Soap power: The sweeping success of Turkish television series

  • Beamed onto TV screens across the Middle East, the Balkans and beyond, modern Turkish culture – particularly in the form of soap operas – has never been so popular. Indeed, Turkish soaps have been held responsible by many for the rise of the country’s “soft power” – and for surging tourism to Turkey, as fans come to visit the haunts of their TV heroes.

    The soap’s financials are far from soft, too. In 2011, Turkey earned $60m-plus from exporting over 100 television series to more than 20 countries.

    SILVER LINING: The soap phenomenon is widely credited as starting with “ Gümüfl” (“Silver” in English). This soap opera received a lukewarm reception in Turkey itself and aired for only two years, between 2005 and 2007.

    Yet Saudi media tycoon Sheik Waleed Al Ibrahim’s MBC, the Dubai-based, pan-Arab television network, clearly saw more promise in the drama’s plotlines. The network bought rebroadcast rights, renaming the series “Noor” in Arabic. The Arab world was thus introduced to, and got quickly hooked on, the series.

    The soap portrays a modern Turkish lifestyle, with the drama revolving around the title character, a self-reliant woman who confidently runs a business, and her devoted and handsome husband, Muhannad. They are both pious in observing Muslim traditions, such as Ramadan, yet also drink, the women generally do not wear headscarves and sexual subjects are also portrayed.

    Yet this does not seem to have put off Arab audiences. MBC began broadcasting “Noor” to the Arab world in early 2008, with the final episode in August that year attracting 85m viewers, from Morocco to Palestine, according to Variety magazine. One of the main reasons cited for the broad success of “Noor” among Arab audiences is that, instead of dubbing the shows in classical Arabic, as had been the norm for other foreign (mostly Latin American) soaps, MBC used a conversational dialect of Syrian Arabic that is readily understood by most Middle Eastern viewers. The resounding success of “Noor” then unleashed a tidal wave of Turkish melodramas onto television screens across the region.

    These feature conspiracy thrillers and crime dramas such as “Kurtlar Vadisi” (“Valley of the Wolves”), “Asmalı Konak” (“The Mansion with Vines”) and “Yaprak Dökümü” (“The Fall of the Leaves”). Indeed, Turkish television stars such as Murat Yıldırım and Tuba Büyüküstün, the leading characters of “Asi” (“Rebellious”), an adaption of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, have reached instant celebrity status in the Arab world.

    BALKAN SUCCESS: Turkish soaps have also taken Balkan audiences by storm. The Balkan craze for Turkish soap operas arguably started in 2010, when the television series “Binbir Gece” (“A Thousand and One Nights”) became a primetime hit in Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia, as well as in Romania, Albania and Greece. Following on this success, in 2011, Bulgaria bought 27 Turkish soap operas, according to Bulgarian National Radio. To date, Turkey has sold 70 soap operas to 39 countries in the Balkans, the Caucasus region and the Middle East. At 42, Kazakhstan is the biggest buyer of Turkish soaps, followed by Bulgaria with 27, Azerbaijan with 23 and Macedonia with 17.

    In Turkey itself, recent top-rated series include edgier fare such as the steamy “ Aşk-› Memnu” (“Forbidden Love”) and the period drama “ Muhteşem Yüzyıl” (“The Magnificent Century”). Based on the life of the 16thcentury Suleiman the Magnificent, “ Muhteşem Yüzyıl” has been credited with increasing Turkish interest in Ottoman history, while also attracting the eye of international channels – it is set to be distributed in 40 countries, 22 of which are in the Middle East.

    Turkish soaps have also attracted a degree of controversy, sparking debate among Arab viewers. MBC’s airing of “Cry of a Stone” (“Sarkhet Hajar” in Arabic), for example, depicts the daily life of Palestinians under Israeli occupation – while including a love story between an Israeli Shin Bet officer and a young Palestinian.

    The soaps have sparked a swift and dramatic surge in Arab and Balkan tourism to Turkey. These days, indeed, fans can even charter a boat to catch a glimpse of the waterfront villa where the series “Noor” was filmed.