Shows such as Magnificent Century have come to rival US TV for international popularity, sweeping through the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. What explains their global success? By
‘The first agreement we should make is: don’t call them soap operas,” Dr Arzu Ozturkmen, who teaches oral history at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, scolds me. “We are very much against this.” What Turkey produces for television are not soap operas, or telenovelas, or period dramas: they are dizi. They are a “genre in progress”, declares Ozturkmen, with unique narratives, use of space and musical scores. And they are very, very popular.
Thanks to international sales and global viewership, Turkey is second only to the US in worldwide TV distribution – finding huge audiences in Russia, China, Korea and Latin America. At present, Chile is the largest consumer of dizi in terms of number of shows sold, while Mexico, then Argentina, pay the most to buy them.
Dizi are sweeping epics, with each episode usually running to two hours or longer. Advertising time is cheap in Turkey and the state broadcasting watchdog mandates that every 20 minutes of content be broken up by seven minutes of commercials. Every dizi has its own original soundtrack, and can have up to 50 major characters. They tend to be filmed on location in the heart of historic Istanbul, using studios only when they must.
Dizi storylines, which have covered everything from gang rape to scheming Ottoman queens, are “Dickens and the Brontë sisters”, I am told by Eset, a young Istanbul screenwriter and film-maker. “We tell at least two versions of the Cinderella story per year on Turkish TV. Sometimes Cinderella is a 35-year-old single woman with a child; sometimes she’s a 22-year-old starving actress.” Eset, who worked on perhaps the most famous dizi, Magnificent Century, recounts the narrative themes that dizi are usually loyal to:
- You can’t put a gun in your hero’s hand.
- The centre of any drama is the family.
- An outsider will always journey into a socio-economic setting that is the polar opposite of their own, eg moving from a village to the city.
- The heart-throb has had his heart broken and is tragically closed to love.
- Nothing beats a love triangle.
Dizi are built, Eset insists, on the altar of “communal yearning”, both for the audience and the characters. “We want to see the good guy with the good girl, but, dammit, life is bad and there are bad characters around.”
According to Izzet Pinto, the founder of the Istanbul-based Global Agency, which bills itself as the “world’s leading independent TV content distributor for global markets”, the upward course of dizi imperialism began with 2006’s Binbir Gece (1001 Nights). At the time, another Turkish show, Gümüs (Silver), was already a hit in the Middle East, but it was 1001 Nights that became a truly global success. Wherever 1001 Nights was sold – in almost 80 countries – it was a ratings smash.
The show featured a blue-eyed Turkish dreamboat, Halit Ergenç, who would go on to star in the lead role of Magnificent Century. Based on the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, the 10th Ottoman Sultan, Magnificent Century told the story of the sultan’s love affair with a concubine named Hurrem, whom he married, in a major break with tradition. A largely unknown historical figure, Hurrem is believed to have been an Orthodox Christian from modern-day Ukraine.
When it first aired in Turkey in 2011, Magnificent Century claimed one-third of the country’s TV audience. The foreign press called it an “Ottoman-era Sex and the City” and compared it to a real-life Game of Thrones. It had multiple historical consultants and a production team of 130, with 25 people working on costumes alone.
Magnificent Century was so popular in the Middle East that Arab tourism to Istanbul skyrocketed. Turkey’s minister of culture and tourism even stopped charging certain Arab countries broadcasting fees. Global Agency estimates that, even without counting its most recent buyers in Latin America, Magnificent Century has been seen by more than 500 million people worldwide. It was the first dizi bought by Japan. Since 2002, about 150 Turkish dizi have been sold to more than 100 countries, including Algeria, Morocco and Bulgaria. It was Magnificent Century that blazed the way for others to follow.
The international success of such dizi is just one sign of the way new forms of mass culture from the east – from Bollywood to K-pop – are challenging the dominance of American pop culture in the 21st century. Ergenç feels that the runaway success of the dizi is partly due to the fact that American TV is entertaining, but not moving. “They don’t touch the feelings that make us human,” he tells me, nursing a cold cup of coffee, when we meet in Istanbul. Turkey’s gaze was once keenly turned to the west, studying its films and television for clues about how to behave in a modern, fast-paced world, but today, American shows offer little guidance.
“I was thinking of one American TV series – let’s not say its name. The philosophy of the series was being lonely. Being, um … ” – he searches for the polite word – “multi-partner at the same time, and searching for happiness. And all the people who were watching those series were very excited about it.” I can only guess he is referring to Sex and the City, but Ergenç doesn’t say. “That’s a tiring thing, isn’t it? Being alone, changing partners quickly and searching for happiness, and each time you search for it, it’s a failure. But it was in a very fancy world, so people were very interested. They’re spending and spending – spending their time, spending their love, spending everything.”
