I’ve no idea how many people outside of Italy have heard the name Mike Bongiorno, or may even know that he recently passed away. I would not imagine either that many would believe a television personality is credited with uniting Italy.
For the uninitiated, Mike Bongiorno was basically a quiz show host. He was, however, revered by the Italian people, and a state funeral was held in his honour. Silvio Berlusconi, a friend , the prime minister of Italy, and one time boss of Bongiorno spoke at the late quiz show host’s funeral held at the historic Duomo in Milan, last Saturday.
But why, some may be wondering, was a television personality accorded the honour of a full blown state funeral in Italy? This surprised me, I can tell you. Yet once you know a little bit more about Mike Bongiorno, you start to understand why he was held in such high regard in Italy. Indeed, he is considered by many Italians as being the person who helped unite their country, primarily by getting them to watch television. Why is this significant? Read on to discover what Mike Bongiorno’s greatest achievement was.
Of Italian origins, Mike Bongiorno, who was born in New York 1924 to an Italian mother and an Italian American father, returned to Italy as a child when his mother and father separated. Bongiorno completed much of his schooling in Italy and, harbouring ambitions to become a journalist, he worked for the sports section of Italian newspaper La Stampa as an assistant.
Life for the young Bongiorno was to become pretty tough before things picked up and he started down the road towards stardom.
Bongiorno the Partisan
Abandoning his studies during the second world war, Bongiorno joined up with the Italian resistance movement or partisans, and his knowledge of English proved to be very useful to the resistance groups which he collaborated with. Indeed, it was as a result of his knowledge of English that he was assigned an important and dangerous mission.
While carrying out this mission, Bongiorno was caught by the German Gestapo and only escaped execution as a result of the Germans discovering his American identity documents. Instead of being subjected to a firing squad, Bongiorno was first placed in prison in Italy. Then he was he was transferred out of Italy and spent time in various German concentration camps where his life was to be saved once more owing to his American origins. Bongiorno was freed during an exchange of prisoners of war between the USA and Germany. He returned to the US after being granted his freedom.
The fact that Mike Bongiorno passed time in Nazi concentration camps and survived is one of the reasons why the man who was to become Italy’s number one quiz show host commanded so much respect in Italy. However it was events after the Second World War which were to bring him both fame and fortune and endear him to the hearts of many Italians.
Bongiorno Returns to Italy
After a spell working in radio in the United States, in both English and Italian, but always with a focus on Italian affairs, Bongiorno returned to Italy in 1955, where he was the first journalist in Italy to interview the then President of the United States of America, Dwight Eisenhower. Bongiorno’s knowledge of English most probably made him one of the best candidates for such an interview, one imagines.
Bongiorno’s Italian Quiz show kicks off
From 1955, Mike Bongiorno’s quiz show host career kicked off and he conducted a radio quiz show called Il Motivo in maschera. Again in 1955, Mike Bongiorno began hosting the Italian television equivalent of the 64 Thousand Dollar Question, which was called Lascia o raddoppia.
The American style quiz was a huge success, even if Umberto Eco’s analysis was that Bongiorno’s abilty to appeal to a wide range of audiences seemed to be based on what Eco described as being the quiz show host’s ‘absolute mediocrity’. While not exactly a compliment, Eco’s judgement summed up why Bongiorno’s was a success – he appealed to the common Italian.
Bongiorno’s Quizzes Unite Italy
Such was his appeal that some Italians consider Bongiorno was instrumental in uniting Italy. So popular were Bongiorno’s fresh new, for Italian audiences, quiz shows that groups would crowd into bars, which were one of the few places to possess television sets in post-war Italy, to watch his shows. During his legendary programs Bongiorno spoke in Italian, which meant that dialect ridden Italy was cajoled into finally learning a language which would enable Italians from Pisa to Palermo and from Rome to San Remo to communicate.
Where politicians, intellectuals and other great minds had failed, Mike Bongiorno, a ‘mere’ quiz show host succeeded in providing Italy with one single language. Such is the power of popular appeal and television.
Bongiorno was considered an innovator in Italy too, although what he did really was nothing more than bring American style quiz shows to Italian television audiences. Italians had never seen anything like the great American quiz before, and they loved it. One can only conclude that Italian television pre-Bongiorno must have been pretty darn dull.
Berlusconi and Bongiorno
The power of the Bongiorno phenomenon or effect, or whatever you might like to call it; Bongiorno was affectionately known as ‘SuperMike‘ in Italy; did not escape the likes of aspiring TV mogul, one Silvio Berlusconi, who, in the late 70s, made Bongiorno an offer he could not refuse.
This offer resulted in a productive and profitable long-term relationship for Bongiorno, and an apparent friendship with Berlusconi. For Berlusconi, having someone like Bongiorno on board was the ideal way to have Italians watch Berlusconi’s own television stations, and, it could be argued that Bongiorno’s popular appeal was one of the reasons why Berlusconi is Italy’s prime minister today. Whether you view Bongiorno’s contribution to Berlusconi’s rise to power in a positive or a negative light, is up to you.
Bongiorno Reaches for Sky
In early 2009, and to the surprise of many, along with a few shouts of traitor, Mike Bongiorno left the Berlusconi media stable and moved to Murdoch’s Sky. According to a press release issued by Bongiorno in answer to the accusations of his being a traitor, he stated that he had moved to Sky simply because Berlusconi’s Mediaset had not renewed his contract.
Bongiorno the Businessman
Aside from being Italy’s most revered and popular quiz show host, Mike Bongiorno was also a shrewd businessman who also founded the Bongiorno Productions company, for which two of his three children work. He was an avid Juventus fan.
Still, it’s not every day that a quiz show host gets a state funeral, and as I mentioned at the start of this post, it came as a surprise to me.
Bongiorno’s Greatest Achievement
In whatever light one regards Mike Bongiorno, I’m not sure too many Italians realise what his greatest achievement was. Few will appreciate that what Bongiorno was is an example of Italy being changed by someone from the outside, which is more or less the only way change can be brought about in this reactionary country. Bongiorno remained an ‘outsider’ for most of his life, with him only becoming an Italian citizen in 2003.
At the end of a day though, one question must be: What kind of a country has a TV quiz show host as a national hero?
Bongiorno’s legacy, if you can call it that, is that Italian television is still dominated by a plethora of pretty cheesy quiz shows, which, incidentally, I avoid like the plague.
Despite Bongiorno’s best efforts, Italy is still not fully united even today, and there are signs that Italy would like to return to the post-Bongiorno era, especially with the likes of nationalist northern league politician Umberto Bossi pressing for fiscal federalism and for local dialects to be taught in Italian schools. Perhaps Italy needs another quiz show host hero who hails from elsewhere in the world to put it back onto the straight and narrow.
Can anyone out there tell me of another country in this wide world whose national hero is a quiz show host? I await the names of countries and personalities with great interest.
Whatever, goodbye Mr Bongiorno – you did bring a lot of pleasure into the lives of countless Italians. For that reason alone I guess he deserved national hero status.
Wikipedia on Mike Bongiorno – the Italian version. For those searching for real information on Italy, Wikipedia’s Italian language entries are often much more detailed than its English language entries on the same Italy-related subjects.
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