Telestreet Rome


A flurry of activity has convulsed the Italian Telestreet project in recent days. This coordination of micro-broadcasters first came on air in the summer of 2002 in the form of Orfeo Tv, a neighborhood station based in Bologna, and a slew of others launched shortly thereafter. Transmissions occur on frequencies allocated to commercial broadcasters which lie unused either for reasons of local topography or due to simple lack of interest on the part of the assignee. Given the outlandish concentration of media ownership in Italy – where 90% of the audio-visual media is controlled directly or indirectly by Silvio Berlusconi – this recycling of frequencies has become a flashpoint for the development of critical approaches to information production and distribution. Despite being in breach of the law only one station had encountered legal problems until last thursday. Telefabrica was broadcasting in the area around the Fiat factory in Termini Imerese, where workers were on strike and involved in generalized protests against restructuring and layoffs, when they were closed by the Carabinieri in december of last year. They subsequently went back on air.

Last week the axe fell again, this time in the small town of Sigallia, near Ancona, in central Italy. A voluntary group principally occupied with care for the disabled had been broadcasting with the involvement of local members of the centre-left party, Democratici della Sinistra, under the name “DiscoVolante”. The station was raided and closed by the Carabinieri for being in breach of the broadcasting regulations, and the studio sealed. Meanwhile it was learned that another Telestreet, this time in Pechioli near Pisa, would be closed on September 26th. In Pechioli the project is actually supported by the town council. Paradoxically, thus, these two recent targets represent those with strong institutional affiliations who practice a form of broadcasting that would appear to fall within very orthodox definitions of legitimacy. Media insurgents did not let this attack go unpunished, as you will see below, but first a a little context….

A Tale of Two Despots Berlusconi’s Mediaset group controls approximately 50% of the Italian television market. Victory in the general elections of 2001 extended his grip from the private to the public sector, giving him a free hand over the national public broadcaster RAI, who with 40% of the market constitute the only serious competition to his networks. Within a couple of months he began to purge RAI of popular TV presenters known for their critical attitude and statements in his regard.

The Italian TV market has some unique characteristics; terrestrial broadcast remains essentially unchallenged as the distribution format and there are few cable channels. Secondly, satellite television has been slow to take off and use of unauthorized decoder cards remains commonplace. Until last year there were two players in the Italian market: Stream and Telepiu. 80% of Stream belongs to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, whereas Telepiu was owned by Vivendi-Universal. This merger established an effective monopoly in the satellite market. An interesting tangent to this story is that the deal also contained an agreement by Canal+ (now owned by Vivendi) to drop a legal action filed in California against News Datacom Services (NDS), a News Corp subsidiary, in 2001. Canal+ had filed a multi-billion dollar suit for damages against NDS accusing them of having provided information to ‘black-hat’ engineers involved reverse engineering and the design and manufacture of unauthorized satellite decoders. Canal+’s reasoning was that information was provided to strategically undermine their business model and ultimately the ability to compete. NDS were were necessarily well infiltrated in the black hat scene out of a desire to protect their own interests and remain abreast of technical developments in the underworld. With the purchase of Telepiu this rather sleazy and fascinating story ceased to unfold in the public domain. The merger was cleared by European Competition regulators in April 2003, who also placed restrictions on the exclusivity and duration of broadcast rights agreed with football clubs and film studios.

The new satellite operator, now known as Sky Italia, was launched publicly at the end of July. In the meantime contracts had been negotiated with Italy’s most famous football teams – Lazio, Juventus, Roma, Inter Milan etc – for transmission rights. Sky currently has just 2.3 million subscribers in Italy (110 million worldwide) and aims to increase that base to 6 million subscribers, and profitability, within two years. Industry estimates the number of satellite dishes at 6 million, most of which use unauthorised cards.

Given the nature of the market, Murdoch desire for audience growth can only come from two sources. The first is to clampdown on users of unauthorised decoder cards in a massive anti-piracy jihad. The second is to take eyeballs from the existing market incumbents and enter into conflict with Berlusconi’s interests. A hallmark of Murdoch’s business style has been the instrumentalization of his media empire in order to extract favours from political leaders, most notably in Britain and more recently evidenced by the vile political postures assumed by his Fox Television network in the United States and other activities in China. In Italy however this role of media-magnate cum political puppetmaster is already occupied by the politico-business apparatus of Berluska himself. The scene seems set for a truly modern conflict.

But let’s leave the Goliaths for a moment, and turn our eyes back to David, and the working class quarter of San Lorenzo in Rome.

