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ROME (Reuters) - A TV show based on monologues about the mafia and civil rights has proved an unlikely hit in Italy, where semi-naked starlets and rowdy talk shows that turn into shouting matches are the traditional prime-time successes.
By its third episode last week, "Vieni Via Con Me" (Come Away With Me) had 10 million viewers, a record for state broadcaster RAI's Channel 3 and the kind of numbers usually reserved for international soccer matches.
Much of its popularity is down to Roberto Saviano, a 31-year old writer who has lived under police protection since penning his 2006 best-selling book "Gomorrah," a vivid expose of the inner workings of Naples' mafia, the Camorra.
Saviano's powerful monologues on organized crime open the program, which is set in a bare studio resembling a theater stage and tackles issues rarely on Italy's TV menu, like euthanasia, immigration and attitudes toward homosexuality.
In a country where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi controls the biggest private TV company Mediaset and exerts great sway over RAI, the show, on a small and generally left-leaning state channel, was controversial from the start.
In the opening episode, comedian Roberto Benigni delivered an hour-long satirical tirade targeting Berlusconi's well-known taste for partying and young women.
A week later, Saviano drew fire for saying that the mafia, traditionally rooted in the poorer south, was gaining ground in the north and had contacts with the Northern League, a federalist party in Berlusconi's ruling coalition.
An infuriated Interior Minister Roberto Maroni demanded to be invited as a guest on the next show to list the government's achievements in the fight against crime syndicates.
Then, RAI's board urged the show's producers to invite pro-life activists to "balance" monologues on two right-to-die cases that have recently split mainly Catholic Italy. When they refused, a pro-life program was hastily announced on RAI 1.
Saviano, who is forced to move houses frequently and meets people in secret locations since receiving death threats from mafia bosses, said making the show was "very tough" because of the open hostility of many RAI executives and politicians.
"There wasn't a great atmosphere around us, and there still isn't," he told Corriere della Sera daily in an interview on Monday, ahead of the program's last episode.
"Too much tension. I don't think I could repeat this, not under these conditions," he said.
It is very different fare from a regular diet of game shows like "Mercante in Fiera," with its grey-haired host and his voluptuous assistant known as "The Black Catwoman," or "Striscia la Notizia," which mixes satire, gossip and two girls in skimpy dresses hopping on the desk of male presenters.
In a country going through a bitter and divisive government crisis that could lead to new elections early next year, the show by Saviano and co-host Fabio Fazio has been hailed and vilified in equal measure.
To critics, it is outright anti-Berlusconi propaganda by leftist intellectuals.
To admirers, it shows the degree of disillusionment with the 74-year old prime minister, who has been weakened by a string of scandals and faces a confidence vote on December 14 that could bring his government down.
Alessandra Comazzi, a respected TV critic for La Stampa newspaper, said however that the program's popularity, particularly among young people, ran across party lines and that the message was: "Enough with trash."
"It has captured the attention of a lot of people who had stopped watching television because they were tired of tits and ass," she said.
Editing by James Mackenzie and Paul Casciato