Dramatic television series have enthralled Turkish audiences over the past few decades; immortalizing old Istanbul neighborhoods and paving the way for the many Turkish shows which are now international hits.
By Zeynep Ardağ
Turkey’s success in producing and exporting TV series began growing steadily nearly two decades ago and accelerated in the last decade. Today, Turkish television series are exported to more than 140 countries and bring in an annual income of over 350 million USD, making Turkey the second largest TV series exporter in the world after the United States.
Despite the common belief that TV broadcasts in Turkey started with the state-owned channel TRT in the late 1960s, the first broadcasts actually took place due to the efforts of İstanbul Technical University (İTÜ) that founded İTÜ TV in the 1950s. “By then İTÜ TV was broadcasting three days a week and each broadcast was lasting only two hours,” Turkish TV producer Türker İnanoğlu, who witnessed those historic events, told The Guide Istanbul. TRT made its first test transmissions on 31 January, 1968 and, just like İTÜ TV, it was broadcasting only three days a week for a few hours.
Ayşe Kökçü, who became one of the most popular TV stars of the 80s and 90s, was thirteen years old in 1968, and was one of the lucky ones who had a television in their house back in those days. “My father was so much into new things and technology, therefore he bought a TV as soon as TRT started its test broadcasts. Of course, as Turkish broadcasts were very limited per week, we were watching the programs of the Bulgarian, Greek, and Russian channels, with a huge antenna,” recalled Kökçü. Television played an important social role as the neighbors, relatives, and friends often used to come to their house just to watch TV.
The first Turkish television series was Kaynanalar (Mother-in-Laws) first aired in 1974. It was a black and white sitcom, telling the story of Nuri Kantar and his family, who had immigrated to a big city from Anatolia, and their comic adventures as they tried to adapt to city life. With 950 episodes in 30 years, Kaynanalar still holds the record for the longest running series in Turkish TV history.
In the mid 70s the industry began producing short TV dramas for TRT which were adapted from Turkish literary classics. The most notable was Aşk-ı Memnu (Forbidden Love) directed by Halit Refiğ in 1975 as a six episode mini series. Although Aşk-ı Memnu gained international fame and became a cult series with its remake in 2008, its black and white version in 1975, starring Müjde Ar as Bihter, remains unforgettable among its audience from that era.
A New Year’s Eve entertainment program on 31 December, 1981 was TRT’s first trial of color broadcasting and in 1984 the broadcasts became fully colored. In those years, when the production of original Turkish contents were limited, TRT was airing American soap operas such as Dallas, The Fugitive, Little House on the Prairie, The Golden Girls, and Latin American telenovelas like Isaura the Slave Girl and Marianna. These series became a social craze: everyone was talking about JR’s next evil move; Turkish women rushed to the hairdressers to get the same hairstyle as Marianna. “On the days when The Fugitive and Dallas were aired, all the streets were empty as if going out was banned. Everybody was in their houses watching these series, including me,” said Türker İnanoğlu with a smile.
“Perihan Abla” was the game changer in Turkish TV drama history right after its debut in 1986. According to sociology professor Hülya Uğur Tanrıöve, who has researched Turkish TV and its effects on the society, Perihan Abla was a stone thrown into still water; Perihan Abla’s impact rippled out to inspire an entire genre of mahalle (neighborhood) television series that were to follow in the next two decades.
The show told the story of Perihan, who had to look after her two siblings after their parents passed away. She also helped solve other people’s problems in Kuzguncuk, the old neighborhood of Istanbul on the Asian side where the series was set. “It was so real and a great reflection of Turkish people’s lives,” said the actress Sevinç Erbulak, who became a young star in the 90s with another mahalle TV series Süper Baba. She was only eleven years old when Perihan Abla was first aired. “My heart used to beat fast when I heard the jingle of Perihan Abla. As soon as anyone heard the first note of that jingle, all heads were turning towards the TV and no matter what we were doing at that moment, no matter how important that thing was, it used to remain undone until we finished watching Perihan Abla,” recalled Erbulak.
