The Olive Grove Revolution
30 Apr 2006 0 comments. tbs.pm/2102
The unlikely story of how a small Slovenian television station changed the face of broadcasting in Italy
Istria is an enchanting place. This peninsula on the Adriatic Sea, most of which lies in Croatia, but with a sliver in Slovenia, is often referred to as the ‘new Tuscany’. The comparison is apt, as Istria’s countryside is dotted with olive groves and vineyards, with idyllic hillside towns rising above green valleys and ancient Mediterranean pine forests. The region, now an emerging tourist destination, has, however, been marked by a very turbulent past. And it is precisely that history that gave birth to a remarkable television station, a station that played a much larger role in its region than its small size would suggest.
The story that led to the creation of TV Koper-Capodistria began more than half a century before the station went on the air for the first time. With Austria-Hungary’s defeat in World War I, Istria became a part of a newly-enlarged Italy. While most of the population in the towns, especially those on or near the coast, was Italian, Istria’s interior was overwhelmingly Slavic – mostly Croatian, but with a sizeable Slovenian area as well. After Mussolini and his Fascist movement came to power in 1922, the situation got dramatically worse for the two Slavic groups. Cultural persecution became widespread, and signs stating that ‘Only Italian is spoken here,’ went up across the region. The historically good relations between the ethnic groups quickly deteriorated.
After Italy was defeated in World War II, Istria became a part of Tito’s Yugoslavia, and ethnic tensions erupted anew. Thousands of Italians, fearing retribution or simply unwilling to live in a communist country, fled to Italy. Some towns, suddenly left without most of their Italian inhabitants, became virtual ghost towns overnight. Even today, a number of abandoned, crumbling stone houses throughout Istria – now increasingly attractive to foreign investors – bear witness to this turbulent era.
However, Tito’s Yugoslavia was determined to prove to the world that it respected minority rights. Much of Istria became officially bilingual, with Italian-language media outlets receiving generous support. One of those outlets was Radio Koper-Capodistria, a bilingual radio service located in the Slovenian town of Koper, or Capodistria, as it is known in Italian. Yugoslavia was able to claim that it supported the rights of the Italian minority, while at the same time getting an outlet to broadcast its political views into Italy without the inconvenience of a language barrier.
In 1971, the radio station began operating a television service, transmitting on Channel 27 on the UHF dial. It was known, appropriately enough, as TV Koper-Capodistria. While originating from humble studios and produced by a small staff, it had a crucial advantage over the other Yugoslav and Italian television services at the time: it was mostly in colour. This novelty alone made it popular in its coverage area of Istria, western Slovenia, and parts of the Italian province of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. TV Koper-Capodistria became a successful regional service. But then something remarkable happened.
In the early 1970s, Italians were starved for television choice. Throughout Italy, state-controlled RAI had a monopoly on television. Some of RAI’s programs were worthy, but much of the output was dull and the news coverage was often strikingly one-sided. And all of it was black and white. When TV Koper-Capodistria appeared and met with a favorable response in parts of Italy adjacent to Yugoslavia, some enterprising Italians got an interesting idea: Why not set up private transmitters that would make TV Koper-Capodistria, or ‘TeleCapodistria’, as the channel was by then known in Italy, available to not just thousands, but millions of Italians, even those nowhere near Yugoslavia?
Soon, a network of private transmitters brought TeleCapodistria’s colour signal to viewers from northern Italy all the way to Sicily. While RAI was still the only television service to be based in Italy, its monopoly was effectively gone, as viewers embraced TeleCapodistria’s diet of cartoons, subtitled movies, sports, popular series, and more internationally-oriented news.
TeleCapodistria was joined by the Italian service of TeleMonteCarlo as well as TSI from the Italian part of Switzerland, both of which were also retransmitted in various parts of Italy. Like France’s radios perpheriques, these new foreign-based stations became major players in Italian broadcasting, but on the television side of the industry. For TeleCapodistria, with its limited technical facilities, including many hand-me-downs from its parent television station in Ljubljana, this was a most unexpected role. It was also ironic: a station from a communist country was providing the luxury of choice to viewers in a capitalist democracy – and receiving hard currency from eager advertisers in the process.
TeleCapodistria’s legacy in Italy also extended into the technical field. Italians bought colour television sets to take advantage of the station’s colour programming. At the time, broadcasts on RAI were still entirely in black and white, as the Italian government was unsure whether to adopt the PAL color standard, used by most European countries, or to follow France’s advice and adopt that country’s SECAM system instead. However, because TeleCapodistria used the PAL standard (unlike most communist countries, the more liberal Yugoslavia had adopted PAL several years earlier), its loyal viewers in Italy bought PAL colour sets in large numbers. According to the station’s historians, so many PAL sets already existed in Italy because of TeleCapodistria’s popularity that the Italian government had to decide in PAL’s favour. A humble country station had finally sealed the fate of SECAM in Italy.
However, TeleCapodistria eventually became a victim of its own success. With RAI’s monopoly effectively ended by TeleCapodistria and the two other foreign-based stations, Italy’s Constitutional Court ruled in 1976 that privately owned, fully commercial stations could be established on Italian soil. Hundreds of local television stations appeared in the following years, giving Italians more free-to-air signals than available in any other European country — all in colour. TeleCapodistria’s unique role was over, and advertising revenue began to dry up.
In the 1980s, TeleCapodistria enjoyed a brief resurrection as a major television player. It signed a deal with Silvio Berlusconi, the owner of Italy’s three major private networks, that allowed him to operate, but not own, TeleCapodistria. Berlusconi programmed the station as an all-sports service, once again making it popular throughout Italy. Viewers from around the country, as well as Yugoslavia, eagerly tuned into sports events that were not available on the other channels, including exclusive coverage of NBA basketball, with legendary commentary by US-born Dan Peterson, who spoke Italian with a charming American accent.
But this arrangement did not last long. With pay television on the horizon, Berlusconi decided to end his all-sports channel in 1990. TeleCapodistria was left without any transmitters in Italy and finally became what it was designed to be back in 1971: a regional service primarily intended for the Italian community in Istria. It was once again more commonly known as TV Koper-Capodistria.
Slovenia became an independent country in 1991 and joined the European Union thirteen years later, but TV Koper-Capodistria, a part of RTV Slovenija, has not changed much during these years. Visitors to the station’s nondescript facility in Koper, adjacent to the attractive old town, will see a modern station with a noble mission: to bring the border regions of Italy and Slovenia closer together within the newly united Europe. What they will not see is much evidence of TV Koper-Capodstria’s previous life as a groundbreaking player in Italian television.
Yet, if we were to turn on a TV set on the newly discovered planet orbiting Gliese 436, thirty light years away from Earth, perhaps we could pick up TeleCapodistria’s fading signal and relive a time when a small station with no big ambitions, set up in the foothills of Istria’s olive groves and vineyards, became a major player well beyond its borders and made so many days just a little brighter – and a lot more colourful — for millions of people, while helping to topple the status quo in the process.