Turkey’s ‘soap power’

According to Owen MatthewsNewsweek  Bureau Chief in Moscow and Istanbul, The Grapevine Mansion was the first great Turkish soap debuted back in 2002. It was the tale of an urban sophisticate who marries into a small-town family living in an old mansion. There, she comes face to face with the old Turkey that most viewers left behind just a generation ago: blood feuds, illegitimate children, the bitter rivalries of the women of the house.

The first Turkish soap opera export was “Deli Yürek” sold to Kazakhstan for $30 to $40 per episode

The first Turkish soap opera export was way earlier – in 1997, when Deli Yürek was sold to Kazakhstan for $30 to $40 per episode. These days series are sold for between $500 and $20,000 per episode. Kazakhstan still leads the way – this Central Asian giant of a nation airs the most Turkish soap operas: 42 of them. The second place is occupied by Bulgaria (27), then follows Azerbaijan (23) followed by Macedonia (17). (Data in this paragraph is by Monocle)

Since 2002, Turkish soap opera really translated into ‘soap power’ for the former Ottoman Empire. (See On Branding: products and.. places) Among its former constituents and further across the oceans to the shores of Latin America, Turkish soap undoubtedly won over hearts and minds of many.  Maybe we should listen to Monocle‘s Melis Alphan and stop calling them soap operas. “Diplomacy series” is a more fitting term.

Magnificent Century, an historical soap opera based on the life of the 16th-century Suleiman the Magnificent, is one of more than 100 shows produced in 2010 by Turkey’s booming TV-drama industry. According to international media, the programs are becoming a wildly popular cultural phenomenon across the Middle East, bringing in their wake a renaissance in Turkey’s soft power and ushering in a low-key social revolution among the housewives of the Arab world.

Here is how the Newsweek described the Turkish drama boom in a September 2011 edition:

Middle East Broadcasting Center CEO Sheikh Waleed Al Ibrahim (image courtesy of albawaba.com)

“These serials have a huge impact,” says Izzet Pinto, CEO of Turkey’s Global Agency, which distributes Magnificent Century and 1001 Nights, another Turkish blockbuster set in modern-day Istanbul. (See What the world’s only active Somali archaeologist has in common with the Iraqi-British winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize and Biosphere Connections by Star Alliance+UNESCO+National Geographic)

“In the Balkans, newborns are being named after 1001 Nights characters.” The secret is familiarity. “Neither the characters nor the subject matter nor the featured locations are foreign” to viewers, says Kemal Uzun, director of rags-to-riches soap Noor“They do not feel like outsiders to what is taking place. We are close cultures, close geographies; we have close ties.” [This is how Uzun alludes to the Turkish rule over the region for several centuries up to the end of the First World War.]

“Global Agency keeps growing around 150-200% a year. We plan to keep this growth for 2011 and 2012,” Izzet Pinto told ttv, a TV business publication.

One of the distributor’s first steps toward building these relationships has been an agreement with Venevisión International [a Spanish language entertainment company with more than 30 years of experience in TV programming production and distribution] to distribute some of the Venezuelan company’s content in Central and Eastern Europe. Global Agency is the exclusive distributor of content by Mega, Greece’s number one channel. “Another strong international partnership comes from our work with Miditech in India who won an award for the best adaptation of an existing format in the Asian Television Awards 2010.”

“It was quite striking to see the world map on the wall with all the places where Turkish TV series had been sold”

As the Newsweek story observes, “despite a century of Arab nationalism, Arab viewers have nonetheless become keen fans of shows that hark back to an idealized Ottoman past.” In 2008, Saudi media tycoon Sheik Waleed al Ibrahim began buying up Turkish dramas for his Middle East Broadcasting Center that majority-owns Al Jazeera’s competitor in the Middle East, Al Arabiya.

MBC was launched in 1991 as the first privately owned and independent Arabic satellite TV station. (See I want My TV in Afghanistan!) “Instead of dubbing the shows in classical Arabic, al-Ibrahim rendered them into a colloquial dialect of Syrian Arabic readily understood by ordinary viewers across the Middle East.”

