n 1964, Columbia University-trained journalist Luigi Barzini published a popular study of Italian national character called “The Italians.” Written in lucid English, the book divided Italy between geniuses and gigolos, the inventive and the impressionable. It sold briskly. But when Rome teenager Claudio Cappon found it a few years later, he was incredulous. Though Barzini billed himself as an “honest portrait painter,” he appeared to accept Benito Mussolini’s noisy posing as emblematic of a timid nation lacking in self-esteem. “An Italian learns from childhood that he must keep his mouth shut and think twice before doing anything at all,” Barzini wrote. “Everything he touches may be a booby-trap.”
“It seemed so absurd,” says Cappon, the director-general of RAI, Italy’s sprawling state television. “It wasn’t my Italy.”
But four decades removed from the book’s emergence and two from Barzini’s death in 1984, a more battle-tested Cappon is less likely to dismiss unflattering accounts. “Italy is more provincial than ever,” he admits.
The 54-year-old Cappon was elected to the RAI job for the second time in five years in June, only two months after the center-left government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi came to power. The selection process can be as mean-spirited as an election campaign because governing and opposing parties must find a consensus. The proof is in numbers: RAI has had 15 director-generals and 16 presidents in 30 years.
Cappon’s short-lived first stint, February 2001 to March 2002, ended acrimoniously when he was pressured into resigning by then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who heads the Mediaset empire and also controls Italy’s three private networks.
RAI’s governing structure is deliberately arcane. Seven of the nine members of the linchpin Administrative Council are named by a parliamentary commission that appoints the members based on party influence and loyalty, with media influence considered both an entitlement and a reward. The final two members, including the president, are picked by the finance ministry, which funds the state broadcaster. The administrative council then chooses a director-general, who serves as the network’s day-to-day chief. Both the president and the director general serve three-year terms. In the June council vote, Cappon was elected unanimously.
Self-effacing and baby-faced, he’s spent half-a-lifetime inside Italy’s Byzantine public corporations. Friends and adversaries inside RAI call him an honorable man, rare praise in a rough neighborhood. In conversation, he’s a broodingly pragmatic optimist who adopts quicksilver pessimism to defend against heightened expectations. On the one hand, he’ll tell you that the country’s ungainly bureaucracy is its own worst enemy, on the other that he still believes in change from within. What irks him is Italy’s tendency to put preening ahead of workplace ethics — a self-destructive practice that Barzini rued frequently in “The Italians” and which the young Cappon couldn’t imagine in the business world. “I was wrong,” he admits. “Trying to reform RAI is like making a 70-year-old lift weights.”
Cappon, who has no party affiliation, got his start with the state holding company IRI (Istituto per la Ricostruzione Italiana), which also nourished economist Prodi. He held a variety of posts in IRI companies, working mostly as a top-level financial manager and planner. Between 2002 and the start of his second RAI term, he ran Consap, the state company in charge of private sell-offs, and served as president of ATP, Italy’s television producer’s association.
Cappon follows in the business-oriented footsteps of father Giorgio Cappon, who for years headed the IMI (Istituto Immobiliare Italiano), the state’s powerful investment bank. He died in 2004.
The Rome-born Cappon has a son and two daughters. He chatted with Christopher P. Winner in February. These are excerpts from their conversation.
What does television mean in Italy in 2007, and to you personally?
As elsewhere, television is the broadest forum for the communication of entertainment. It’s the grand stage where the country bares its soul. It’s a place where people show off. Every day, those both in and out of the industry tell me how central TV is to their lives. The showing off part is probably more pronounced in Italy because Italians have always had a theatrical and dramatic streak.
TV also reflects politics, controversy, the warts and beauty marks of society at large. What I like about it isn’t necessarily the job itself, which often takes more than it gives back. What intrigues me is the human comedy as a microcosm of the country.
Does the show-offy side mean Italians are intrinsically vain?
Based on talking to other TV managers, my sense overall is that the Italian scene lacks what’s accepted as normal professionalism in most places where state television is thought of as an industry, a business, a corporate undertaking with a bottom line. In Italy, the human comedy part is pre-eminent. That’s also because of the institutional restraints placed on public TV, which has a strong political component.
Can you give me an example of that component?
