Turkish TV series have become widely popular in recent years, and have conquered audiences in the Balkans and the Middle East. Since 2014, the craze has spread to Latin America where telenovelas have been replaced with Turkish soap operas and where parents even name their children after the stars of the shows. 

By Özlem Sakin

As of 2015, Turkey became the second-highest exporter of TV series abroad, after the US. With support from the government, the local industry plans to gain $2 billion from cultural products exports by 2023. According to the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TİM), the value of Turkish soap opera exports — only around $10,000 back in 2004 — had increased to $200 million by 2014. In 2015, Turkish dramas were watched in more than 70 countries with total exports reaching around $250 million-$300 million. After enjoying great success in the Middle East, Balkans, and Turkic countries for more than a decade now, the Turkish soap addiction has spread to Latin America.

Muhteşem Yüzyıl (The Magnificent Century) depicts the life of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century, and became a major success. The show was broadcast in 43 countries and reached over 200 million viewers. Other exported productions included Aşk-ı Memnu (Forbidden Love), Binbir Gece (One Thousand and One Nights) and Diriliş: Ertuğrul (Resurrection: Ertuğrul) to name just a the most well-known few.

The popularity of Turkish soap operas also brought fame to various Turkish actresses and actors abroad. Halit Ergenç, the lead actor in the The Magnificent Century, drew thousands of fans to galas, festivals, and award shows abroad. Tuba Büyüküstün, the star of Kara Para Aşk (Black Money Love) has a huge fan base in the Middle East, Greece, and even Yemen. According to the International Movie Database (IMDB), she has a wider following abroad than in her own country – unusual for a TV star. 

Drama, drama, drama

So how did Turkish soap operas come to replace the Latin American telenovelas of the ‘90s? If one thing is certain, it’s that not all kinds of productions work abroad – only the dramas that have been exported were successful. The two main trends are dramas about the Istanbul elite class, and historical dramas, not comedies or action series. Selin Arat, Director of International Operations of TİMS Productions, told The Guide Istanbul that the main reason behind the craze for Turkish TV series—not only in Latin America but everywhere—is that Turkey is a unique country in terms of geography, blending the East and the West. It is a place with multiple colors and various contradictions both visually, socio-culturally, historically and ethnologically, and this affects the richness of the stories. 

The success of The Magnificent Century is easy to understand, as the fight for the throne is a global phenomenon with various historical and fantasy series such as Game of Thrones and The Tudors drawing huge audiences. However, although Turks usually know something of life in the time of the Ottomans, the world of Ottoman palaces had never before been reflected on TV in the Eastern World as gloriously as it has been on The Magnificent Century. The splendor of the palace, the attempted poisonings, colorful gowns, the lust and greed, sparked intense interest in all things Ottoman – hence the craze in the Middle East and the Balkans, former Ottoman lands. 

The so-called obsession with the series even resulted in an exhibition titled “The Magnificent Century: The Exhibition.” Organized by TİMS productions and IEG Exhibitions, it took place at Uniq Istanbul last year, spreading over 2,400 square meters and featuring costumes, ornaments, jewelry, and decor. 

What’s wrong with Turkish comedies, then? Nothing! According to Serhat Çakılıoğlu, the Assistant Director of Yalan Dünya, a renowned Turkish sitcom, which aired on ATV between 2012-2014, “Turkish comedy includes a lot of puns, which cannot be directly translated, and also sitcoms. People who are not familiar with the culture can neither understand nor identify with them, and the same success cannot be achieved.”

Forbidden Love

Target: Latin America 

While Turkish soap operas continue conquering different markets such as Latin America, sales to Middle East and North Africa – which had the highest figures just a few years ago, have plummeted. One of the main reasons is political tension and ongoing clashes along with deteriorating economies and welfare in many countries in the region. Also, since Turkish soap operas have been distributed to the Arabic speaking world for over a decade now, local competition and local production focusing around similar themes have emerged.

Yet, the future still looks bright, as the focus shifts to Latin America. In March 2014, Binbir Gece became the first Turkish soap opera shown in Latin America, broadcast in Chile – reversing a decades-old trend of Latin American telenovelas airing in Turkey. The debut episode attracted millions to the TV screens, achieving higher ratings than Latin American dramas airing at the same time on other channels, according to The Atlantic newspaper. The show’s stars, especially Halit Ergenç, became a major success in Chile.

This conquest seems like it will continue: ITV Inter Media has made a deal with the Latin American Telemundo Internacional for an adaptation of Kızım nerede? Can Okan, president and CEO of ITV Inter Media, confirmed the deal in an interview with Television Business International. 

What is behind the craze in Latin America, a land thousands of miles away, for Turkish TV? “I believe the sentimental, emotional world of Latin American resembles ours; we experience our emotions at the highest level, something deemed ‘exaggerated’ by Western countries. It is the same reason as the telenovela phenomena in Turkey in ‘80s and ‘90s,” Arat told The Guide Istanbul. 

Filiz Üstün Durak of Roka Film, one of Turkey’s biggest production houses, said that while Turkish productions are Western in terms of production, the stories are more attractive for Latin American audiences than the works created by its northern neighbor, the US. “I believe if no major changes take place in content and production, this trend is to continue in 2016 and years to follow,” said Durak. 

Game of Silence