No slowdown in debate over Prodi reforms

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ROME -- Controversy over last week's government decision to require Italy's two biggest broadcasters to begin the shift to digital broadcasting continued to rage Monday, with one leading opposition political figure announcing he was going on hunger strike to protest the plan.

Television sector insiders, meanwhile, brushed aside the controversy, saying that the switch to digital signals in Italy is "inevitable" and that the war of words it sparked amounted to "political posturing."

Sandro Bondi, coordinator of the Forza Italia political party founded by media tycoon and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, announced Monday that he will stop eating in protest of the law.

The plan, authored by Minister of Communications Paolo Gentiloni, would force Berlusconi's Mediaset and state broadcaster RAI to each switch one of their three networks to solely digital content no later than 2009.

"I am not hunger striking for Mediaset or for Berlusconi," Bondi said Monday. "I am not part of the company. But I am defending what is an important company that is being treated unjustly despite the fact that is has played an essential role in the economic development and the democracy of our country."

Bondi did not say how long he would go without eating.

Critics of the plan say it will have a greater impact on Mediaset than RAI since Mediaset's smallest network, Rete 4, is nearly twice the size of RAI 3, that broadcaster's smallest network. It is believed that an exclusive switch to digital would drastically reduce a network's viewership since few Italians own the sets necessary to receive digital signals.

But television industry insiders note that nearly two-thirds of Italians will in any case buy new television sets by the end of 2009 and that if they know two popular networks will be available only on that technology they will be more likely to buy a digital set.

"I can't imagine this law having a significant impact on either company's bottom line for long, and it will just hurry along the migration to digital technologies," one consultant who has worked with both Mediaset and RAI said in an interview. "This is just the latest reason for political parties to bicker."

And fighting they are, with a proxy battle fought in the country's newspapers over the weekend. Among the headlines from opposition-leaning newspapers over the weekend were: "The bandits are making laws again" and "A strike against a free democracy." Headlines from the left-leaning news outlets included: "Gentiloni makes Italy legal again" and "Respect from the law is not banditry."
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