Founder and former chairman of Fininvest and prime minister of Italy
Born: September 29, 1936, in Milan, Italy.
Education: University of Milan, JD, 1961.
Family: Son of Luigi (bank clerk) and Rosella (secretary) Berlusconi; married Carla Dall'Ogglio (divorced); married Veronica Lario (actress), 1990; children: five (first marriage, two; second marriage, three).
Career: Cantieri Riuniti Milanesi, 1962, founder; Edilnord, 1963, founder; Telemilano, 1974, founder; Fininvest, 1978–1994, founder, chairman; Canale 5, 1980, founder; Italian government, 1994, 2001–, prime minister.
Awards: Cavalliere del Lavoro, 1977; honorary degree in managerial engineering from Calabria University, 1991; named Man of the Year by the International Film and Programme Market of Television, Cable, and Satellite, 1991.
Address: Presidenza del Consiglio dei ministri, Palazzo Chigi, Piazza Colonna 370, 00186 Rome, Italy; http://www.governo.it/index.asp.
■ Silvio Berlusconi was noted for his entrepreneurial spirit and flamboyance in his rise to the heights of Italian business and politics. His investments in real estate, media, and sports made him Italy's richest man, and he served two separate terms as the country's prime minister. He was also controversial. Lasting just seven months, his first stint as prime minister ended with his resignation amid charges that his business interests conflicted with his duties as head of state. In 2004, three years into his second term, he was tried on charges of having, in the 1980s, bribed judges who were hearing a case involving one of his competitors. Nicknamed "The Cavalier," he was known for living lavishly while catering to populist tastes in entertainment, for emphasizing his status as a self-made man and promoting himself unabashedly, and for making outrageous statements, including negative comments about Muslims and positive ones about former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Nonetheless, his influence remained far-reaching. Touching on almost every aspect of Italian life, his holdings included three television networks, Italy's largest publishing house, department stores, and a soccer team. In 2004 Forbes magazine ranked Berlusconi the richest person in Italy and the 30th wealthiest worldwide, with a net worth of $10 billion.
Berlusconi grew up in a lower-middle-class Milanese family, but even as a youth he showed entrepreneurial zeal and determination to improve his status. He put himself through college with a variety of jobs: selling vacuum cleaners, writing papers for his classmates (for a fee), and singing on cruise ships. After he received a law degree, with honors, from the University of Milan in 1961, he borrowed money from the bank where his father worked and went into real estate development, setting up the companies Cantieri Riuniti Milanesi in 1962 and Edilnord in 1963. With Italy's prosperity in the 1960s had come a huge demand for housing, and Berlusconi was there to take advantage of it. His projects included Milano 2, a suburban development of 4,000 housing units on the outskirts of Milan, completed in 1969. He followed this with another residential development, Milano 3, in 1976.
Berlusconi went into television by establishing the cable TV company Telemilano in 1974 and bringing this service to the housing complexes he had built. A 1976 court decision paved the way for more television ventures. Italy's Constitutional Court ruled that while the public-sector network, Radio Televisione Italiana, could have a monopoly on national broadcast television, local markets were open to all.
Setting up a holding company, Fininvest, in 1978 as an umbrella for his various projects, Berlusconi delved into numerous aspects of the television industry. He rented films to local TV stations; in turn, the stations had to carry advertising they bought through Fininvest's advertising agency, Publitalia. In 1980 he set up the Canale 5 television network. To avoid running afoul of regulators, Canale 5 operated legally as a group of local stations. However, all the stations carried the same programs simultaneously by means of videotape, making it a national network in practice. Renato Brunetta, one of Berlusconi's political advisers, told the London Observer , "What Berlusconi did was what he always does. He cut to the core"—and the core was that the purpose of television was to sell advertising nationally (January 18, 2004). According to Brunetta, Berlusconi then put all "his energy and imagination" into creating a virtual national network that could compete with the public TV network for advertising, a concept the political adviser called "pure genius."
In 1981 Italy's Constitutional Court decided to allow privately owned networks to broadcast nationally. Berlusconi responded by buying Canale 5's primary competitors, Italia 1 in 1983 and Rete 4 in 1984, giving him about 45 percent of the national broadcast market, equivalent to Radio Televisione Italiana's share. His networks broadcast soap operas and game shows, which proved popular in contrast to the highbrow programming on the public network. The Constitutional Court, however, also favored strong antitrust regulations on private broadcasters and urged the Italian parliament to pass such legislation. Despite this, and despite widespread criticism of Berlusconi's large market share, the parliament in 1990 enacted a very weak antitrust law.
Berlusconi kept expanding his holdings, adding broadcast operations outside Italy and such diverse acquisitions as the AC Milan soccer club in 1986, La Standa department stores in 1988, and the Arnoldo Mondadori Editore publishing house in 1990. The Fininvest empire grew to about 150 companies. His critics continued to object to the degree of control he exercised over national television, but in the 1990s, demonstrating his trademark determination and tenacity, he fought back by going into politics. In 1993 he formed the political party Forza Italia, which means "Go Italy," a cheer used by fans of his soccer team. Berlusconi forged a coalition with two right-wing parties, the National Alliance and the Northern League. His personal popularity, enhanced by his status as a political outsider at a time when many insiders had been accused of enriching themselves at public expense in a widespread scandal known as Tangentopoli (Bribesville), helped him win the office of prime minister in 1994. Berlusconi had climbed to the top in national politics by "using the same methods and many of the same people as he had used to become a billionaire" ( Independent , June 21, 2003).
Berlusconi stepped down as Fininvest's chairman in 1994, but the company remained under his ownership. Many Italians called for the new prime minister to sell some of his businesses, which he declined to do. Public outcry increased when he proposed that one of Fininvest's advisers, the merchant bank Mediobanca, assist in the privatization of state-run companies. Moreover, some of his appointees in the new government had been involved in the Tangentopoli scandal, and conflicts arose with the leaders of the National Alliance and the Northern League. Berlusconi was forced to resign as prime minister in December 1994, after only seven months in office.
Berlusconi then made some conciliatory moves, such as selling stakes in some of his businesses to outside investors. In 1995 he sold 28 percent of Mediaset, a company he had formed to unite his television, advertising, film, and recording ventures, to outside investors, and in 1996 he announced a public stock offering to further reduce his share. That year, he was elected to parliament, despite having been accused over the years of crimes that included tax evasion, bribery, and antitrust violations. Although convicted of some corruption-related charges, he appealed and stayed out of jail. In 2004 he was taken to court again, this time on charges of bribing judges. He maintained his innocence of all the charges brought against him, which he contended were politically motivated.
Many Italians continued to support Berlusconi, electing him prime minister again in 2001 to a term ending in 2006. In 2003 he became president of the European Union, a post that rotates among European heads of state every six months. He remained "one of Europe's most unusual and flamboyant leaders, a media magnate and political titan who has amassed, or at least sought, an astonishing degree of power, yet always seems to be dancing one small step ahead of disaster" ( New York Times , February 16, 2003). Despite some of the charges and criticisms he faced, Berlusconi was to many Italians "the ordinary Joe next door who by dint of incredible hard work and determination has landed on top of the heap … Italy's master of the universe, their proudest son" ( Independent , June 21, 2003).
Bruni, Frank, "Italy's Leader Balances Ambitions and Trials," New York Times , February 16, 2003.
Carlin, John, "All Hail Berlusconi," Observer , January 18, 2004.
Popham, Peter, "Silvio Berlusconi: The Two Faces of Italy's Billionaire Premier," Independent , June 21, 2003.