The dizi that became global behemoths were powered by narratives that pitted traditional values and principles against the emotional and spiritual corruption of the modern world. Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne? (What Is Fatmagül’s Fault?) centered on the gang rape of a young girl named Fatmagül and her battle for justice. It was a huge hit in Argentina, and in Spain its primetime slot drew close to a million viewers per episode. Fatmagül is soon to get a full Spanish telenovela remake, adapted to a daily, half-hour afternoon format.
The show addresses a woman’s place in society, while subjecting her to myriad problems, from forced marriage to tense family relations to the suffocating power of the rich. But Fatmagül perseveres. She educates herself and defeats every hardship as she fights for, and receives, justice on all fronts: civil justice through the nation’s courts, divine justice through the punishment of her violators – and, of course, the justice of true love.
Although dizi have dealt with abuse, rape and honour killings, by and large, Turkish men are portrayed as more romantic than Romeo. “They show people what they want to see,” Pinar Celikel, an Istanbul fashion editor tells me. “It’s not real.” Yet Eset argued that Fatmagül was groundbreaking in its approach to women’s issues. Previously, agents of change and the heroes of dizi stories were always men, but “Fatmagül didn’t accept women’s place as being subjugated, almost invisible”.
It was such a persuasive vehicle for soft power that in 2012, Eset was hired by a “Republican American thinktank” to write a dizi telling the “good American story” of a woman in the Middle East out to enact positive change, “a woman who softens America’s image”. Eset declines to say which thinktank commissioned him, except to hint that a former Bush administration undersecretary was involved with the institute. “I wrote it,” Eset shrugs as he rolls a cigarette. “But they weren’t able to sell it.”
I am standing in the drizzle in a bleak parking lot on the Asian side of Istanbul in front of a white van. A man named Ferhat hands me a Glock 19 pistol. It is the same model Turkish soldiers use, he says, as he swings open the van doors. Inside, there is a rocket-launcher lying on the floor and about 60 other weapons hanging on racks. Ferhat, who is ex-military, pulls out a “bad guy rifle” – an AK-47 – and a sniper rifle. Men in military uniform prowl across the parking lot. All around us there are street signs in Arabic and extras in cheap suits.
We are on the set of Söz (The Oath), a new show made by Tims Productions, the company behind Magnificent Century. They are filming episode 38. A demolition expert saunters by, chatting to a man in a balaclava while an actor rehearses a scene, holding a rifle in each hand. Söz is a military dizi – a new sub-genre that is sweeping the nation. Although it is too early to have a sense of its global effect, Söz has already received remake offers from faraway markets including Mexico. Tims has always had an international outlook, I am told. They tried to cast Hollywood stars for Magnificent Century, and were reportedly close to signing Demi Moore to play a European princess until her divorce from Ashton Kutcher got in the way.
Of the five major channels in Turkey, each has one of these “soldier-glorifying” shows, Eset the screenwriter tells me later, and all the shows are “zeitgeist-relevant”. The baddies are either “internal enemies” or foreign villains. Söz takes place in a Turkey beset by violence and existential threats. Soldiers are everywhere, blazing through the wreckage of suicide bombings at shopping malls and hunting terrorists who are hard at work kidnapping pregnant women. In the first episode, after an attack on a mall, a soldier promises they will not rest until “we drain this swamp” – an eerily familiar refrain.
After more than 100 hours of watching dizi, Söz was the first one in which I saw a woman wearing a hijab. The father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, later renamed Atatürk, famously declared that he wished “all religions [were] at the bottom of the sea”. He removed Islam as the state religion from the constitution and banned the fez, which he described as emblematic of “hatred of progress and civilization”. The veil – which Atatürk lambasted as a “spectacle that makes the nation an object of ridicule” – did not fare much better. By the 1980s, women in all public institutions, including universities, were banned from covering their heads.
Five minutes on the streets of Istanbul presents multiple encounters with women in headscarves, yet they are nowhere to be seen on screen. “They tried it,” Eset says, “but even the conservative folks don’t like to see conservative women on TV. You can’t get them to kiss, to stand up to their fathers, to run away, to do very much at all that would be considered drama.” Women in hijabs are almost never shown in television adverts, the journalist and novelist Ece Temelkuran tells me. Her diagnosis was clear: “This country is torn between these two pieces of cloth – flag and headscarf.”
Back on the Söz set, as we move upstairs to a cold office building to watch a man pick up a phone for an hour while the demolition guys shoot glass windows in the corridor, I tell Selin Arat – director of international operations at Tims, and my guide for the day – that I watched an episode of Söz the previous night. Every time I looked down at my notebook, I explain, by the time I looked up again, everyone in the scene seemed to have been murdered. Who are the terrorists supposed to be? Arat, a delicate, strawberry-blond woman in a business suit, laughs. “It would be life-threatening if we knew who they were,” she jokes.
