How MTV Conquered Italy

Monday through Friday, thousands of cheering teens crowd the streets near Milan's Duomo. Their excitement borders on fanatical, but it's not religion that has got these kids so worked up. Around the corner from Milan's famous cathedral are MTV Italia's studios, where top bands from Italy and around the world appear on the channel's show Total Request Live, or TRL, as it's known in Italy.

In the four years since it first aired as a 24-hour, stand-alone channel, MTV Italia has emerged as the voice of Italian youth. It reaches nearly 12 million viewers each week. It is also one of MTV Networks International's most creative and successful channels.

Driving MTV Italia's success is Antonio Campo Dall'Orto, the 37-year-old managing director of MTV South, which includes MTV Italia and MTV España. Before joining MTV in 1997, the Milan native was No. 2 at Channel 5, which surpassed RAI Uno as Italy's leading station during his stint there. Now, Campo Dall'Orto's commitment to innovative programming for MTV--the station does four hours of live, original programming each day--is winning viewers and influencing the Italian music scene. "Our goal is to mix international culture with Italian tradition," says Campo Dall'Orto.

Within Italy, MTV is seen as a home-grown operation thanks to its emphasis on locally developed programming. Italian teens say no other channel can match MTV's combination of local music and big-name international stars. "There are no proper music programs on Italian TV except The San Remo Song Festival, which is boring," says Simone Longo, a 16-year-old Roman. Advertisers love it, too. MTV Italia is pulling in the highest advertising revenues of all of MTV Network International's channels, with a 352% increase since 1997.

Two of the channel's most popular programs, brand:new:tour and MTV Supersonic, are devoted to new Italian acts. On Supersonic, a live music show airing every Friday night, two well-known bands and an unsigned act perform a live gig. Brand:new:tour is an annual program where six up-and-coming new bands are selected to play at trendy clubs and venues on a tour paid for and promoted by MTV. "Now, young bands who were really underground in 1996 can fill whole stadiums," says Luca de Gennaro, the channel's head of talent. Giorgia Surina, the 26-year-old MTV veejay who hosts TRL, recalls how one of her friends, a member of Verdena, a rock band from Northern Italy, hit the big time after appearing on brand:new:tour.

The only serious rival is Germany's VIVA, which tends to play pure pop music. "MTV looks fresher, you see interviews with brand new bands," says Sarah Macchione, 16. Another difference is that MTV Italia offers lifestyle programs. These include MTV Kitchen, where artists chat about music while cooking, Loveline, a talk show about love and sex, and Stylissimo, a fashion program where guests include the likes of Giorgio Armani, Domenico Dolce, and Stefano Gabbana. Another big hit: Sexy Dolls, where audiences are allowed to live out their fantasies with pop-star lookalikes.

These days, Campo Dall'Orto is searching for new ways to extend the MTV brand. He has already dispatched backpacks, watches, and school supplies branded with the MTV logo to 2,500 Italian stores. "One of the reasons I love MTV is that you're always challenging the conventional wisdom," Campo Dall'Orto says. And with shows like Sexy Dolls, he's expanding the MTV faithful.

By Kerry Capell in London, with Stephanie Savariaud in Rome

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