Massimo Romeo lowers his voice. "I'll be honest with you, I've got someone up in Milan who is putting in a good word for me." He pauses, looks around again, and adds: "And I know I've got the face." The bespectacled 39-year-old Neapolitan travel agent who most definitely does NOT have a made-for-TV mug can't speak for long. They're about to call his number.
Italy's Grande Fratello consistently boasts Europe's highest ratings of any version of Big Brother. And now the program has come to bustling Naples for the first time in search of potential contestants for September's fifth series. But in this sultry southern city, there is no need to turn on the television for the next new drama to unfold. More than 1,200 people have shown up, and rumors are swirling. Someone says a well-known local dancer is trying out. Others have heard that Grande Fratello wants to introduce a sibling tandem for the first time, prompting a pair of friends to discuss whether they should pose as brothers.
On the other side of the Naples hotel parking lot, a goateed 170-kg Massimiliano Rocco is getting agitated. "I can assure you, they've already picked their contestants. This is just a P.R. stunt." Then why, asks someone, did you bother to come? "The only way I'll ever know that it's not fixed is if they pick me."
The hubbub might explain the success of this reality show in Italy. According to the show's producers, Endemol, only Spain another Latin country has ratings that are close to those in Italy. This past spring, Grande Fratello achieved its highest viewership since its sensational first edition in 2000, with a weekly share of 34% over three months, and more than 11 million viewers (in a country of 58 million) tuning in for May's final episode.
Aldo Grasso, a professor of mass media at Milan's Catholic University and the TV critic for Corriere della Sera, says Italy has been watching this show for centuries: "Italians can talk about nothing for hours. Our theatrical tradition is rather modest because the real theater is in the streets, in the shops, in Parliament."
In other countries, faced with declining ratings, the plotline has begun to jump the shark tank of acceptable television behavior. The German edition earlier this year featured ongoing hot tub orgies, and in mid-June the British show was visited by police after a fight broke out in the house. But in Italy, it's all about the gab. Fausto Enni, one of the Italian show's directors on hand in Naples, said he wants people who are bound to babble: "The U.K. version picks extroverts too, but maybe it's harder for the English to recognize themselves in the characters on the screen. For the Italians, you just need to go to the piazza in town and you'll see it yourself."
Everyone who showed up was given a number and eventually led in groups of 15 or 20 into an air-conditioned hotel conference room. There was a 50-year-old named Ernesto who likes house music, a woman who wants to overcome her stuttering speech impediment, and dozens who admit to big showbiz ambitions. A 22-year-old named Salvatore had just given up his dreams of being a pro football player. "I guess it's time to grow up, but I think it's also important to remain a kid," he suggests to the two fortysomething casting experts. "But you all are grown up so you'd know better than me." A round of chuckles, but Carmen Liguori, herself a Naples native, shoots back a glare and asks if Salvatore is suggesting she is over the hill. "I don't care how old you are, Miss, you are one fine-looking woman." He won't quite make the cut, but Salvatore will have plenty to tell when gets back home.