Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Rai to become a public foundation

Minister for Communications Paolo Gentiloni today unveiled a blueprint for the future of Italian public service broadcaster Rai. Rai is to become a public foundation which shall nominate the executives of the company and decide on the value of the licence fee in conjunction with the government. Public service and commercial broadcasting will be entrusted to distinct divisions; these two, and a third network division, will be overseen by the foundation.
The creation of the foundation is welcome. A number of positive aspects:
  • political appointees will now have an oversight role, not an executive one. The Foundation shall appoint the consiglio di amministrazione (managing board), which, if the name means anything, will have executive responsibility. This is a great improvement over the current system, where the consiglio di amministrazione is nominated by the Parliament, but shares executive power (and cedes executive initiative) with the Director-General.
  • foundation members' time in office will allow for strategic thinking. Foundation members will be appointed for six year terms; one-third of the membership may be replaced every two years. The six year term should allow for members to plan ahead without being shackled by a biennial appointments circus. Partial renewal should ensure that the Foundation's collective intelligence isn't destroyed after each term.
  • division between public- and advertising-financed content will help Rai's image. At the moment, the quality of Rai's programming - of Italian television in general - is low. Consequently, Rai is often hostage to licence-fee strikes, as irate consumers renege on their licence fees in protest at low quality. If the (popular, sometimes entertaining) lowest-denominator crap moves to the advertising financed channel, then it should reduce the grounds for licence fee strikes. There is a risk that public service content will rapidly become a cultural ghetto - but some parts of Rai - i.e., Rai 3 - have become quite good at winning ratings with public service content.
At the same time, there are some unclear aspects:
  • the appointment mechanism has yet to be decided. There are two options: the Spanish and the German. In the first model, six members are nominated by the regions, and appointed by the Parliament with a two-thirds majority; the President is nominated by the Presidents of the two Chambers, and appointed by the Parliament with a two-thirds majority. In the German model, the board is larger, and is drawn from civil society groups.
  • the financing mechanism is unclear. According to the guidelines, the value of the licence fee will be set every three years by the Government on the basis of a proposal by the Foundation, which will reflect the cost of producing Rai's public service content. It would be nice to see some mention of automatic inflation-uprating there; I don't put it past future right-wing governments to starve Rai of funds by freezing the value of the licence fee in real and nominal terms.
If you ask me for my recommendations, then:
  • appointments should not be made by civil society groups. Although it sounds desirable to free such an exquisitely political body from political appointments entirely, that's to ignore the fact that much of Italian civil society is also exquisitely political. Who can imagine a nominee from CGIL (the leftist trade union) acting as anything other than a left-wing activist? This model - the German - failed pretty badly when exported to Hungary; I have no reason to suspect that Italian civil society is markedly more independent from parties than Hungarian civil society.
  • the licence fee settlement should be made for six years, and uprated in line with inflation: if the contract between the Ministry and Rai for public service programming is to last six years, why shouldn't the licence fee? This would aid planning, and put the issue beyond the range of any single legislature.

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