ItsArt, now online the Netflix of culture, first impression: improvisation

The ItsArt portal, the Netflix of culture strongly desired by Minister Franceschini, was launched today. The first impression is that it is a rather improvised portal. Here's why.

The “Netflix of Italian culture” announced live on Rai3 by Minister Franceschini in April last year and formalized into a new company called ItsArt, born in December 2020 finally saw the light, at the public level, today, May 31. An unplanned, and indeed poorly publicized, date. It is the result of a delay: articles that came out in January 2021, when following the birth of the newco there was some journalistic interest in the operation, all spoke of a March launch. And already launching in March would certainly have seemed out of time for a platform that was supposed to provide a cultural service during the months of closures.

Just a quick glance at the new site gives the impression that the delay was due to the difficulty of finding content. Chili TV, in fact, the commercial partner of Cassa Depositi e Prestiti in the new company (the Ministry of Culture does not participate in it, although it is its main financier), had no experience in production but only in distribution, particularly of film material. As some will recall, as early as January ItsArt’s website was asking for content submissions. And the payment terms devised by ItsArt’s Board of Directors are decidedly surprising: without investing in the production of unreleased content, the company would attribute to itself the ability to retain 10 to 50 percent of the revenues from the cultural content sold. What producer would distribute under these conditions, bearing the full cost of production without even having total control over revenues, in a new platform whose quality and effectiveness is all to be verified? Few, very few, no doubt. And certainly not the smallest and most in need of help.

La home page di ItsArt
The home page of ItsArt

And indeed: the platform was supposed to be launched by the “exclusive” (so the press release) concerts of Riccardo Muti and Claudio Baglioni, but Muti’s concerts are archival materials, while there is, yes, an exclusive concert by Claudio Baglioni scheduled to take place on June 2, but attending it will cost €12.90. At today’s launch, the available content is “more than 700,” according to the press release, including “also new formats developed and produced by the main Italian cultural institutions (archaeological areas, museums, foundations, academies and theaters)”: there are twenty-nine new formats, i.e., exclusive content available only on the new platform, of which four are free and all the others are paid. For the rest, we find archival content produced by some major Italian institutions (opera houses and autonomous museums), many of which are already available on other platforms such as Facebook and YouTube; some Rai productions also available on RaiPlay; a (limited) selection of films by ItalianItalian auteurs, which corresponds to those available on Chili TV (where, moreover, the same films cost one euro less than on ItsArt); little material, again archival, from other sources; and a wide selection of documentaries produced by Italiana, a Foreign Ministry platform announced in March, which will produce cultural content and will be endowed from 2023 with 51 million euros per year. A much more ambitious platform than ItsArt, then, which does not produce content but merely distributes it.

The vast majority of content is produced by entities that can spend without business risk, and living on public funds could not refuse to collaborate with the new platform. Thus, no real quality filter is to be expected , not least because ItsArt’s staff has experience, precisely, only in film distribution: it seems clear that they published what was available. It is not at all clear how much ItsArt will be able to monetize with this kind of content and selection. Also because the launch comes at an unfortunate time: the idea was born to allow Italians to “enjoy culture” even from the couch, and to help the sector at a time when cultural venues were closed. Now we are at a stage when theaters and cinemas are gradually reopening, curfews are moving toward cancellation, and more and more data indicate that outdoor events are at very low epidemiological risk, thus suggesting the possibility of organizing not only static performances but also concerts in parks and squares in the coming months. A time, in short, when it is really unlikely that Italian citizens would prefer to follow culture from their PC or Smart TV, instead of, after months, in attendance. Then we should not think about a platform launched now to sell Italian cultural content to those who cannot come to Italy: according to the press release, it will be available initially only in Italy and the United Kingdom. Only to this audience ItsArt aims to sell cultural content in midsummer.

It is to be imagined that ItsArt will go wrong, as many insiders have been pointing out for some time. Conceived and built for the purpose of creating a new company for reasons that will never be fully revealed (the expression of interest by which the business partner was chosen had been open from August 3 to 6, 2020), in obvious competition with RaiPlay and other platforms that offer similar services for free, it could hardly have turned out to be useful. This launch at the end of May is only likely to make this washout more blatant, however, costing 10 million in MiC funds and 9 million from Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (think if the same amount had been used to allow Rai to buy cultural content). Perhaps a few bombastic press releases based on instrumentalized numbers will await us (on the launch day, accesses to the site will be many, because there is curiosity around the project), then it will slowly go into oblivion and be closed forever, as it was for, or it could become one of those strange publicly held companies that continue for decades to receive funds despite dubious or no usefulness (the portal, for example, should be revitalized with Recovery Plan funds). Yet, it would be so easy to reverse course by internalizing the digitization and computerization processes within the Ministry of Culture, with the associated revenues: what or who is preventing this?