With a mandate to grow its offering of free digital channels in 1998, Italian pubcaster RAI has taken the first step with the expected debut of Historia this month. The six-hour weekly service – to be transmitted on Sundays in Italian on RAI’s new digital channel raisat1/Cultura e Spettacolo (Culture and Entertainment) – is the first part of a multi-year arrangement between A&E and RAI intended to aid development of thematic TV in Italy. Culture e Spettacolo is part of raisat’s free digital package to be available via Eutelsat Hotbird 2 as well as cable.
The A&E/RAI deal also includes a coproduction arrangement between the American service and raitre/Format. Production of joint programming is set to begin this fall with a 6 x 1 hour, blue-chip historical series. All programming produced as a result of the relationship will air on The History Channel services in the U.S. and around the world, as well as on RAITRE and Historia.
On the terrestrial front, raitre will begin airing an a&e/rai co-branded window this fall during its Top Secret historical strand.
According to A&E’s John Cuddihy, VP, managing director, international division, steps are already in place to expand Historia into a daily service separate from Cultura e Spettacolo, a service which he anticipates would also be free.
‘When we reach a certain audience level we can push it to three hours daily, then four. It’s at that point we’d discuss running it on its own.’
The deal is shaping up to be good news for independent producers in Italy, particularly those who already have a relationship with raitre. Cuddihy says the first coproduction planned with Format was brought to rai by an indie company in Italy.
Meanwhile, rai is also launching two other digital channels – RAISAT2/Ragazzi (Children) and RAISAT3/ Enciclopedia (Educational).
RAI is playing a key role in alliances forming around a new Italian digital platform including pay channels. At press time, a project framework is expected any day following the July 28 agreement between rai, Mediaset/ Fininvest, Cecchi Gori Communications, Telecom Italia and Canal+ on establishing common standards for usage of the platform. The agreement lays the groundwork for the development of an Italian-dominated joint project intended to open the way for rapid pay-tv expansion in the country.
While specific provisions are still in negotiation as of mid-September, the signers have generally agreed to work from a common platform which will remain open to use by third-part operators, as it is now, using decoders which adhere to Italian and EU standards.
Until the agreement, Italy’s nascent pay broadcasting sphere had been dominated by Canal+-controlled Telepiu. According to Canal+ spokesman Jean-Louis Erneux, Italy was ripe for the picking. ‘We very much believe in Italy; in terms of TV, it’s an underdeveloped market. It’s very striking that in Italy there’s almost no satellite TV. Italian and international pay channels are unfamiliar to Italian viewers. There’s huge potential, and that’s why we’re very much involved in that market.’
Earlier this year Canal+ acquired an additional 45% stake in Telepiu, increasing its total holding to 90%, and although a resale of some or all of this stake may be in the cards, the aggressive entry of the French broadcaster into the Italian pay-TV market is one factor which may have spurred the change in broadcasting strategy represented by the agreement.
Already, broadcasters are hopeful and are gearing up for competition. Telepiu, which is the most visible of the platform participants (due to its existing market domination), has in the last few weeks alone added two new Italian-specific thematic channels to its existing broader-based documentary offerings: Marco Polo, described by its promoters as the first ‘made in Italy’ travel, tourism and adventure channel; and SeaSons, a nature channel dedicated to hunting and fishing programs.
This commitment to specialization, a clear response to the upcoming market challenges inherent in the digital platform agreement, is likely to be echoed by other participants in the near future.