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Redeeming Europe through entertainment

The Eurozone crisis has plunged southern Europeans into poverty and unemployment. It has created irreparable divisions between the north and the south of Europe. No sign of economic and political convergence is in sight. Fear not, TV will save us.

For the past three years, the media have sung of the epic failures of European leaders, summit after summit. They prophesy inevitable death and destruction. Yet, the long-awaited break-up has not come to pass, notwithstanding much conjuring from politicians and journalists. The heroic gestes of Mario Draghi have rescued Europe from falling over the precipice, but, we are reminded, it is only a matter of time before the ineluctable destiny takes its course. After all, the set-up of the euro was all wrong. The iniquity of the fathers of the euro is visited upon the children.

As disaster movies go, this is a pretty good one. The problem, however, is the epistemic fallacy of a mechanical view of reality – that view of positivism’s blessed memory. It is charming and reassuring to think that we can predict an outcome from the initial set up and current shape of an economic and political entity, such as the Eurozone. But it is wrong. There is no destiny, only possibilities. Determinists tend to see the present through the lens of the past and cannot imagine a different future. So Europe cannot ‘make it’ because it lacks strong democratic institutions and adequate financial and economic structures and policies to support the euro. Besides, what country on earth is made up of 28 states and 24 official languages? Well, India, actually … but that’s another story…

Those of the non-deterministic persuasion go against the odds and look for ways to make things work. So here is my recipe: ‘infotainment’. Infotainment is that wonderful mixture of information, debates and entertainment so despised by intellectual toffs like me. I might not watch X factor or reality TV (unless it’s the World’s Strictest Parents, available on youtube), but neither do I watch BBC Question Time, which is an hour-long series of soundbytes by more or less inspiring guests, or boring Newsnight. Yet, thanks to online streaming, I’ve discovered some great political programmes, all strictly Made in Italy.

The reference to Italian media immediately conjures up the infamous image of Berlusconi preying on the minds of Italians. Bit I have to say that it is sociologically naïve to think that people watch TV supinely and are duped by it. Television is a megaphone for what some sections of the population think and do. It tells the stories of the ordinary and extraordinary. It reflects the mainstream narratives of our lives, and it connects every one of us, including non-viewers.

Italians might hate politics, but are all politically aware. Thus it comes at no surprise that you could watch political programmes from morning ‘til night, and then continue for night editions. My favourites and some of the most successful programmes can be found on Italian state TV RAI and left-leaning commercial TV station LA7. The morning programmes are thoughtful and analytical, the evening ones combine debates, documentary and cabaret. From morning till night, one can delve into the ins and outs of political protagonists and their parties’ strategies; get a taste of investigative journalism; analyses of Italian and European politics from journalists and academics; reportages on the economic life of the country and comparisons with what happens abroad; satire and animated discussions with Italian public intellectuals, politicians, academics and journalists surrounded by a live public of young people, but above all stories of who Italians are and where they are going. The greatest hit is Michele Santoro’s Servizio Pubblico. Santoro is an expert story-teller who enters the scene in what looks like a theatre as the lights brighten and the music fades. He begins with a prologue often interspersed with dialect as a parable, then comes the reportage which starts with ordinary people talking to a journalist without being cut to a couple of meaningless sentences and without being censored for ‘strong’ language, and interviews with local politicians, businessmen and experts. After the reportage, we come back to the theatre where Santoro questions the guests and directs the often sparky discussion, including frequent interventions from the floor.

Michele Santoro. Flickr/Ifg Urbino. Some rights reserved.

The Italian media producers have refashioned the Rivista theatre, which mixed prose, music and dance, by marrying different styles of entertainment, storytelling plus exquisite care taken for the setting, lights and movement. The studio is alive and buzzing, and the viewers want a piece of it.

Europe needs just that: a space to think, debate, laugh and share experiences.  

So – this is my recipe for avoiding that lemming-like plunge over the precipice. The European TV station I have in mind looks like a mixture of RAI and LA7 with the magic dust of Michele Santoro, the host of Servizio Pubblico. It would broadcast political and cultural programmes, comedy and TV series. The focus would be on Europe: linking Brussels’ politics to politics across the Union; showcasing the best European films and TV series (I’m waiting for the third series of Borgen); and providing a panorama on the everyday life of Europeans, from food to sport. It would be subtitled, maybe even dubbed, if there’s enough dosh to do so. This means that you don’t need an official language, only a way for people to get the programme in translation.

I hear you say that so much gets lost in translation and comedy is certainly the victim number one. In reality, there are different types of humour, which may be more or less dominant in a given culture. There is no such thing as a national humour, only what is portrayed as such, thereby delegitimising all others. The comedy in political TV programmes, or political comedy, tends to be either satire or impressionism. It is not the type but the subject and the cultural references that matter; yet you don’t need to be knowledgeable of the UK political and institutional culture to enjoy ‘Yes, Minister’.

In the UK, politicos were glued to the screen watching Danish political drama Borgen and the US series West Wing. Would a European TV attract only a niche of politicos? According to a 2004 study, viewers showed “an interest in programmes that focus on Europe and the European Union, provided these are concrete and relevant, impart a better understanding and appreciation of the lives of the people in the different Member States and provide information on the impact which the Union has on their lives. It is evident that what is currently lacking in this area is not potential demand, but supply.”

It is difficult to tell whether there might be enough people watching it regularly to sustain the investment, because nobody has ever done it so far. The eurocrisis has given rise to an emerging European demos. The crisis, however, is delivered to us by the media according to national narratives that only proliferate more suspicions and divisions.

A European TV would force European leaders (elected and appointed) to be more transparent and to speak to all citizens. It would empower citizens to have their stories told across the Union. And it would also keep us entertained.

About the author

Francesca E.S. Montemaggi has been working in politics and public affairs in the UK and Europe. She holds a PhD in sociology of religion from Cardiff University. She tweets @FESMontemaggi, and 'sociologically dissects' movies and TV shows on her blog.


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