acquaintances, friends and relatives. In Agenzia matrimoniale, as the title suggests, people looking for companions constitute the core of the programme, whilst the wish to make fun of a family member through candid camera is the leitmotif of Complotto di famiglia.

The point that needs to be made is that there is a significant difference between shows like Perdonami and Complotto di famiglia, with their trivial content and poor presentation, and shows like the Maurizio Costanzo Show, which offer some good-quality storytelling and debate. The outright dismissal of the whole genre, in my opinion, is hasty and high-brow. However, a major barrier to a more discriminating view is precisely the problem raised earlier: the absence of any real critical discussion in Italy about what constitutes good TV.

Rita Crisci is a student at Brunel University.