An Assault on the Sky…… San Lorenzo is a small district couched between the University, Verrano cemetry and the city walls, it was one of last quarters in the center of Rome to be built during the so-called “Construction Fever” that accelerated from 1870. The district has a proud radical tradition with socialist, communist and anarchist elements traceable to its population of workers, artisans, and more recently, students. Mussolini’s gangs always found themselves driven out of the area whenever they attempted incursions prior to the march on Rome in 1922 which concluded with his assumption of power, That night fighting and shoot-outs in S.Lorenzo claimed thirteen lives. Apart from this politically antagonistic character, the other unmistakable trait of the district is its passion for Roma Football club. When Roma became Italian champions in 2001 the streets were closed down for a massive popular celebration complete with the roasting of pigs in the middle of the street. This fanaticism for foot ball for which Italy is renowned comes from its popular and working class character, but changes in the structure of the football industry in recent times have relentlessly driven up the costs for those who follow it with dedication. Tickets for games are difficult to acquire and have become ever more expensive due to the spiraling costs of transfer fees and player salaries required to maintain competitiveness at an international level. Excluded from the stadiums, fans are obliged to make do with watching games on television. Whilst games were once broadcast free over terrestrial stations, the rights are now largely under the control of Sky Italia, who charge a minimum of 47 euros for a basic package that includes soccer coverage.

In this context of the enclosure of popular culture, and determined to make a quick rispost to the state’s authoritarian suppression of Disco Volante in Senigallia, an alliance of several telestreet groups (SpegnilaTV, Teleaut, AntTV, OrfeoTV) and a subversive marketing project named ‘Guerriglia Marketing’ decided to escalate the level of the conflict. The proposition was simple: use the telestreet apparatus for the retransmission of the match between soccer giants Juventus and Roma, for free, to the entirety of the football-mad district. One decryption card attached to the transmitter would be transformed into a decoder for the whole area. Intriguing posters with legends such as “Totti Libero!”, “Montella libero!” — star players on the Roma squad — appeared on the walls of the district. Shortly after the appearance of these teasers — which caused enough perplexity amongst Roma Ultras that they tore many posters down misinterpreting the slogans as an attack on their life-long love — flyers were distributed explaining that on Sunday 21st September the game would be broadcast free on UHF channel 26.

A studio was established in a secret location so as to evade police detection and the equipment prepared. There had been some anxiety as to whether it would actually function as reception obviously depends on many variables, especially the direction in which the antennas on apartment blocks roofs are pointed. A straw-poll conducted via house speakerphone laid these worries to rest. Large numbers of people were enjoying the game in the comfort of their won home for free, and their responses were enthusiastic and admiring. That evening the broadcast was the talk of the district. The following day the news hit all the national newspapers. Guerilla marketers insist that rather than prosecuting them, Sky should recognise the value brought to their product by the underground viral dissemination of their materials, and pay them for the publicity generated for Murdoch’s fledgling operation.

Before the game started a communique was read in defense of another local struggle, that of a housing occupation in Via de Lollis involving more than a hundred Italian and migrant families and individuals, now under threat of eviction. Naturally the advertising that would normally have been shown during the 15 minute interval was excised from the broadcast, and the time employed instead to transmit video-spots produced as part of the Telestreet project and an interview with a Roma Ultra who critiqued the commodification and exploitation of modern football, arguing that access to soccer and other forms of immaterial wealth should be a right for all. At the bottom of the screen sat the logo of Disco Volante, closed just three days before. As SpegnilaTV commented: “Turned off in Senigallia, Disco Volante lights up again in Rome.”

Yesterday Sky made a formal complaint to the police about the affair, but good ideas need no newspaper to spread, and a proliferation of this practice elsewhere in the country can be predicted with some confidence. With one move a small DIY television project has made a decisive incursion into the popular imagination. Through the medium of football thousands will tune into channel 26, give the business plans of Sky a kick in the teeth and open up a channel that will be used to communicate radical social practices and critiques. An intervention to be emulated.

Some links

SpegnilaTV http://www.spegnilatv.it/web/

Guerrila Marketing http://www.guerrigliamarketing.it/

OrfeoTV http://www.telestreet.it/telestreet/home.htm

New Global Vision – Archive of Italian and international Audio-Visual works available for free download. http://www.ngvision.org

Report from First Telestreet Conference – Etarea (scroll down page to second article) http://www.heartybreakfast.org/freedistro/archives/2002_12.html

Manifesto of Urban Televisions http://info.interactivist.net/article.pl?sid=03/04/16/173209&mode=nested &tid=15

Lower Your TV Please http://info.interactivist.net/article.pl?sid=03/07/25/198255&mode=nested &tid=15

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