ROME (AP) _ Desperate pleas of a family trying to locate a runaway child, shocking closeups of a drug addict shooting up with heroin, explicit re-creations of a brutal murder.

It is called ''televisione-verita,'' or truth TV, and is challenging the fluffy variety show in the ratings on Italy's public and private television networks.

The trend, media experts say, reflects Italians' love of intrigue and their increasing openness to discuss their private lives and problems with others.

''These programs are coherent with the Italian tradition of a very gossipy society,'' said Franco Ferrarottia, a sociologist at the University of Rome.

They also have signaled a new relationship between state television and the Italian public, which is generally alienated from government institutions and bureaucracy.

''Until recently TV was a major pillar of the establishment,'' Ferrarotti said in an interview. ''These programs would have been considered scandalous, even blasphemous. The official TV is finally moving into the sphere of private Italian life.''

The explosion of truth TV has improved ratings but also raised ethical questions about invasion of privacy and use of dramatic reconstructions and anonymous calls.

Oreste Del Buono, a TV columnist for the newspaper Corriere Della Sera, has been a leading critic of the shows, saying networks are taking too many risks with live broadcasts, anonymous callers and crime shows that focus on ''poor people, without laywers, treated like animals.''

The shows are also a product of the intense competition between the state- run RAI network and the three major private stations of Silvio Berlusconi. Most of the truth TV programs are on RAI, which exploits its monopoly on live broadcasting.

Truth TV relies heavily on phone calls from the public, adding to the drama and immediacy of the broadcast but also creating potential risks.

On one recent weekday afternoon, actress Sandra Milo was host on a new live talk show, ''L'Amore e Una Cosa Meravigliosa'' (''Love Is a Wonderful Thing''), on RAI when a woman called in and said, ''Sandra, what are you doing there while your son is seriously injured in the hospital?''

To the horror of a nationwide audience of some 3 million people, Milo burst into sobs, ran off the set and fainted in her dressing room. The call turned out to be a hoax as her son, Ciro, was tracked down at the home of friends.

RAI said it would tighten controls on phone calls to live shows, but some commentators said viewers would no longer trust anonymous callers.

''This incident signals a critical moment in the history of truth television,'' wrote best-selling novelist Umberto Eco in a column in L'Espresso magazine. ''It's certain that from this moment the public will become more suspicious and many programs will suffer from a crisis of credibility.''

That hasn't seemed to be the case so far with the most popular of the new genre, ''Chi L'Ha Visto?'', a show on missing people that attracts more than 5 million viewers on Sunday nights.

The live, three-hour RAI program uses elaborate re-creations tracing missing persons' lives and last known movements, composite photos showing how their appearances could have changed, interviews with their families and calls from viewers around the country who may have spotted them.

The inaugural show last year caused a stir when it examined the disappearance of a U.S. woman sailor from a military base in Naples. It included a re-creation suggesting the woman had been murdered after a sexual tryst with two fellow American male sailors. But hours after the show aired, the woman was found alive and well in southern Italy by a police officer who had watched the program. She had run off with a Moroccan immigrant.

Calls from viewers on ''Chi L'Ha Visto?'' have helped reunite several families, but often the missing person has run away on his or her own and has no intention of going home. On a recent show, a wife became visibly annoyed as callers repeatedly reported having seen her missing husband traveling with a young woman - one said he saw the couple dancing the tango in a nightclub near Naples.

''It couldn't be him, he doesn't like the tango,'' the wife shot back.

Lio Beghin, who conceived the show, said in an interview with Il Messaggero newspaper: ''We are well aware that the biggest danger is invading the private life of a person and getting into the merits of making a free choice to leave one's past behind. But people also have the right to know the fate of a missing relative.''

Another popular but controversial live RAI program is ''Telefono Giallo,'' which literally translates as ''Yellow Telephone'' but is a play on the word ''giallo,'' which also means ''mystery.'' The show examines unsolved crimes, hoping that anonymous calls will help provide clues that can reopen the case.

''This show could probably go on for another 1,000 years,'' Ferrarotti joked. ''So many Italian crimes are unsolved.''

Crime is also the main event in programs such as ''Pronto Polizia,'' a show on the private Italia Uno channel that follows police on emergency calls - from raids on drug dens to breakups of street fights.

Last year, guests on ''Io Confesso'' (''I Confess'') would sit in a booth, their faces concealed, and recount their crimes or aberrant behavior and answer questions from psychologists. On ''La Macchina Della Verita'' (''The Truth Machine''), they submitted to lie-detector tests.

The Italian public sometimes complains that TV goes too far. Many Italians were shocked when one of Berlusconi's stations showed a young addict injecting himself with heroin on camera. Many protested when RAI subjected 8-year-old Marco Fiora to prolonged questioning on a live, nationwide interview show only a short time after the boy's release from a 17-month kidnapping ordeal.

''For years we justly lamented that TV put people to sleep, that it was a social pacifier,'' Corrado Augias, host of ''Telefono Giallo,'' told Europeo magazine. ''And now that TV tackles problems and crime news, it almost seems that some want to go back to that unglorious past.''

But overall, Italians' love affair with TV is stronger than ever. What other country has 10 national TV magazines on the market?

Pay-TV could be the next wave. Italy's first pay station, Italian Network, is scheduled to debut Feb. 28. For the cost of a $200 descrambler, viewers will be able to watch pornographic movies after midnight.

Tens of thousands of people already have signed up, but others have threatened to file obscenity charges to keep the station off the air.

Stay tuned.