Private RAI? Italy May Be Mulling Plan to Privatize State Broadcaster

The 89-year-old television and radio giant lost more than $250 million last year but is eying a return to profitability in 2014.

ROME – Italy was abuzz Monday over speculation that state broadcaster RAI might eventually be privatized, following comments from Finance Minister Fabrizio Saccomanni on the topic over the weekend.

The notion of privatizing RAI rises up from time to time in Italy, and political leaders are usually quick to quash the rumors, which invariably attract the ire of RAI workers, labor unions, and many members of parliament. But this time the speculation came from one of the government’s top officials who told Italian television program Che Tempo Che Fa that a plan to raise cash by privatizing state assets would be announced by the end of the year.

Asked if that plan would include RAI, Saccomanni said, “RAI is one of the companies the state owns and we are looking at all options.”

At more than 130 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, Italy’s debt is the second highest in the European Union behind only Greece. The government is seeking ways to pay down its debt without further raising taxes.

Some government officials looked to quell fears RAI would be sold off, with Antonio Catricala, the deputy minister of economic development, saying that such a move was not under serious consideration and that Saccomanni likely made his comments to show that no avenue had been ruled out. But Saccomanni declined to clarify his comments when he had a chance to do so.

Trade unions published editorials in several Italian newspapers Monday explaining why they believed selling RAI would be a mistake.

RAI, which is owned by the Italian treasury, competes against Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset, satellite broadcaster Sky-Italia, controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s Twenty-First Century Fox, and La7, the country’s smallest national broadcaster recently acquired by businessman Urbano Cairo.

With its various subsidiaries, RAI has more than 10,000 employees, making it the biggest single employer in Italy’s media sector.

The company, which will turn 90 next year, finished 2012 more than $250 million in the red. But general director Luigi Gubitosi earlier this year announced a restructuring plan that cut costs and identified new revenue sources as it planned to return to profitability by the end of next year.

Twitter: @EricJLyman