From Dubai To Chile, Turkish Series Expand Their Empire

Pictures by Ozan Kose. Video by Ionut Iordachescu

In the skies above Istanbul’s Tophane neighbourhood, seagulls are sent scattering by a drone that’s filming a policeman arresting a young woman on the streets below.

But it’s for a television series called “Degenler”, one of about 60 filmed annually in Turkey that have made Istanbul and other Turkish cities familiar to viewers in nearly 170 countries around the world.

Over the past 15 years, Turkey has established itself as the foremost exporter of series after the United States and Britain.

“Latin Americans find Turkish series very close to their culture,” said Erdi Isik, development manager at Ay Yapim — Turkey’s leading exporter last year and whose production “Yargi” (“Family Secrets”) last November won an International Emmy for best telenovela.

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“When I show samples to a panel, even if they don’t understand a word of Turkish, they catch what it is about because the family culture is very much the same,” he said.

Censorship constraints in Turkey also provide more modest material, important for audiences in the Middle East and Spanish-speaking countries who are accustomed to watching soap operas as a family.

However, “we think of the Turkish market first,” he said, even though “we pick actors that can fit international expectations”, citing a list of about 20 actors that appeal to the public outside Turkey.

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“Bitter Lands”, another success story, won best telenovela of the year in South America in 2020 with its lead actress likewise crowned.

Long popular in the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans, all once ruled by the Ottoman Empire, Turkish series about history, family intrigues and thwarted love stories are now present on every continent, even in the United States where they have captured the Hispanic market.

“They are now broadcast in prime-time in Spain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt,” said Xavier Rambert, head of research and marketing at Glance, an audience measurement company in London, who praises the “effectiveness” of Turkish productions.

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“Their ability to provide masses of content at very controlled costs makes it possible to fill the programmes at reasonable prices,” he added.

In total, nearly 700 million viewers enjoy “alla turca” telenovelas, according to the Turkish culture ministry.

The success is also due to the quality of the productions, said Ozlem Ozsumbul, sales director at Madd, the company which distributes series produced by Ay Yapim. “We always shoot on location”, she said.

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Each episode is written and shot from one week to the next, based on a general plot which evolves to adjust to the audience. A two-hour episode can be entirely written, shot and produced in six days.

Characters can be ejected, or minimised. Only the biggest stars are guaranteed up to 15 episodes, Ozsumbul said.

But while “TV series are produced for TVs in Turkey, they cannot recover their costs from airing in Turkey” alone, said Ozlem Ozdemir, founder of Episode magazine, which covers Turkish TV shows.

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Productions are therefore adapted to the international market. “Our system is unique as we shoot about two-and-a-half hours every week. And then, we re-edit for the foreign market to adjust the commercials,” said Ahmet Ziyalar, co-founder of Inter Medya and CEO of Inter Yapim.

A weekly episode of 90 to 120 minutes in Turkey can be converted into three 45-minute episodes broadcast daily in Latin America.

Meanwhile, Ziyalar has launched a so-called “New Generation” series of eight to 12 episodes intended only for streaming platforms.

“They are shorter, faster, bolder, and sexier — less concerned about the censorship. They are also more artistic,” he summarised.

This is why the heroine of the series “Degenler”, whose arrest was filmed by drone in the Tophane neighbourhood, does not hesitate to hurl pro-Kurdish slogans at the police officer who stopped her.

“We can be more political when we produce for a platform,” screenwriter Sarp Kalfaoglu said. “Degenler” will be streamed in Turkey by Gain.

“We think these new-generation series can find a place on the international market as well as the mainstream series we will keep producing,” insisted Can Okan, CEO of Inter Medya, who will soon present them at international festival Series Mania in Lille, France.

Okan said he recently reached an agreement with Colombian broadcaster Caracol for a series of 120 episodes in Spanish.

“We know (President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan is not always happy with our contents, but he doesn’t say anything, as we bring in a lot of money,” said Erdi Isik.

As well as a lot of tourists.


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