The players in the Italian TV market are RAI and Mediaset. Mediaset isn’t just a commercial enterprise. It’s the platform that launched Silvio Berlusconi’s political career, and he’s been the country’s political point man for over a decade. While my foreign colleagues face problems connected to the practical side of the business: going digital, say, or signing international rights deals, I’m more tied to internal affairs, including politics. Again, it’s the Italian drama factor.
Italian media has been politicized for decades. That seems more than ever the case. True?
Yes, RAI was always politicized. Italian parties took advantage of partisanship to help themselves out. The fact that Mediaset — the first really functional commercial alternative — propelled Berlusconi’s success didn’t help matters. In fact, it froze things. The TV reforms you’ve seen in France, Spain or in Britain with the BBC, where state television has been framed commercially, were out of the question here because even competition got a political edge. The conflictual nature of the RAI-Mediaset rivalry waylaid the courage needed to treat state TV as “just” an industry.
One time, when I wasn’t working for RAI, a University of Perugia student asked me about the chances of privatizing RAI. I told him you’d need a United Nations Security Council resolution with troops on alert. Anything involving TV is irrational. It’s too hot to handle and the slightest touch sets off a chain reaction.
It seems, though, that this partisan “Italian” factor has spread, even to the United States.
True. I watch Fox News and CNN on Sky and the political bias is more evident and intense than ever before. It’s something new to English-language broadcasting.
What was the trigger mechanism?
In the U.S. it was 9/11. If you inflame passion and political opinion you militarize communication. My grandfather quoted a French phrase he probably learned in high school, “When you become partisan, all reason is lost.” When bias settles in, you lose intellectual detachment.
I’ve mentioned [Austrian writer and satirist] Karl Kraus before and it’s gotten me into trouble. He wrote “The Last Days of Humanity” just after World War I. He believed that major conflict has both a military dimension and the militarized opinion component I just mentioned. All debate suddenly depends exclusively on whose side you’re on. [Editor’s note: Kraus once wrote: “How is the world ruled and how do wars start? Diplomats tell lies to journalists and then believe what they read.”]
And Italy is vulnerable?
It seemed for a while that the Italian economic boom had neutralized what you could call the Montague-Capulet factor — indulging facetiousness and constant bickering. But it’s been restored, maybe by the economic slowdown. Italy has resumed its ritual strife broken down by towns, neighborhoods, regions, and factions. We’re the house divided.
How do you reconcile “militarized communication” with your own views, given that you manage a major European state network?
Clearly, I don’t like the militarized viewpoint. Maybe it’s a matter of age, but you start thinking in terms of second-best scenarios, not best-case ones; you modify your idealism. You realize you can’t change the world, but you know can do something within the context of the present, which is a different but more feasible project than dealing with the ideal. I look at running RAI the way I look at mountain-climbing. My father took me to the mountains as a kid and they were daunting… but from below. Then, you realized that the only way to get the top — for anyone and everyone — was step by step.
My job isn’t to moralize RAI or change Italian culture. It’s not who I am. Instead, I say to myself, “OK, I’m here. I have this responsibility. Whatever I do, I’ll certainly do it less badly than others.”
I know for example that if I change the TG1 director, the person I get will be better than his or her predecessor — in my view, of course. [Editor’s note: Cappon recently appointed respected Corriere della Sera journalist and editor Gianni Riotta to the TG1 post.] Again, these are small steps. Maybe they’re a defense mechanism against the tempest-in-a-teapot adrenalin that influences the thinking here. Thankfully, my objectives aren’t based on my own or anyone else’s personal charisma.
What about in the long run? Can RAI change?
You can always change. Whether for the better, the best, the worse, the disastrous, and so on. But you have to distinguish between change and improvement. Change depends on structure, not just goodwill. In 15 years RAI has had 15 presidents and as many heads of its governing board. That’s a fair number of intelligent people. Since there haven’t been any significant modifications in that time you can deduce the problem isn’t the people but the system. Think of it in terms of a car. If a factory model has a break defect, getting the best driver isn’t the solution. You have to fix the whole line.
