The 59th edition of Italy's flagship Sanremo Festival begins tonight (Feb. 17) and it will air for five nights on the main state-owned network Rai 1. In the festival competition, the 16 acts include Dolcenera, Patty Pravo and Francesco Renga, while the international guest performers include Katy Perry and Annie Lennox.

This year the presenter and artistic director is Paolo Bonolis, who is one of Italy's most popular television personalities, even though his background is not particularly musical. Bonolis presented his first Sanremo in 2005 and returns after a four-year absence. He talked to about the challenges of running a popular - if often controversial - event. You once admitted that you didn't follow Sanremo much as a youngster. So what was it that attracted you to the festival?

Paolo Bonolis: The chance to be able to construct something as artistic director. The event itself was secondary: the primary consideration was being able to create the whole package of the festival, from start to finish, in terms of words, images and music. 2005 was our first journey. Four years have passed since then and things have changed. I've changed, and the situation is completely different. To be able to create something that reflects a subject, particularly music, is a task that fascinates me.

What has changed since 2005?

My perception of reality has partially changed. I've changed in four years and this change will be reflected in the festival's format.

What are the main new features this year?

The main one is that we've tried to make the festival more contemporary by introducing an online contest for the younger artists. The festival itself will feature some big names in the history of Italian music, who are acting as mentors for the younger artists and they will perform together on one of the evenings of the festival. There will also be greater emphasis on the competition
itself. Each song will be presented in a different way, with its own choreography and scenography.

For many years now the Italian record industry has complained that, even if Sanremo generates a massive TV audience and impressive advertising revenue, the labels themselves gain very little from this, in terms of sales. Indeed they feel that they're simply providing material, while other organisations benefit.

Television provides an important launch pad, but Sanremo can't determine the success or the failure of a song. Sanremo is a trampoline, but the individual singer must know how to fly. If Sanremo has failed to help music, then it's often because not very good music has come to the festival. And often, when there is quality music, it seems to avoid Sanremo and I don't know why. It's a bit like a dog biting its own tail. Sure, Sanremo needs to be presented in such a way that it emphasises the music, but it isn't the festival which brings the music to the festival, so much as the music industry.

In recent years the festival's relations with FIMI (the major labels' IFPI-affiliated representative body) and the record industry in general have been strained. What are relations like this year?

Excellent. I'm at their service in the hope of building the best possible launch pad for their music. They've made their choices and they have been generous with us, as we will be with them when it comes to presenting their music.

There's great interest in Sanremo abroad, for various reasons, the most important of which is the big five-night TV audience. Do you see Sanremo as something of a national institution?

Sanremo isn't an institution, it's a tradition. If it has been the centre of attention for over 50 years, then this means it must have struck a chord with Italians. It's an event that has great potential for artists, but if the music's not great that year, it's like the grape harvest for wine, it's not the fault of the festival.

Agreeing to be the director of Sanremo is undoubtedly a challenge. Do you feel that you're risking your reputation in accepting this assignment?

I've been in TV for 28 years. I don't "do" challenges: I make TV programs. A challenge implies that you have adversaries. I don't look for adversaries. I have colleagues who are making other programs while I make mine. Sometimes the audience favors them, sometimes it favors me. The important thing is that the programs I make are made with the heart. I don't think that I'm risking my career, I'm personally very serene. After 28 years I don't feel I need to prove to people that I can make television programs.