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Berlusconi's empire The eight main divisions that make up the Fininvest Group. GROUP SERVICES Fininvest Servizi (travel agency, other miscellaneous businesses) TELEVISION RTI (Three main national networks: Canale 5, Retequattro, Italia 1) PUBLISHING A. Mondadori Editore, Silvio Berlusconi Communications BUILDING AND PROPERTY Cantieri Riuniti Milanesi (construction company) FINANCE AND INSURANCE Fininvest Italia (financial services and insurance companies) AD AGENCY Publitalia '80 (mostly media buying but also advertising for political campaign) CINEMA AND ENTERTAINMENT AC Milan soccer team RETAIL Standa, Euromercato supermarkets ITALY'S CITIZEN KANE SELF-MADE MEDIA MOGUL BERLUSCONI SWEEPS TO VICTORY IN ELECTION WITH HELP FROM HIS EMPIRE

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ROME-A few days before Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party swept to victory in last week's Italian elections, the popular Italian host of "Wheel of Fortune," Mike Buongiorno, announced midprogram that his vote would go to the ex-president. Not the former president of Italy, he told the audience, but the ex-president of the station employing him, Fininvest Group's Silvio Berlusconi.

On another Fininvest channel, sports show host Raimondo Vianello also interrupted his program to tell viewers he had decided to vote for none other than Mr. Berlusconi.

Political advertising on TV ends by law 30 days before the election, but that didn't stop roving camera crews at Mr. Berlusconi's three national channels from interviewing Italians in the street about their favorite politicians. Amazingly, everyone planned to vote for Mr. Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.

Welcome to media-driven politics, Italian style.

As the self-made media mogul closed fast and swept out the Christian Democratic and Socialist parties that had ruled Italy since 1948, the world watched a new brand of multimedia political populism unfold.

From innovative direct marketing gambits to high-power TV spin doctoring, Mr. Berlusconi and his allies pushed '90s political campaigning into new realms-and raised the prospect of translating those new mass media methods into the art of governing.

Whether the 58-year-old Mr. Berlusconi-almost certain to become Italy's next prime minister-can cure a country battling its way out of a corruption quagmire remains to be seen. More certain is the fact that Mr. Berlusconi's longstanding position as a media baron will raise conflict of interest questions.

Italian law doesn't prohibit Mr. Berlusconi from keeping his media interests and becoming prime minister. And media analyst Francesco Siliato said he thinks Mr. Berlusconi's hints that he might sell part of his media properties-which include the three channels, ad agency Publitalia, Italy's largest retail chain Standa and biggest publishing group Mondadori Publishing-is "sheer propaganda."

Mr. Berlusconi "entered politics to save his media empire," Mr. Siliato said. "Now that he is in power, he certainly isn't going to make a law against himself."

Mr. Berlusconi has made no clear statement on the future of his media holdings, from which he resigned as president in Janu-ary.

"We must remember that Italy has just gone through a bloodless revolution and Italian citizens are going to be vigilant in monitoring any incongruities, beginning with keeping a sharp watch on [Mr. Berlusconi's] huge debts," said Jim Allman, regional European manager at Lintas, Milan.

The desire is so strong it propelled Mr. Berlusconi's Forza Italia, founded just three months ago as a party of only those without any political experience, to Italy's leading political party with 21% of the vote.

"It's a miracle," exclaimed Robert Lasagna, Mr. Berlusconi's campaign manager and former ceo of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising Italy. "From non-existence to victory almost overnight," said Mr. Lasagna, himself elected a senator in Milan.

In a victory sweep, the Alliance for Freedom-a pact between Forza Italia, the separatist Northern League and the neo-fascist National Alliance parties-won a majority of seats in the lower house of Parliament and the biggest block in the Senate with 155 seats out of 315.

As a result, this week Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro is expected to take the customary formal step of calling on Mr. Berlusconi, as leader of the winning party, to form a government.

His countrymen have already illustrated that in their yearning for a new, charismatic leader, Italy can turn a blind eye to Mr. Berlusconi's past. This includes his close ties with the former ruling Socialist Party that let him build his private broadcast monopoly; his relationship with ex-Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi, now facing a series of corruption charges; and the arrest of Mr. Berlusconi's brother Paolo, now under investigation for paying kickbacks in the construction industry.

Well aware of Italians' interest in removing themselves from the scandal, Mr. Berlusconi favored, for example, that all 267 of Forza Italia's candidates for Parliament must have no prior political experience to make them less tainted.

The election itself was "the best use of a market-oriented political strategy," said Mr. Siliato, the media analyst. Media-minded Mr. Berlusconi not only announced his candidacy on a videocassette sent to all the major networks Jan. 26 but he ran up to 45 spots on each of his TV networks per day, ranging from 10 seconds to 2 minutes in length.

He selected candidates only after a video test to determine their communications skills and whether they were suitably photogenic. Those who passed got a three-day course on dressing, grooming and their proper color palettes.

Mr. Berlusconi also used his TV networks to form Forza Italia under the guise of a club. People could call a phone number broadcast on Mr. Berlusconi's channels and ask to start a Forza Italia organization in their neighborhood. They would be sent some political party paraphernalia and were authorized to recruit members, and notified of meetings and rallies.

Mr. Berlusconi was equally adept at creating a media extravaganza in his advertising. The $1 million campaign created by Publitalia used soccer terminology with patriotic overtones and colors of the Italian flag. The catchy anthem: "We'll Build a New Italy."

His candidacy announcement took place in Mr. Berlusconi's wood-paneled library surrounded by photos of his family.

"Berlusconi is an extremely shrewd person and ran a very interesting campaign, almost American style," Lintas' Mr. Allman said.

His political rise is no less meteoric than his climb in business. Mr. Berlusconi began singing as an entertainer and crooner on cruise ships and nightclubs with a group of friends.

Those same buddies followed him into the building business, and in the late 1960s, Mr. Berlusconi found financial backing for his dream project-an elite residential community outside Milan called Milano 2. The endeavor was a huge success and, catering to its financially well-off inhabitants, developed its own closed circuit TV system.

This was his start in the TV business, leading to the creation of Canale 5 in 1974, and two to three years later, Italia 1. He bought the third network, Retequattro, from Mondadori Publishing in 1984. All three channels skirted Italian laws against national commercial broadcasting through a complex courier system that linked many small regional stations and created the appearance of a national network.

Publitalia was formed to sell airtime on the three channels, putting together sponsorship packages for advertisers and handling advertising for Fininvest.

By the time the last station was purchased, Mr. Berlusconi had, in fact, invented Italy's commercial broadcasting system, still flanked by his singing partners from 1955 like Fedele Confalonieri, who is now president of the $6.36 billion Fininvest.

The widely held belief is that Mr. Berlusconi entered politics to protect his businesses and their future. To do that, he had to thwart a strong left-wing alliance that would have revised antitrust laws.

Winning was especially important since Fininvest's debt, officially placed at $2.3 billion last year, is now said to be possibly twice by financial experts in Milan.

A different theory is offered by Luca Montrone, president of the independent TV network Telenorba. He thinks Mr. Berlusconi will be forced by his own allies to give up one of his networks.

"The Italian government will pay him damages," Mr. Montrone said, "and he will save face by playing the victim."

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