The two main events in Italian television history that occurred in the 1970s were the advent of color and the introduction of private channels. The story of color TV is truly a political-industrial epic that began in the mid-sixties and ended only towards the end of the 70s after many delays and false starts. In these years RAI’s television monopoly showed its first cracks with viewers tuning into shows from neighboring countries like Monaco and Switzerland that were broadcast in Italian. For the first time since television was born the viewing public began to see they had a choice.
The Rise of Women
One of the most loved personalities of the 1970s was the showgirl Raffaella Carrà. In the first months of 1970s the beauty caused a huge scandal when she appeared on-air wearing a tight dancing outfit that exposed her navel, quite a shock for conservative viewers. Nonplussed, the showgirl went on to sing the Tuca Tuca Dance a song chock full of strong sexual innuendo.
Other prima donnas of the decade included Sabina Ciuffini, the first speaking female TV assistant in the history of Italian television who raised herself to almost co-host status with Mike Bongiorno on Rischiatutto (“Risk All”), Lola Falana, folk singer Gabriella Ferri and pop singer and comedian Loretta Goggi. During this time the legendary Sandra Mondaini created some of the country’s most famous comedy skits with her husband Raimondo Vianello. Former tennis player Lea Pericoli and Gloria Piedimonte, the first of many iconic female stars created by producer Gianni Boncompagni, were also wildly popular.
The sexual revolution also had its effects on Italian TV with the first topless shot on a live show appearing in 1979. It was also a time where more wholesome variety shows found themselves struggling to find an audience like they had in the 60s. Instead what the public wanted in the 70s was fiction, a demand that saw the creation of some of the classic all-time programs in Italian television.
Fiction, Fiction and More Fiction
The 1970s saw the birth of Sandokan, inspired by the books written by Emilio Salgari, which beat every viewing record with half the Italian population watching the series of feature length movies. Other successful series produced in Italy included The Life of Leonardo da Vinci (1971) with Philippe Leroy, Tony and the Professor (1972) with Enzo Cerusico, the five-event episodes of The Adventures of Pinocchio (1972) by Luigi Comencini, The Bitter Case of the Baroness of Carini (1975), the drama of the records (27.3 million viewers) Sandokan (1976), Space 1999 (1976), The Race of the Mogador (1976), Jesus of Nazareth (1976) by Franco Zeffirelli and Michael Strogoff (1976).
Series imported from the U.S. were also widely popular during this time. Everything from Police Woman Special (1976) with Angie Dickinson, The American Dream of Jordache (1977) and Happy Days (1977) to Orzowei (1977), Fury (1977) and Eight is Enough (1978). Italians also tuned in for Scenes from a Marriage by Ingmar Bergman (1978) and the two epic miniseries Roots (1978) and Holocaust (1979).
Portobello, hosted by Enzo Tortora, was a successful program that put the common people front and center. During the program part time inventors presented and tried to sell their inventions, people searched (and often found) long lost relatives and friends, and others tried to sell their things in a garage sale/open air market kind of environment. Portobello soon became the must-watch Friday night show.
In 1977 the successful Carosello went off air, but young Italians had their share of animated entertainment first with the success of Supergulp! (Comics on TV) (1977), then with the invasion of Japanese cartoons such as Atlas Ufo Robot (1978), Remi (1979), Captain Harlock (1979) and Mazinger (1979). This Japanese anime (although the term “anime” was all but unknown at the time) had a deep impact on Italian culture. Viewers that were just kids in those times are now adults, bound by this common love of Japanese animation. It was the unofficial birth of the Italian geek.
At the end of the decade, in 1979, the third public channel, RAI 3, was launched, yet even that could not stop what was coming. The following decade would be all about private channels and a revolution in Italian TV.