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TV Stars From Italy Flock to Low-Cost Albania Amid Recession

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More than 20 years after Albanian refugees began arriving on rickety boats in southern Italy, fading Italian television stars are starting a counter-trend, flocking to Albania as the advertising market at home dries up.

Sabrina Ferilli, 50, known for her role in “The Great Beauty,” winner of this year’s Academy Award for best foreign film, is the latest veteran celebrity to sign on at Agon Channel Italia, which begins broadcasting today from Tirana following a glitzy premiere show last week that included an appearance by Nicole Kidman.

Agon, which will beam programming into Italy, is owned by entrepreneur Francesco Becchetti, who said he invested 40 million euros ($50 million) in studios in Tirana, Albania’s capital, where he employs about 500 people.

“If you want to do TV nowadays, the project needs to be viable,” Becchetti said at a press conference in Milan last week. “Even if you pay your Albanian labor force twice the average salary, that still allows you to attract important stars and secure an Italian TV audience.”

Italian broadcasters are cutting costs as the country’s ad market has failed to recover from a 15-year low and its recession enters a fourth year. Mediaset SpA, Italy’s largest private broadcaster, is slashing 450 million euros in costs, while state broadcaster RAI SpA faces budget cuts as part of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s drive to rein in spending and tame Italy’s 2.13 trillion-euro debt.

Foreign Community

Agon is one of 400 Italian companies operating in Albania, where more than half of the 3 million population speak at least some Italian due to the countries’ proximity and the ease of picking up Italian TV signals, according to the Italian embassy. Cement maker Italcementi SpA, one of the first foreign investors in Albania after the old regime fell, has a local unit that’s a top 10 company. Intesa Sanpaolo SpA’s Bank Albania, formed through acquisitions, is the country’s third-largest lender.

Almost 500,000 Albanians live in Italy, the second-biggest foreign community, including about 50,000 who fled chaos and a crumbling economy after the country’s communist regime collapsed in 1991. About 20,000 arrived by ship in the port city of Bari on Aug. 8, 1991 alone. The average Albanian salary today is one sixth of the Italian level, according to the country’s statistics institute.

Trend Reversed

Last year the trend reversed for the first time. About 16,000 Albanians arrived in Italy in 2013, according to statistics institute ISTAT. That’s less than the 19,000 Italians who moved to Albania, adding to 46,000 Albanians who repatriated, Minister for Social Well-being Erion Veliaj said in a Corriere della Sera interview Nov. 11.

Some are employed in the more than 50 call centers set up for energy companies Eni SpA and Edison SpA and phone operators Fastweb SpA, 3 Italia, Tiscali SpA and Vodafone Group PLC. Fastweb is a unit of Swisscom AG, and Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa Ltd controls 3 Italia.

The World Bank forecasts that Albania’s economic growth will accelerate to 2.1 percent this year. That’s down from rates above 3 percent until 2011 when Italy, by far the country’s biggest trading partner, entered a recession. Still, Italy is only the fifth-largest contributor of foreign direct investment in the country as some big companies are hesitant to invest due to lack of infrastructure and clear property laws, the Italian embassy in Tirana said on its website.

Italian Celebrities

Becchetti, an Italian, said he’s undeterred by conditions in Albania. “We started a year and a half ago with an empty warehouse in Tirana that’s now become a Hollywood-level studio,” said the businessman, who also owns U.K. soccer club Leyton Orient and plans an on-air talent show to pick players for the team. “If the channel is successful, the studios will be doubled to create a TV production district for other channels as well,” he said.

The Albanian-language version of Agon Channel started in 2013 and has in the past employed Italian celebrities, who are well-known in Albania, as well as former CNN Rome correspondent Alessio Vinci.

Simona Ventura, known in both countries for her turn as a judge on the Italian version of talent program “X Factor,” on Nov. 26 hosted Agon’s inauguration show with Kidman guest starring. Becchetti’s target for free-to-air Agon Channel Italia is a 1 percent market share in Italy and 20 million euros in ad revenue the first year, he said.

Ambitious Goal

“That’s an ambitious goal but not impossible,” said Francesco Siliato, a professor of media and telecommunications at Milan’s Polytechnic University. Cielo TV, Sky Italia’s free-to-air channel, which also airs some programs from its pay network, has a 1.3 percent share and 29 million euros of revenue, he said. Italy’s total ad spending fell 3.2 percent in the first nine months of 2014, on course for a fourth straight annual decline, according to figures from researcher Nielsen.

The channel’s programming includes news bulletins directed by a former RAI correspondent, a talk show hosted by Ferilli, quiz programs, and talent shows, including one for bodyguards.

“This is globalization, a Europe that can give opportunities to us, the TV professionals,” Ventura, 49, said after the Milan press conference.

(Updates with figures showing immigration trend reversing in eighth paragraph.)
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