The problem in this factory is with governance. Television appointments are governed by political choices. That’s the way this factory’s run. It can be fixed easily if the factory managers want to fix it. But you have to take chances. Take IRI for example, which was created 1933 and linked public and private industry. When I joined it, no one even remembered when it was founded and most assumed it might shut down in the year 3000… at the earliest. Instead, I saw it vaporized in three years: globalization, liberalization, opening of the borders, and so on. The end. Three years.
So, things can change very, very fast if the climate is right — and it’s not necessarily always a good thing. RAI, for example, would be broadsided. RAI is a little like someone who’s lived for years in a self-contained environment, a house where everyone knows what’s hanging on the walls and where. If things get moved around suddenly, it’s devastating.
It’s like the Soviet Union. Every year, we’d watch the Red Square parades never imagining that things had come apart at the seams decades ago. As soon as a major fissure opened, the whole building collapsed in, what, 24 months? So change can happen, easily, I repeat. But you need an outside shock to induce it.
What kind of shock?
Opening of the markets, for example. Or Sky making serious inroads. Or Mediaset being sold, say, to a Chinese billionaire. It could even be digital TV expanding rapidly and someone opening up a new network. Anything that forces the factory to alter governance to the exclusion of politics could tip the scales. Suddenly, the logic changes. It’s business. Those who constituted the old culture, from doormen on up, lose their relevance. The dinosaur becomes obsolete. With all the dead and injured on the street — figuratively speaking — you’re then compelled to overhaul the whole thing.
For now, that’s inconceivable. Not only because no one wants to give up governance, but because state TV is a shared experience that’s imagined in the same way by all its participants. Even the very best and the brightest can’t see beyond the status quo.
Here’s an example. Recently, we made a change in Sardinia that involved closing a local RAI channel to test digital alternatives. A worried sick news chief came running to me and said: “Oh, now politics has dialed in …” I told him that our decision had nothing to do with politics, never mind that “politics” per se doesn’t have an 800 number. I told him no one had called me or told me what to do.
But he was absolutely in good faith. He just couldn’t imagine a decision that wasn’t politically motivated. It’s maddening that that so many insiders can’t imagine decisions made strictly for the benefit of the industry or the company. It has to be framed in terms of that mystery phone call. And the guy in Sardinia is not changing his mind.
So, nothing changes until the whole thing is shocked out of partisanship, until the institution is forced to come to terms with political parties just not counting.
Darwinian maybe. The RAI ecosystem is what it is, lots of furry animals living in splendid isolation because of Italy’s remoteness from global evolution. But the day you open the door and let the world’s other animals in, all those furry animals die.
How is this viewed?
The first time I headed up RAI , I met a lot of officials who told me they liked me as a person and considered me a fairly bright guy. Then they said, “You know, you should go to Finmeccanica [Italy’s hi-tech group] or the railroads or the post office or Fiat, wherever, anywhere but RAI.”
Their approach was, What use is good pair of lungs in a place where there’s no breathable air. You need tubes and claws. You need the right approach. In essence, they were saying: “It’s not that we don’t admire you, but this is not your ecosystem…”
There again is the problem.
But since I believe the ecosystem is fake and artificial and exists only as a result of the Italian need to perpetuate what it knows, to keep state systems immutable, I know that something will eventually give out.
So you want to change the ecosystem?
No, I can’t change it. I can tell the people inside it that they’re living in a cocoon, and on borrowed time. If they’re not open to change, they’ll die in the long haul. Darwin again.
Let’s backtrack. Italy seemed to be open to change in the Mani Pulite, Tangentopoli period. It felt like a harbinger. Then, nothing. Or so it seems with 20/20 hindsight.
The time between 1992 to 1999 is an odd piece of Italian history. The partisan power structure, the inner Mafia-style decision-making — not in an underworld sense — melted away for a while. This allowed for major changes, including liberalizing, privatization, and a reality check with the rest of Europe.
What prevailed wasn’t power politics, but its absence.
Without being unduly pessimistic, I think that period was a kind of parenthesis. The power vacuum suspended some old Italian attitudes, but not for long. They came back. And those attitudes, I’m convinced, go much deeper than Right vs. Left. Italy is a nation of “limited allegiance.” The allegiances that count are personal, not civic: they’re the family, the party, the North, the South, friends, friends of friends. Italy’s failure to successfully take on major projects on a global scale arises directly from this missing social cohesion.
