Rosario Fiorello on Breathing New Life Into Italian Public TV and Infuriating Harvey Weinstein

·5-min read

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a sunny May morning in Rome on a side street outside the studios of Italian state broadcaster Rai. A live audience standing behind metal fencing is watching a lithe group of nuns, one with a mustache, who slowly creep out from a row of white closet doors.

They start dancing, hugging and pirouetting to a ballad belted out by a young Tuscan pop singer. Then the dancers, dressed in Catholic sisters garb, begin playing basketball.

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Welcome to “Viva Rai 2!,” Italy’s answer to America’s morning shows. It’s a local ratings phenomenon conceived and conducted by volcanic Sicilian megastar Rosario Fiorello, who is breathing new life into Italian television at a time when doomsayers are sounding the death knell of public TV around the world.

Every morning on weekdays, when “Viva Rai 2!” airs on the pubcaster’s Rai 2 station, ratings soar from an average 1.5% audience share — for a rerun of the 1980s TV series “The Big Valley,” which precedes “Viva Rai 2!” — to an average 15% share, spread across all demographics in the country.

“At 7 a.m., you think that money spent on the license fee [the roughly $100 fee Italians pay to watch Rai each year] is blessed,” La Repubblica TV critic Silvia Fumarola recently wrote. “It’s a shame that there are too many other hours during the day when you think it’s being thrown out the window.”

Outgoing Rai managing director Carlo Fuortes has lavished praise on Fiorello for prompting the state broadcaster to “break new ground and explore new television languages” with “Viva Rai 2!” Aside from ratings, the big novelty also lies in the show’s trans-media aspect.

Fiorello starts his work day at 5.30 a.m., chit-chatting with fans over espresso in a bar across the street, as cameras air their banter on Instagram. Then “Viva Rai 2!” airs live on Rai 2. But it also plays on Rai’s Raiplay streamer, gets Rai radio play and then airs as a rerun in a late-night slot on Rai’s flagship Rai 1 station.

The backbone of “Viva Rai 2!” consists of Fiorello and his team riffing on the latest news, interspersed with gags and guests of various ilks. Italy’s prime minister Giorgia Meloni recently called in, initially pretending to be an imitator before revealing that she was the real deal. They work out of a glass studio, known as “Il Glass,” adjacent to the street stage.

On the day of the Fellini-esque nuns ballet, Fiorello later sang Elton John’s “Your Song” while wearing a tuxedo and prancing around with statuesque global dance star Roberto Bolle (as shown in the video below). Then film director Gabriele Muccino — who has made two movies with Will Smith (“The Pursuit of Happiness” and “Seven Pounds”) — recounted an anecdote from his Hollywood glory days about visiting Tom Cruise’s mansion, where he said Cruise showed him a video of his daughter Suri’s birth.

Fiorello himself once had a taste of Hollywood, when he had a cameo in Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” singing a Neapolitan song on stage, first with Jude Law and then with Matt Damon. But a decade later, he turned down an offer from Harvey Weinstein to play a similar role in “Nine,” which, like “Ripley,” Weinstein produced.

Fiorello spoke to Variety about giving Italian public TV a jolt and why he will never work in Hollywood.

How did you come up with the format? Were you inspired by American morning shows?

Actually more by late-night shows than morning ones. The American morning show doesn’t have dance numbers on the street. But of course Jimmy Fallon does all kinds of stuff. I am a huge fan of his. And before him I was a huge fan of David Letterman and Johnny Carson. I’ve always thought the American late-show hosts were the greatest. They are so ingenious! They’ve done stuff that we didn’t even dream of. That said, the stuff I’m doing now, I haven’t seen anything else like it.

Why is “Viva Rai 2!” doing so well?

On Italian TV, the value of the primetime slot is depreciating, and it’s not due to the content. It’s a matter of timing. After the news, for economic reasons they now have game shows that last until 9.30 p.m. So primetime starts at 9:45 p.m. and there is no longer space for variety shows with big stars like there once was. So I thought: “Where can we do a variety show? Can we do it at 7 a.m.?” It’s a bit of a gamble, and we’ve been making it up as we go along. But what’s been happening is that kids are watching us, as well as older people. We’ve created our own audience.

Courtesy MN
Courtesy MN

You often say you are happy being an Italian star and don’t care about Hollywood. Why is that? 

I’ve seen the way Hollywood productions use Italian actors when they came to shoot in Italy. I was offered a part as a hotel concierge in “The Tourist” when they shot in Venice. And I said: “Why don’t you use the real concierge at the Danieli Hotel? He speaks more languages than I do.”

Did you enjoy your cameo in “Talented Mr Ripley”?

Yes, that was fun. But then when I was asked to play a role in “Nine,” it was in August and I was leery it would ruin my summer, knowing how long things take when the Americans shoot. They sent me the script and it was a scene where Daniel Day Lewis dances with Sophia Loren while an elegant Italian singer [me] sings “Quando Quando Quando.” I figured I would hardly be seen, so I politely declined. Then I got a letter from Harvey Weinstein saying: “Who do you think you are? You will never work in Hollywood again!” And I thought: “Who cares!”

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