After the success of Noor, Fadi Ismail, MBC group director of services, declared, “We want to import whatever Turkey produces.”

“It was quite striking to see the world map on the wall with all the places where Turkish TV series had been sold,” shares on his blog photographer Matthieu Paley, who worked with Melis Alphan on the Monocle story entitled “Dream Export-Turkey.” Poland and Hungary have recently bought series from Turkey and are calling in the voiceover artists.

Turkish drama television series and soap operas are seen by 25 to 30 million people weekly in Turkey and have become pop-culture phenomenon abroad. In Saudi Arabia, Noor‘s final episode attracted a record 85 million Arab viewers [in 22 countries] when it aired in August 2011…

“These serials show what the closed societies of the Middle East long to see, hear, even live: being Muslim with a modern lifestyle, a high standard of living, equality between men and women,” explains to Owen Matthews Irfan Sahin, CEO of Doğan TV Holding, Turkey’s biggest media group and producer of Noor.

The rising popularity of Turkish soaps has coincided with the rise of Turkey’s soft power in the Middle East. Before the Mavi Marmara ship tried to deliver aid to Gaza in May 2010, Turkish soap operas had been illustrating the country’s solidarity with Palestinians, often by maligning Israelis. Turkish TV drama can also be studied by those interested in the Kurd issue.

Since 2001, over 65 Turkish television series have been sold abroad, bringing in over 50 milliion US dollars to the booming Turkish television industry. Although unplanned, the spread of Turkish television falls neatly into the soft-power strategy of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu as outlined in his seminal 2001 book Strategic Depth. Davutoglu advocates a pro-active and multi-dimensional foreign policy that sees Turkey’s shared history and culture with former Ottoman lands as a strategic advantage — forming one prong of Turkey’s soft-power strategy.

Business-savvy Turks are aware of the newly acquired ‘soap power’ – Firat Gülgen of Calinos Holding that executes 80% of the export deals for all Turkish soap operas, would like to bring the soft-power effect to a higher level altogether, “We would prefer that they [foreign TV channels] air the series in Turkish, as we would prefer that the viewers learn and understand the Turkish language. ..On the plane [when Firat traveled for business] there were almost 200 business people, they all stated that before they start a meeting they discuss TV series in all meetings, before starting the real business at hand.

The spread of Turkish television falls neatly into the soft-power strategy of Turkish Foreign Minister Professor Ahmet Davutoglu (left). In this picture he is with Brazilian ex-President Lula da Silva and former Foreign Minister of Brazil Celso Amorim (right)

Our Foreign Minister in Bosnia stated ‘The Bosnian and Serbian people have reunited due to the popularity of Turkish serials. The owner of a TV station in Macedonia received a phone call from his largest advertiser of telecommunications stating, ‘I will no longer be advertising on your station. When the public is viewing a Turkish drama, no one is talking on the phone. This is going to make us go bankrupt.’ A chief of police in Kazakhstan wrote a letter of gratitude to a TV station there, “Please continue to air series of this quality. When they air, the level of crime is almost zero.'”

Firat Gülgen explains how it all began for him, an MA graduate in finance and banking from Boston College:

Cüneyt Arkın [one of the most prominent Turkish actors of all time] is my mother’s uncles. My father Melih Gülgen is a producer. I, personally, cannot even take a picture. But I am part of it by buying and selling. After completing my education, I was employed by a New York distribution company as a sales representative for the Middle East. I attended a convention in New Orleans, where in three days I witnessed agreements being made of $4,000,000. And I thought to myself, “This is a profitable industry. If this were arms it would not have sold as much.” Afterwards in 1997 while in Los Angeles, I formed Calinos Entertainment.