When the parties hit a major glitch — tangentopoli — it was technicians and civil servants who kept the state lumbering forward “just” professionally. Then, back came politics.
So Tangentopoli was a glitch of sorts?
Let’s just say that it wasn’t a popular insurrection. It was channeled rage by “some” versus “others.” It wasn’t 1945. It didn’t bring about rebuilding, or the passionate making of something new. Tangentopoli didn’t express the popular will as such. Magistrates began arresting people. The media went wild. But I never got the sense of some great civic project waiting to be born. Anger predominated. “Look at that guy; look at what he did!” But when anger gets exhausted you’re empty-handed.
Did you expect Berlusconi to emerge so forcefully?
His success in 1994 surprised me, I admit it. Maybe I was among those who didn’t know his own country. It’s as if Berlusconi helped me discover that Italy wasn’t what I thought it was. As a teenager, I read Barzini’s “The Italians,” which was riddled with Mussolini typecasting: Mussolini’s relationship with theater, Mussolini as an operetta dictator. I hated the allusions. I said to myself that if all this “theater” really happened, it wasn’t in “my” Italy. I’ve never been a Leftist, but reading Barzini I thought to myself: this is bunk. Then came Berlusconi and I backtracked. Maybe he got Italy right. Maybe everything intellectuals wrote and thought about smart Italy missed the mark.
So Berlusconi represented a step backward?
His rise seemed to me the total failure of modernity. I really wanted to believe that Italy had progressed beyond the poor agrarian state of 1950s, and yet…
Berlusconi, who is probably a better businessman than I’ll ever be, figured out that the collapse of the big-picture parties, the Christian Democrats, the Communists, opened the door to a more materialist side of Italy, one with “physical” needs and aspirations to which you could appeal directly. He understood that you don’t eat books for dinner; that having gorgeous women, a villa, wealth, good health could define personal identity and be enough in and of itself. He told people: “Forget all this … intellectual masturbation!” — excuse my term — “Look at what it got you! Let’s talk about the real facts: money, ownership, success…”
This was a real surprise in a country that had a period of intellectual terrorism — the Red Brigades — where people actually killed other people for ideological reasons. Berlusconi essentially said, “It’s all irrelevant …”
Where does that put us in 2007?
Who knows. My own generation is disillusioned and pessimistic. My generation is the one that murdered both its fathers and its sons. We murdered our fathers by overturning their authority. Now, we’re undermining our sons because, as Boomers, we want everlasting relevance. Someone should just shove us out of the way. We should give another generation a chance because I’m beginning to think that apart from a few individual legacies we’re not leaving much.
So there’s no Italian Barack Obama-style figure?
Not that I can see. Wherever you look, not just in politics, the question is identical: Where’s the next generation? The answer, the one I hear at RAI, is, “It doesn’t exist.” We’re paying the price of letting our Me-generation, my generation, eat all the fruit off the tree. Now, it’s bare.
That seems above and beyond the call of duty even for pessimism.
History doesn’t end. A pessimist might conclude that Italy’s finished. After all, the country no longer produces children, which means in 50 years it won’t exist. You hear that sort of talk. But it’s silly. Something, I can’t say what, will change. I don’t see the signs, but I can still hope my kids change Italy.
Let’s talk about the relationship between Italy and the United States. How has it evolved?
Who’s learning from whom? Interesting question. Let me get into it gradually.
Paradoxically, Italy has gone against the grain when it comes to globalization. It’s become more provincial. It’s a cultural shortcoming. We haven’t refined our thinking enough to compete. We have a myriad of information but little insight. We’re shallow.
To me, for example, history matters. But if I talk to my daughter about World War I and Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points — she’s studying them in school — she knows about as much on the subject as, say, Harry Potter. It’s all superficial.
Which brings me to how America is viewed. The United State is more of a mythological place than ever. At the same time, it’s less fascinating. Why? Everyone has access to instant information. A Hollywood star is a star in Italy. The gap is gone. The “amazing grace” factor is gone. It’s not like when my father went to the States in 1955 and came back from a “new world,” a possible role model for social development.
