Giorgia Meloni’s Grip on Italian TV Is Turning Off Viewers

Giorgia Meloni’s government has imposed such blatant domination over Italian public broadcaster RAI that its programming has been nicknamed “Tele-Meloni.” The changes have drawn considerable backlash — and are driving ever more Italians to change channels.

Bruno Vespa and Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni are seen on the set of the TV show Porta a Porta at RAI Studios on February 22, 2024 in Rome, Italy. (Antonio Masiello / Getty Images)

Italian public broadcaster RAI (Radiotelevisione italiana) has long been a prize in the hands of the latest election winner. Yet if the ruling parties routinely distribute top jobs on national networks, few governments have dared to make RAI a tool of propaganda quite so blatantly as Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Critics today commonly label its programming “Tele-Meloni.” However, her push to bring RAI to the right is also proving a commercial disaster — turning the broadcaster into a hotbed of continual embarrassments.

In less than a year, RAI executives have replaced, cast out, or forced the resignations of their top hosts and journalists while threatening disciplinary sanctions for those refusing to abide by de facto censorship. The changes include near-mandatory positive coverage of the government — and, in these last six months of war, a ban on explicit criticism of Israel from guests, journalists, and hosts.

Sanremo-Israel Row

The starkest episode came in February, when TV execs’ botched effort to silence pro-Palestine singers backfired into a wave of protests and sit-ins in front of RAI headquarters around Italy. In Naples, Bologna, and Turin, riot police beat protesters for trying to hang pro-Palestine banners.

During the Sanremo Music Festival — a national obsession, with an over 60 percent audience share — two contestants, Ghali and Dargen D’Amico, competing with songs about peace and the death of immigrants crossing the Mediterranean, expressed political messages in support of a cease-fire in Gaza, but appeared unable to say the words “Palestine” or “Israel.” Yet Ghali, a singer of Tunisian descent, managed to say on stage “Stop the genocide.” This prompted an angry response from the Israeli ambassador in Italy, Alon Bar, who condemned an “outrageous” use of the festival to spread a “message of hate.” The next day, RAI’s CEO, Roberto Sergio, issued a press release distancing the network from the singers’ political stand and reasserting unconditional support for Israel. “Every day our newscasts and programs tell the tragedy of the hostages in the hands of Hamas, and will continue to do so,” the press release read. The lyrics of Ghali’s song “Casa mia” (“My Home”) mention the Israeli bombing of Palestinian hospitals.

The press release was read during a special Sanremo edition of Domenica in, a widely viewed talk show hosted by Mara Venier. Long-standing presenter Venier looked uneasy over Ghali and Dargen D’Amico’s political messages, and while timidly defending the latter’s right to speak, she also gently ushered him offstage. In an off-camera audio grab, she is heard telling the pundits who asked the singers political questions to stop. “This is a party, and there is no time to discuss such an issue,” adding “You’re getting me in trouble.”

The scene prompted a backlash against perceived shadow censorship. At the time, the government’s support for Israel, in line with much of Europe, seemed unconditional. Critics spoke of the circulation of the so-called veline, the instructions that Benitos Mussolini’s regime imparted to the press. The climate of government interference was confirmed by a public letter from RAI employees calling out the CEO’s press release and the mounting pressure against their independence. It also expressed employees’ support for the Palestinian cause and a cease-fire.

The political opposition is also trying to capitalize on the discontent with RAI’s new course. During the Sanremo Festival the center-left Partito Democratico (PD) organized a sit-in in front of the RAI headquarters in Rome. “Enough with Tele-Meloni and a public service demeaned to the level of a spokesperson of the government propaganda,” party leader Elly Schlein said at the protest. However, right-wing newspapers and members of another opposition party, the broad-tent populist Movimento 5 Stelle, criticized the move as instrumental. They pointed out that the PD had benefited from the same habit of interfering with RAI’s independence when it held power.

The Etiquette of Influencing a Public Network

Seemingly, Meloni’s biggest sin is a lack of subtlety in pressuring the network beyond what is considered acceptable realpolitik.