According to the Newsweek, Turkey’s trade with the Middle Eastern region has quadrupled since 2002 (data as of 2011). In 2010, Turkey announced a free-trade zone with Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. (See Steppes In Figures #5: Ukraine and the world) According to a recent Pew Foundation survey, 17 % of Turks believe their country should look to Europe for inspiration, while 25 % think that Turkey’s future lies with the Middle East. One tangible sign of this regional love-in is a massive boom in Arab tourism to Turkey, fueled by new visa-free travel from Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. (See The Bittersweet Taste of Soft Power: North Korea’s flirting with tourism) “In Europe, people are hostile and unfriendly,” says Abdullah al-Aziz, a Saudi investment consultant who brought his veiled wife, children, and Indonesian nanny to Istanbul last summer. “Here, people in hotels and restaurants speak Arabic, and they want your business.” The Aziz family was touring Büyükada, an island often used for soap-opera filming because of its preserved Ottoman villas, and planned to take a cruise to visit the Bosporus mansion where Noor is set.

However, not all viewers are as enthusiastic about Turkey and its cultural exports. When Noor first aired in Saudi Arabia, the chairman of the country’s Supreme Judiciary Council called for the murder of satellite-television executives for showing “immorality.” Magnificent Century caused a row in Turkey, with conservative Turks denouncing its portrayal of Suleiman drinking wine and having a harem full of sexy women (both details are historically accurate). Ratings soared after the row.

Ottoman era houses in the streets of Büyükada

Discop Istanbul, Turkey’s TV content market, has evolved dramatically in the past decade and a half,” writes Andrew McDonald. (See Ukrainian Media Content Market 2012 scheduled for September and From Zimbabwe to Australia: Stephen Chigorimbo on the International Public Television event) “Once home to a high number of foreign imports, including Latin American telenovelas, Turkey has since developed a rich drama industry of its own that now accounts for the bulk of the main terrestrial broadcasters’ primetime output.”

Endemol Turkey partnered with Argentinian network Telefe to adapt primetime daily telenovela The Successful Mr & Mrs Pells as a weekly drama for the Kanal D, Turkey’s #1 terrestrial network [It is part of Doğan Holding. In 2007, Kanal D has launched in Romaniaa television channel under the same name]. (See Destination branding for Romania, anyone?) Yet despite other adaptations of the format in Poland and Chile, the show didn’t make it past one season.

On production budgets of Turkish TV drama

Can Okan, president, CEO and co-founder of Istanbul-based distributor ITV Inter Medya, claims that in the past couple of years production budgets in Turkey have doubled, with some period dramas costing US$750,000 per episode. Over at Kanal D, Turna agrees: “We are spending incredible amounts of money when we begin the shows. For example, for Öyle Bir Geçer Zaman ki (Time Goes By), just for the first two episodes we spent more than €1m. But the market is very competitive.”

On the ad breaks that result in 90-minute episodes

Kerim Emrah Turna, international sales and acquisitions specialist at Kanal D, says the reason why Turkey tends towards longer episodes is to do with regulations that limit ad breaks to 12 minutes in every hour. This is in line with European legislation, which Turkey has adopted voluntarily despite not being a part of the EU. “To get a bigger part of the advertisement pie, channels are demanding 90-minute episodes from the producers in order to have a couple more primetime advertisement slots during the programme,” he says.

By the same logic, you might then expect Turkish dramas to be equally hard to sell abroad due to episode length. Yet this does not seem to be the case. Indeed, ad gains along with rivalry in the Turkish market are helping to drive up production values, which in turn is making Turkish drama more appealing to international buyers. In many territories, 90-minute Turkish drama episodes are shown in their entirety or stripped as two 45-minute episodes.

As of recently, Turkish distribution companies are eyeing the audiences of  the Far East and Sub-Saharan Africa. The next DISCOP AFRICA event is scheduled for 31 October – 2 November and will be held in Johannesburg. (See Afriwood to participate in 2012 Ukrainian Content MarketUrban rail in Africa: Whether “freedom trains” will solve Zimbabwe’s traffic jam problems, more attention should be paid to what happens when you board at A and get off at B. And don’t forget the bike!Why I am excited about flying through Dubai or Why I am excited not to fly through OR Tambo in JoziBrand Africa Expo 2011 to take place in Joburg16 million eyes of ZBC viewers could add on several millions more)


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