One of the biggest personalities in world media and politics is no more.
Whatever you thought of him, Silvio Berlusconi had a seismic impact on the European political sphere and the continent’s broadcasting landscape, in a way that many believe was completely intertwined.
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Italy’s longest-serving post-war prime minister and the founder of European networks giant Mediaset died Monday at 86, and the onlookers have swiftly turned to his legacy and the future of his prized media assets. Mediaset, with its powerful Italian and Spanish subsidiaries, is now part of MediaForEurope (MFE) — a conglomerate with a stake of nearly 30% in German heavyweight ProSiebenSat.1 alongside having TV broadcasting, production, podcasting and publishing assets.
Berlusconi’s route to the top of Europe’s media landscape is well-storied. Born into a middle-class family in Milan just before World War II, the tycoon was known throughout the world as a man who courted controversy wherever he went. He could charm a room, cheerfully insulted rivals on a regular basis and had a knack of making comebacks when all looked doomed.
In short, he was a force of nature.
Within hours of his death being announced, he was labeled “one of the most influential men in Italy’s history” by current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose far-right government recently returned him to the Senate of the Italian Republic in his mid-80s. “With him, Italy learned that it should never have limits imposed on it,” added Meloni.
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“An era is over,” was the verdict of Italy’s Defence Minister Guido Rosette, but some believe the opposite is true. Analysis and obituaries have suggested Berlusconi created the wrecking ball political template for Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and many others. An Italian sociologist writing in the Guardian even claimed he had “pioneered” the politics of Trumpism.
‘It’s hard to overestimate his impact’
For as long as he was interested in politics, Berlusconi — who founded Mediaset predecessor and now-owner Fininvest in the late 1970s and also owned two Italian football clubs — was interested in the media and entertainment.
According to François Godard, a senior analyst for Enders Analysis and an expert on European media, Berlusconi intelligently rode the private broadcasting wave that kicked off in the 1970s when a “legal framework barely existed.”
He began his commercial TV operation in 1973 by launching TeleMilano (now Canale 5) when only public network RAI was broadcasting across the country. There were no truly commercial networks at the time, but Berlusconi acquired more local stations and programed them to run the same schedule — effectively creating a national network. Advertisers flocked, and Berlusconi became the father of Italian commercial broadcasting.
“It’s hard to overestimate the impact that Berlusconi had on Italian [media], and subsequently on European media, in the 1980s,” said Elizabeth Guider, a U.S. reporter and editor who covered entertainment from Rome during the period and interviewed Berlusconi several times.
“He almost single-handedly upended the stodgy, ideologically-driven state broadcasting business known as RAI, by assembling from scratch a trio of commercially-driven networks, programing them with largely American imports, and crucially, enticing major advertisers to come onboard,” she added.
“Almost overnight, zippy, fast-paced, ‘sudsy’ fare became the norm on the Italian small screen, led by night-time serials like Dallas and Dynasty. Hollywood program suppliers made out like bandits, not only licensing their shows in Italy but also in France, Germany and the UK as they too caught the bug. Sex and big shoulder pads became the name of the game.”
A natural charisma and propensity for showmanship meant Berlusconi himself soon became a household name, as his reputation among international business people and politicians grew and he emerged as a force to be reckoned with across Europe. “He liked to think of himself as the Ted Turner of Italy — and beyond,” said Guider.
However, many in Italy were unenthused by his attitude, his predilection for lowest-common-denominator programming, and how his networks often served to promote his political ambitions. Several seedy episodes plagued him, including the sordid “Bunga Bunga” parties scandal involving an underage sex worker. However, he had made alliances with figures on all sides of the political spectrum, and this became vital as his power base grew. He even oversaw a member of his own political party becoming Chairman of RAI in 2002, though his relationship with public service broadcasting was frosty at best. The European Broadcasting Union, which counts RAI among its members, declined to comment for this article.
Mediaset was steered through the decades as Berlusconi moved up the greasy pole of politics, but, like its owner, it was never shy of controversy. Various attempts were made to block its channels, and there were numerous sell-offs and restructures as politics and media met head-on.