Traditionally, those in power are careful in carving out enough space for themselves in the public TV network without biting too much space off the opposition, in a kind of tacit law of balance. This translates into leaving enough hosts and journalists aligned with nongoverning parties on certain RAI channels and not disturbing neutral programming while creating enough vacancies to be filled with government-leaning types.

Indeed, the government has always controlled RAI. After World War II, television was even under direct ministerial control. A 1975 reform pushed for RAI’s political independence, shifting oversight to Parliament and endowing the network with a commission to oversee its autonomy. Contrary to expectations, the reform brought about the era of “lottizzazione,” a colonization of RAI by all political forces. Each party enjoyed a particular influence on one channel or its programming. Even so, the reform never stopped the ruling parties from carrying out personal vendettas across the network. In 2002, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi reportedly mandated firing three then-famous RAI personalities for their vocal criticism of him.

Today, Meloni’s right-wing coalition seems even more focused than Berlusconi was on interfering with RAI. There is also conflict between their respective camps. Before the billionaire’s death last June, he fell out with Meloni, as she marginalized his already declining power. Still, if Berlusconi’s Forza Italia still quarrels with Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia and the Lega — the third force in the alliance — they all agree on one thing: the need to keep RAI on a tight leash. In February, referring to Sanremo in an interview with right-wing newspaper Libero, the secretary to the prime minister Alessandro Morelli (Lega) went so far as to propose temporarily exiling from TV the artists that use RAI’s visibility to express their political views.

For the government, overthrowing what it considers the left-wing dominion over the country’s cultural institutions is the priority, more than respecting political etiquette. The colonization of RAI is indeed part of a wider push at forcing the mainstream legitimation of the underground culture of far-right parties like Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia.

One decisive moment will be the next round of appointments on the RAI board. Rumor has it that the government will try to elect a new board before June’s European elections to complete the network’s turn to the right. RAI’s no-vax general manager Giampaolo Rossi will maintain his seat or be promoted to CEO. The presidency might go to Simona Agnes, already sitting on the RAI board; this would be a move to the advantage of Forza Italia, replacing Marinella Soldi, who was nominated by previous premier Mario Draghi. Fratelli d’Italia also expects to broaden its own colonization of the network, though if the programming keeps heading in the way Meloni intends, this could be a commercial disaster for RAI.

In March, Il Foglio and Il Fatto Quotidiano newspapers reported that the company was working to sell a series of historic headquarters in Milan, Genoa, and Florence to cover its recent losses. The list includes Palazzo Labia in Venice, a seventeenth-century palace with frescos by painter Giambattista Tiepolo. The building hosts the local newsroom of RAI journalists, who opposed the move in a press release, calling out the network for selling off “the family jewels.”

Propaganda Doesn’t Get the Ratings

The propaganda effort is not bringing the desired effects. Since the beginning of Tele-Meloni, the network has already lost an average half million prime-time newscast viewers, more than any of its competitors. Meanwhile, the private Mediaset network, now owned by Berlusconi’s son, Pier Silvio, has surpassed RAI ratings. This was an unprecedented turn, as Italian public television has always captured more viewers than any other TV station.

After his father’s death, Pier Silvio drastically changed Mediaset’s programming. He cut ties with journalists who were close to Silvio, including shutting off record-hitting talk show host Barbara D’Urso, to increase competition with RAI on his terms. The strategy seems to be paying off. Last year, Mediaset averaged a 37.7 percent daily share as opposed to RAI’s 37 percent according to Auditel, the company auditing Italy’s TV ratings.

Despite these changes, the new Mediaset remains close to Forza Italia to the point of staging acts of political rebellion against Meloni when the prime minister sidelines the party in her decision-making. In October 2023, satirical show Striscia la notizia broadcast a series of backstage recordings of Andrea Giambruno, at the time Meloni’s boyfriend, in which the Mediaset journalist appears to have sexually harassed his female colleagues. Meloni and Giambruno broke up soon after.

To be fair, Italian television has been losing its audience for a while, with people’s prime time split between multiple streaming services, including the public broadcaster’s own RaiPlay. But even taking that into account, Tele-Meloni stands as the worst-performing programming.

