From the poorest neighborhoods where homeless dogs roam the streets to the richest mansions on the Bosphorus, every evening at half past eight, Turkish families sit down in front of their TVs to watch their favorite series. Lately, they have spread far beyond the Turkish hinterlands. From Eastern Europe to Central Asia, Turkish soaps reach new heights. But their most impressive success is in the Arab world.
In Turkey, TV series are incredibly popular and attract viewers across the wide social spectrum. Ninety six percent of Turkish households have a TV, and the Turks spend an average of 5 hours per day watching it. See these audience ratings from last January: the five most popular series are watched by more than 7 million people, culminating with 13.6 million viewers for Öyle Bir Geçer Zaman Ki, with the English title As Time Goes By. In other words, almost 20% of the Turkish population is watching this particular series, broadcasted every Tuesday at 8 pm.
From Eastern Europe to Central Asia, Turkish soaps reach new heights.
And this is happening regardless the fierce competition for air time from dozens of channels and hundreds of other TV series. Nearly all Turkish TV channels host two to three soaps every night during the week. Thanks to the high ratings, subsequent sponsoring and high revenues from advertisement, TV serials have become an industry worth 1 billion TL ($560 million) in 2008. However, the 2010 numbers dropped to 700 million TL ($390 million), due to the global financial crisis.
From drama to comedy, from romance to thriller; all genres are represented and sometimes mixed together. In Muhteşem Yüzyıl, Magnificent Century, you can wander through the glam of the Ottoman era, watch the usual power-struggles and actors sporting egg-sized diamonds; in Yaprak Dökümü, you can cry over a father whose children are lost in a nightmarish world. Horrific drama is not shunned: in Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne?, a young woman gets raped by four men in front of our eyes. Every night on the same hour, viewers get to follow the thrilling evolution of their beloved characters – people whose words have turned into everyday expressions and whose names have become incarnations of psychological archetypes.
Nearly all Turkish TV channels host two to three soaps every night during the week.
The series frenzy, which has blossomed during the last 10 years, has had a deep impact on Turkish society; far beyond the initial hobby of watching TV. Lead characters have become role models and many young people dream of becoming TV stars. The impact of the series is huge in terms of culture and consumption. Thanks to the serial inspired by his novel Aşk-ı Memnu, Forbidden Love, defunct Turkish author Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil became more famous than ever, although his book was first published in 1900. Young girls proudly wear the necklace of Bihter, the main heroine in Aşk-ı Memnu, around their head. And the soundtrack of the same series is ubiquitous.
The series frenzy, which has blossomed during the last 10 years, has had a deep impact on Turkish society; far beyond the initial hobby of watching TV.
Following last February’s provocative headline Turkey takes over the throne from Brazil, an article in Today’s Zaman proclaimed that: “More than 60 Turkish series have been exported to 39 countries”, including 14 different series to the Middle Eastern countries where people are big consumers of mosalsal.
In the 1990s, Mexican TV series were extremely popular in the Middle East. Every afternoon was spent watching Maria Mercedes fall in love with Jorge Luis del Olmo, or the trials and tribulations of Marisol’s complicated life. But, in the past few years, these have been replaced by the Turkish ones, which seem more attractive for the Middle Eastern audience.
In fact, the Mexican telenovelas were considered too disconnected from reality: overly melodramatic and complicated to follow, often using and re-using all possible and expectable scenarios. The viewers wanted something new. In addition, the episodes were dubbed into literary Arabic, fusha. This element made the programs even less credible, since it is not an everyday language. In short, they were too artificial for the public. Now, colloquial Arabic is often heard on TV. This has led to a new wave of homegrown Arabic series in dialect, such as Bab Idriss in Lebanon and Adam in Egypt.
Turkish series also have a cultural proximity that the Latin American ones lack. Heroes and heroines bear common names like Noor and Muhannad rather than Rosarita or Marimar. Political topics have made it into the Turkish series, like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict which was featured in Kurtlar Vadisi (Valley of the Wolves) and Ayrılık (Separation). Islam is also part of the setting. “They speak about God and the Quran, you can see women wearing the hijab, and the traditions are also similar,“ said 26 years old Algerian Soraya. She added: “Many aspects attract the viewers: the beauty of the actors and the places, their fashionable dresses, and the fact that they are dubbed in the Syrian dialect, which in Algeria is considered the most beautiful and prestigious one.”
Despite receiving criticism by some religious dignitaries calling the shows “un-Islamic” for its “immoral” characters and stories, their success was immediate. Everything started with Gümüş or Noor in 2008, which quickly attracted a large audience. Its Arabic finale was viewed by 85 million people.
The series was aired by the Saudi-owned satellite channel MBC. But it was censored from the start. Soraya: “All of a sudden, actors start speaking about an unrelated topic, or are found in a new setting. It is because they censor everything related to sex.”
The TV series have also become a soft power tool for Turkey to use in the region.
The TV series have also become a soft power tool for Turkey to use in the region. Soap operas have helped spread the country’s culture in the Arab world, and increase Turkish influence at a time when the outspoken diplomacy also gains a lot of support. Turkey is in. “Following these series,” said Soraya, “Algerians have started traveling to Turkey. Everybody dreams of spending their honeymoon there, and wants to take a picture in front of Noor’s villa”. The house she speaks about has now been converted into a museum in Istanbul, attracting thousands of Arab tourists. In 2008 alone, 70,000 Saudis made a cultural pilgrimage to the place.
Turkish actors have turned into regional pop-idols with their pictures invading the Arab press.
Besides superseding the Latin American series, Turkish soap operas even started to take over the well-known American TV shows. As a result, Turkish actors have turned into regional pop-idols with their pictures invading the Arab press. The new wave of series has appealed to many, who did not find it difficult switching to the Turkish brand of soap operas. Tia, a 55 years old Lebanese woman said: “I was immediately fascinated by these series. I first saw Noor when it was aired for the first time, and I have watched every new serial since then”.