“Berlusconi really went into politics to defend his media interests and establish Mediaset as the dominant operator in Italy,” said Enders’ Godard. “You would have to call that a success from a broadcasting and a lobbying point of view. Private broadcasting exploded in the 1970s without any legal framework and he was brave in buying companies and being the best of the entrepreneurs. Then, when the state threatened to establish legal order he managed to move into power and protect Mediaset.”
Content-wise, Guider said the mogul’s “cheesy taste for reality-style programming, replete with scantily-clad young women and inane talk shows” defined his channels in the early days, but they later matured towards a more modern network focused on home-grown dramas and talkshows and became more direct competition to RAI.
Downfall and the future
Berlusconi departed government in 2011 as the country tired of his management of its finances and debt mounted. A year later, a long-running tax fraud trial related to Mediaset saw Berlusconi finally convicted and banned from holding office for two years, although his four-year prison sentence was eventually ruled exempt due to his being over the age of 70. He was ultimately acquitted of charges related to the Bunga Bunga parties.
Hhe stepped back from the day-to-day running of Mediaset and in stepped his son, Pier Silvio Berlusconi, who became CEO in 2015. What followed has been a period of pan-European consolidation and restructure, led by the younger Berlusconi, with the company renamed MediaForEurope earlier this year while merging with Spanish subsidiary Mediaset Espana. “We were very sorry to learn about the passing of Silvio Berlusconi and send our deep condolences to his family,” said a spokeswoman for ProSiebenSat.1, which MFE holds a stake in.
Consolidation has been the name of the game in the recent past but Godard believes the group has ultimately struggled with the global transition to digital, instead relying more heavily on advertising while rivals diversify.
“There was a point when Mediaset had really built something but it was based on personal relationships with advertisers, Italian companies and so on,” he added. “That model used to work but now feels a bit old. Transitioning to a more modern model where personal relationships count for less and digital is prioritized will be costly.”
Going forwards, the newly-rebranded MFE will need to tackle these questions head on, but Succession-style family rivalry within the Berlusconi clan may act as a distraction.
For one thing, current CEO Pier Silvio Berlusconi’s leadership qualities are under the microscope. One senior European media source, who requested anonymity, played down his abilities and added the exec could even “wind up destroying his father’s empire,” while saying Mediaset Chairman Fedele Confalonieri is “nothing without Silvio.” (He is also 85.) Daughter Marina Berlusconi is Chairwoman of Fininvest Holding and has been considered one of the most powerful Europeans in TV for nearly two decades. Silvio Berlusconi owned more than 60% of Fininvest at the time of his death, with his children holding almost all of the rest of the shares. Full-year revenues for 2021, the most recent records available, were €3.8B ($4.1B) on earnings before interest and tax of €373.8M ($401.2M).
‘MFE needs shocking into action’
Meanwhile, rumors abound that French giant Vivendi is interested in some sort of deal with MFE, coming two years after a bitter dispute between the two companies that ended with MFE’s move to its Netherlands HQ.
“MFE remains a big player in Spain and Italy but needs to be shocked into action,” added the European media source. “This will need shareholders who are clear on what they want and require a clear mandate to form a professional management structure.”
The jury remains out on whether this will come next. Neither MFE nor Fininvest had responded to Deadline’s request for comment on their future by press time.
Although he had been unwell for some time, Berlusconi’s death is sending shockwaves through the European media landscape. His influence will no doubt be felt for years to come.
“Though the political legacy of ‘il Cavaliere’ [the Knight], as he liked to be called, is mixed at best, his media acumen was undeniable,” said Guider. “He understood the needs of a pent-up but largely unexploited advertising market and linked that up with an audience eager to throw off its post-war, post-‘leaden’ years of political turmoil, and embrace upbeat entertainment. That was not a small feat nor one easy to pull off in the Italy of the 1980s.”
How Pier Silvio Berlusconi and the wider MFE group recreate his impact while shaking off his worst excesses remains to be seen.
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