The Record - October/2007

Morsella channels Italy on TV
Monday, October 8, 2007


When Tony Morsella first ventured into cable television, it was a brave, wild, wide-open new frontier. At the time, several decades ago, Morsella owned a North Bergen auto repair shop, and it was there that he fielded a life-altering curveball.

"This gentleman called me from North Bergen Cable, which was probably not even two or three years old at the time," says Morsella, in an accent indicative of his native Italy. "He told me they owned two Italian cars, Fiats, and these company cars needed repairs, but they didn't have any money to repair them, so if I would do that, he'd give me advertising for the repair shop."

Morsella agreed to the arrangement, but says with a chuckle, "The repairs were so much that I was on the air all day long with the commercials, and he didn't know what else to do."

Value beyond money

When that executive moved on to a bigger cable company, he asked if there was anything he could do for Morsella. And that, essentially, is how "Mondo Italiano" was born. This month, his public-access show -- dedicated to the Italian and Italian-American community, with segments on culture, cooking, art, music, sports, news, fashion and religious festivals -- celebrates its 30th anniversary.

"People sometimes say, 'There's so much time involved, and you don't make that much money on this. What makes you do that?' " says Morsella, now 68, who has been working on the show full time since he retired from the auto business 15 years ago. "But there is other value beyond money."

In the three decades since "Mondo Italiano" ("Italian World") debuted, Morsella's children, Pasquale and Patrizia, have grown up. Patrizia, who helped with the show in the early years, now has two daughters of her own, Carina and Tina.

Cable, too, matured, as media conglomerates like Time Warner, Cablevision and Comcast came to dominate the landscape. (North Bergen's Cable TV Systems, for example, first became Prime Cable, then Riverview Cablevision, and now it's part of the Cablevision system.)

Long gone are the quirky, vanity-propelled public-access shows that started around the same time as Morsella's -- the tailor who wanted to be an opera singer; the "comedian" who called himself Johnny Commode and used a bathroom as his set; the Bergen County lawyer who, under a stage name, did a variety-talk show, which opened with an image of his head cascading down the Great Falls of Paterson.

But "Mondo," always a community-oriented rather than ego-driven endeavor, is still here -- and thriving. It's now carried not only on cable systems throughout New Jersey, and on Manhattan Cable, but also on Philadelphia's WYBE-TV, an independent public-television station.

Did the show's soft-spoken, gentlemanly creator think it would last this long? "I was hoping," says Morsella, who produces a one-hour show every week, as well as two or three specials a month. "Originally, it was geared to first-generation Italians who spoke Italian. Then, of course, it became second generation. Now, it's not only third or fourth generation, but it's a mixture of different cultures, because of marriages in the families. ... But they have this interest in the Italian culture, more than the language itself."

And so, he's working on converting the language spoken on the show from 90 percent Italian, 10 percent English, to 90 percent English, 10 percent Italian, with subtitles to translate the latter.

Although Morsella has had many volunteer helpers through the years, "Mondo Italiano" is really a one-man operation -- and largely self-financed. He does get some of the footage he uses -- gratis -- from the Italian government but says he uses very little of that. And while public-access producers are prohibited from selling commercials or doing on-air plugs, Morsella says he "indirectly" gets some support from companies featured (usually just an amount to cover his expenses).

Out and about

These days, Morsella uses a broadcast digital camera. He mostly edits the show (using traditional and computer-based digital systems) at his home in North Bergen, where he lives with wife Sabina. Morsella once also had a TV studio, now dismantled.

"I've done a lot of studio work, but to me it was too formal," says Morsella, who prefers to venture out on stories. "There was a period of time that I actually built a kitchen in the studio, and we had a chef coming and cooking, but now, more and more, I do these on location" at Italian restaurants.

He still does much of the camera work and the interviews himself but rarely appears on camera, preferring to spotlight and draw out his guests.

"Really, sincerely, what I enjoy the best is when somebody comes to me and says, 'Oh, I won't be able to do that. I'm camera-shy,' " Morsella says. "But then I turn this person around, and they become so camera-friendly that they enjoy doing it."

Born in Duronia, in Italy's Molise region, Morsella studied electrical engineering before coming to America in 1962.

In 1976, he founded an Italian folk music and dance group that performed in the United States, Canada and Italy. In fact, Morsella edited his movie footage of the group into a one-shot public-access special, and the positive response led him to create "Mondo Italiano."

About six years ago, he was thinking of winding down production, when, once again, he got an unexpected phone call -- this time from Philadelphia's WYBE-TV, a multi-ethnic public-TV channel, seen from Delaware to Central Jersey, that wanted to run "Mondo Italiano." (Morsella has no viewership figures but says, "I have a huge mailing list now.")

Now, instead of winding down, he says, "I'm thinking seriously of expanding to the next step, but by doing so, I know it's not going to be a one-man operation anymore. I'm gonna need an organization behind me, and I'm looking."

As for retirement plans, Morsella says, "Sometimes I say it's a lot of work for me. Maybe somebody will decide to buy it, and I'd be a consultant, working for them, which I would enjoy just the same. ... Probably I would like to do this until my very last day, but ... if anything happened to me, there is nobody else there to keep on going."

That worry intensified last spring, when he had what he calls a little health scare. "I'm back to normal, but it made me think seriously about the need to leave the show in good hands," says Morsella, who has an enormous archive he'd love to pass on to colleges.

He will probably dig into those archives to put together a highlights special for the 30th anniversary, later this month.

"But this should not be my celebration," Morsella says. "It's thanks to the viewers that 'Mondo Italiano' exists."

Tony Morsella