In that sense, America is less relevant and less influential than 20 or 30 years ago. Globalization, paradoxically again, makes us all more provincial, and that includes Americans. For my daughter, America is “House,” “The O.C.” it’s the product, the goods, and not the society, that matter. The rest is just dreamed up. That’s the mythological part. We’re beginning that global chapter where the idea of “America,” or “France,” as it was for my grandfather, stops existing.
Global becomes the new provincial and we’re all superficially informed about everything.
You spoke earlier of outside jolts. Does America become more interesting with a black or woman president?
I’m a man of books. That’s the way I was taught. I read [Roman poet] Catullus. You’ll say: “What good does that do you?” My answer is, “A lot.” Barack and Hillary may be the new faces, but after a while they become media events on the order of Lady Di.
My fear is seeing America become a kind of giant amusement park built around rides, with an emphasis on the latest big thing: “Oh, look, there’s a new Magic Mountain…” At that point we’re really talking less about change than event management.
I can’t imagine any of this endears you to the approach of George W. Bush.
No. I don’t see myself in his America. I find it ignorant and boorish. It lacks an analytical faculty. I repeat: I studied Latin literature and history. From my modest perspective, studying Julius Caesar and the conquest of Gaul can help you figure out Iraq. America doesn’t study such things and considers them irrelevant. But the aftermath of the Iraq invasion suggests that history is relevant. It also suggests that dealing with the world without bothering to know and understand it intellectually — a tiring task, maybe — is a tragic error. I don’t know Bush, but he seems to me to symbolize both the error and the tragedy.
Will a new American president help?
I honestly don’t know. Who’s to say that if there’s another 9/11-style tragedy — which obviously no one wants — the new president won’t behave similarly to Bush? And even if you get a Democratic president, it’s the same question: What’s his or her real cultural depth? To me, the American public’s disenchantment toward Bush depends on not wanting to confront or accept failure in Iraq: 3,000-plus Americans dead; a civil war. Obviously something didn’t work. But the origins of the failure are intellectual and not just matters of policy. It’s about how you view the world. You can’t fix that just by saying, “OK, let’s pull out the troops…”
Regarding intellectual shortcomings, it seems to me reality shows — RAI’s mainstays — fit the bill.
I return to what I said about Berlusconi’s discovery. And I don’t want to criticize him unduly because the current center-left government may be even worse… still, it’s the sense Berlusconi fostered that high culture is useless. If your stocks are up and you get the girl, what else really matters? What else could you want from life?
So vulgarity is a fact of life?
I don’t come from TV and I try to keep myself separate from the product. I’ve never pretended to be a TV expert. My whole work ethic depends on a belief that process matters more than product.
I don’t believe for an instant that I can change TV by introducing good shows. I do think TV can be changed if you create a system that promotes new, young talent, and gives that talent a chance to thrive. You also need a better and more honest relationship with the business world. You need internal financial stability. Make those changes and they organically repair and improve the product. Otherwise, it’s just me saying, “OK, pull that reality show…” Never mind the fact that you can’t really change a TV lineup without biting the hand that feeds you; it’s bad business. This is a company of 10,000 employees. It’s competitive. It has protocols.
No, to get at the product you have to change the mentality of the people who make it. If you’re a cook and you’ve cooked one way all your life you’ll resist whoever tells you do it differently. So I’m not here to kill the company. I’m here to try to overhaul thinking, and that effort will take years, not months, to bear fruit. The discouraging part is how ferociously Italy resists change. Even the comfort level of the status quo places limits on what I can do.
If people oppose change so stubbornly, how do you get them to listen?
The world isn’t predictable. In 1973, during the first oil embargo, there were people who insisted Tehran would supplant London as the major global crossroads because it was closer to the oil fields. My father considered this culturally illogical. He was right.
I’ve been a planner all my life, and if I’ve learned one thing it’s that you can’t know the future. Mystery is a human strength, for better or worse. We have good and bad on TV. We still have to sell it to 15 million people.
If I can manage this business while persuading those around me that you can actually work together without infighting… if I can get people to speak out who’ve spent a lifetime being diffident… if I can get some employees to stop behaving like pharaohs — no in-house masseuse for the CEO… if I can get people to drive their own car, no chauffeur, no escort… Those are the ifs that matter, the signs. I’m planting and I know may not see the harvest. But that doesn’t stop the planting.