The prime minister’s first picks for top RAI jobs — Angelo Mellone (entertainment director), Marcello Ciannamea (director of programming, close to the Lega), and Paolo Corsini (news and talk shows director) — have glaringly failed. All pushed unsuccessful shows with at times only a 2 percent audience share, while scrapping RAI’s most-watched programs because of their leftish hues.

These shows were hosted by unaligned journalists who have fled to independent channels since Meloni took office. One was journalist Lucia Annunziata, host of often-vitriolic talk show In mezz’ora. In May 2023, Annunziata announced she would leave the network, for she “did not subscribe to any action of this government . . . or its method of intervention over RAI,” as she wrote in her resignation letter. She will run as an independent candidate on the Democratic list in June’s European elections.

Other hosts moved to private networks for similar reasons. Such was the case of Fabio Fazio’s talk show Che tempo che fa, which migrated to a Warner Bros–owned private channel. It enticed a record four million peak viewers by interviewing scandal-hit influencer Chiara Ferragni in March, and three million watched Pope Francis in January.

The journalist Bianca Berlinguer — daughter of the former Italian Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer — also moved her top-rated talk show Cartabianca over to Berlusconi’s Rete 4, a channel known for its anti-immigration, conservative coverage. It maintained a good audience share.

Meanwhile, the ratings of RAI programs meant to substitute for these shows are lagging. Hopes were high for two titles run by right-leaning figures: a talk show hosted by journalist Nunzia De Girolamo, a former Berlusconi ally, and a game show by Pino Insegno, a friend of Meloni. Both were canceled due to low ratings.

The negative trend also applies to newscasts, which are hemorrhaging audience share because of their glaringly pro-government coverage. In January, Italy’s major newscast, TG1 on RAI 1, even aired a broadcast celebrating a neofascist youth parade in Rome as if it were a commendable boy scout initiative. The event was organized by Gioventù Nazionale, the youth wing of Meloni’s party, and centered on paying respects to neofascist militants who died in the 1970s wave of domestic terrorism.

The Carrot and the Stick

It’s not that RAI’s newscasts have dedicated more coverage to the governing party: data by the Italian Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (AGCOM) shows an average level of political pluralism. The network’s problem is more a question of content, and of perceived or real censorship over ideological alignment. One striking example was the recent use of disciplinary measures to punish an unaligned journalist and threaten a comedian.

Last November, the RAI supervisory commission investigated journalist Sigfrido Ranucci after his program Report aired two investigations about the Senate president — Fratelli d’Italia’s Ignazio La Russa — and his alleged ties with organized crime, as well as Forza Italia senator Maurizio Gasparri, reportedly involved in a conflict of interest. La Russa, a veteran of the neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano, is known for refusing to celebrate the liberation of Italy from fascism, and owning Mussolinian memorabilia inherited from his father (he bears the middle name “Benito”). Gasparri, himself a member of the mentioned RAI commission, mocked Ranucci at a disciplinary hearing by waving a carrot — a pun on the old saying of the carrot and the stick. Besides, Gasparri is not a newcomer to this game. As Berlusconi’s communications minister, in 2004 he drafted the law that gave more power to the supervisory commission that he presides over today.

Report is among Italy’s top-rated programs, often competing with Fazio’s talk show. Fratelli d’Italia has questioned the integrity of Report’s journalism multiple times, though an investigation aired last January — and run in partnership with the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano — led to the resignation of the undersecretary of the ministry of culture, Vittorio Sgarbi, after a stolen painting was traced back to his home.

The pressure applies to journalists, hosts, and comedians alike. According to La Repubblica, in January, Minister of Culture Gennaro Sangiuliano forced RAI executives to intervene against a comedian, Virginia Raffaele, after her impression of the ministerial adviser for music, Beatrice Venezi, had angered him. Raffaele had called Venezi a “fascistella” (an insignificant young fascist). Sangiuliano seems to have sensed the risk of ridicule, as he denied the allegations and instead took great care to praise the comedian in later interviews.

If anything, all these episodes have generated a climate of suspicion surrounding RAI that certainly will not help Fratelli d’Italia. Far from accepting Tele-Meloni, it seems that given her government’s blatant ideologizing, the press and the public are scrutinizing even the slightest decision by the network.