Towards the end of the 1980s, the TV series Bizimkiler captured relationships between a group of residents in an apartment in Istanbul’s Suadiye district. From the grumpy old apartment manager Sabri who interferes everyone’s business, to the ideal mother figure Nazan, from the opportunist doorman Cafer, to the curious and gossipy Cemil, the residents were realistic representations of common characters. Strong bonds between them reflected the importance of good neighborly relations in Turkish culture.
“Let’s say you ran out of lemon in the house, in the past you could easily ring your neighbor’s door and ask for a lemon. Or let’s say you made a special meal in your house, you would take a plate of that meal to your neighbor. But unfortunately nowadays those kind of neighborhood relationships don’t exist anymore. Some people don’t even know who lives next door,” said Ayşe Kökçü, who played the ideal mother character in Bizimkiler.
With 495 episodes in 13 years, Bizimkiler was one of the longest running series in Turkish TV history. “When we started shooting the series, we had never thought that it would last this long,” admitted Kökçü. “In fact, we received a lot of criticism from the Turkish media saying that the series was flowing so slowly, with even a simple breakfast scene taking nearly 15 minutes! They drew comics about this issue, but finally Bizimkiler became one of the [most loved] cult TV series ever shot in Turkey.”
New channels, higher quality
State-owned TRT’s monopoly ended with the launch of Star TV in 1990, which was the first ever private channel in Turkey. “During TRT’s monopoly, the audience was watching whatever TRT was broadcasting whether it was good or bad. With the launch of the private channels, competition came into play and TV channels began to produce higher quality content in order to compete with each other,” argued İnanoğlu, who became the partner and the manager of ATV in 1994. He supported the mahalle tv genre by releasing “Mahallenin Muhtarları,” as well as “Süper Baba” starring Şevket Altuğ as the perfect father, Fiko.
Süper Baba was mostly set in Çengelköy, where fans used to flock to visit the set. “The love for Süper Baba was so huge that the fans would somehow manage to learn the shooting locations,” recalled actress Sevinç Erbulak, who played Fiko’s eldest daughter in the series. She says that Çengelköy still retains the same local atmosphere it had 25 years ago. “The shop that sells household appliances, the herbal shop, the pharmacy across from the herbal shop, and many other shops are still there, with the same shop owners, and whenever they see me they still stop to have a chat with me,” said Erbulak.
In the late 90s, mahalle television was represented by “İkinci Bahar”, starring two divas of Turkish cinema: Türkan Şoray and Şener Şen. The main setting was the previously forgotten Samatya neighborhood, which thanks to the show has changed its fate. The series told the story of Ali Haydar, a widower kebab restaurant owner who falls in love with Hanım, his mezze chef, and the restaurants where the series was filmed became must-visit locations.
By the 2000s, Turkish series began to shift towards a different genre where love stories or luxurious lifestyles became the dominant themes. An early example was “Yabancı Damat” (The Foreign Groom), which was about the relationship between a young Greek man Niko and a Turkish girl Nazlı, and the problems they encountered in an intercultural marriage. Its comedic tone and play on historic Greco-Turkish antagonism made it a huge hit in both Turkey and Greece.
“Yabancı Damat was the first Turkish series that was exported and it brought 3.5 million Euros income,” said Türker İnanoğlu, who produced Yabancı Damat. İnanoğlu recalls that during one of his trips to Greece, Dimitris Avramopoulos, who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, invited him to his office and congratulated him. “Avramopoulos told me ‘With just one tv series you achieved what neither we the politicians nor the writers and businessmen could achieve. You almost finished Greco-Turkish antagonism, because even my staff in the office watches Yabancı Damat every Monday and they keep saying we began to love the Turks’. So he thanked me and gave me an award,” said İnanoğlu.
Actress Sevinç Erbulak thinks that Turkish series changed a lot in the 2000s. Not only did the duration of episodes often reach the length of a feature film but they also became more commercial due to the changing demands of the modern world. “The world is now inside our mobile phones. When people are watching TV series they don’t pay much attention to the plot or the editing aesthetics, but rather look at the clothes, accessories….etc. That’s why television had to adapt and became a [commercial] platform,” explained Erbulak.