Whoever the terrorists are, Söz is a hit. “It’s the first Turkish show that has surpassed one million subscribers on YouTube,” Arat notes proudly. Selling Söz outside Turkey may prove tougher, though. “We do want this show to be global,” says Timur Savcı, the founder of Tims Productions. “But right now not many countries are really interested in watching Turkish soldiers be glorified.” He pauses and smiles. “The US always makes shows and, at the end, they say: ‘God bless America.’ Well, God bless Turkey!”
Savcı sits at his desk in the Levent district of Istanbul, as five TVs, all tuned to different channels, illuminate his spacious office. He sets the tone for the dizi industry at large and, today, he is preparing an English adaptation of Magnificent Century. He is not the least bit interested in taking American shows and remaking them in Turkish. “We are just making originals. It’s better!” he says with a big laugh.
Dizi have yet to penetrate the English-speaking world. That could be because audiences in the US and UK don’t like to watch subtitled shows, Savcı muses, “or it could be the fact that this is about an Islamic state at the end of the day.” I ask if that is something Tims would tone down in the English version of Magnificent Century? Savcı, a jaunty, jovial man, shakes his head. “It’s important to remember that, at the time, the Ottoman Empire was the superpower of the world. What the US is now to the world is what the Ottoman was. If people look at it from this perspective, they would understand it more, but if they don’t know this, they would feel threatened.”
Turks have been watching quality US TV since the 1970s. Turkish actors, such as Mert Fırat, told me they learned all their chops from the likes of Dallas and Dynasty. That was where they learned to emote, and to perform the melodrama that dizi require. But there was something lacking, something fundamental missing from those early guides to how to be rich and powerful in the modern world.
Kivanç Tatlıtuğ, the star of the hit dizi Gümüs, among others, doesn’t feel it is necessarily a question of values or conservatism, but empathy. Over email, he told me why he thinks audiences around the world are turning to dizi over western productions. “Most of these audiences feel that their everyday stories are ‘underexplored’ by Hollywood and Europe,” Tatlıtuğ wrote. “This is ultimately a matter of diversity in storytelling. I understand the appeal of a story like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, these are both amazing TV shows. However, some people may also feel disenfranchised from these Hollywood themes, and may want to watch a story they can empathise with.”
“Disappearing family values are not concerns for the west,” Eset says. “For the past four years or so, 40% of the most-watched Turkish shows have been remakes of Korean dramas,” he says, pointing out that the Koreans have been swifter than the Turks at penetrating the Latin American market. “Korea is also a country that gives great importance to family, but in the west, the romantic notion of those good old family values is gone.”
At the time of our meeting, Eset is working with a Turkish-American production house, Karga 7, which has global ambitions for their shows.“When I talk to people about Turkish TV series,” he tells me, “mainly they are taken by this romantic notion of family where everyone is trying to cherish one another. The dangers are external, and socio-economic class plays a great role in the love story of the poor boy loving a rich girl, or vice versa. Normally a story like this in the west would be treated through an individual’s journey, where there is more sex, there is more violence, there are drugs.” Turkish TV has less of that. He points out that the couple in Fatmagül don’t kiss until about episode 58.
In August 2017 in Beirut, I speak to Fadi Ismail, the general manager of the Middle East Broadcasting Center’s subsidiary O3 Productions, and the person responsible for bringing Turkish television to the Middle East. “To brag a bit,” Ismail corrects me with a laugh, “I’m the one who opened Turkish culture through TV to the whole world.” MBC is the biggest broadcaster in the Middle East and North Africa, home to almost 400 million people. MBC has a news channel, a children’s channel, a women’s channel, a Bollywood channel and a 24-hour drama channel on which it broadcasts Egyptian soaps, Korean dramas and Latin American telenovelas.
In 2007, Ismail went to a buyer’s cinema festival in Turkey and chanced upon a tiny kiosk showing a local television series. “I stopped and watched it, not understanding anything,” he remembers. “But immediately I could visualise it as Arabic content. I replaced it in my mind with Arabic audio and everything else looked culturally, socially – even the food, the clothes, everything for me looked like us, and I thought: ‘Eureka!’”
Ismail bought a Turkish series for his channel. He doesn’t remember the name of that first show, because they had already hit on the formula of giving everything – the title, the characters – new Arabic names. “Every one of these titles had ‘love’ in it, so I stopped differentiating. Love Something, Blue Love, Long Love, Short Love, Killing Love.” Gümüs – renamed Noor for the Middle East market – was the first big hit.
Although the Egyptians had traditionally been known for their cinema, they also dominated TV across the region until Syria took over in the 1990s. Syrian actors were renowned for their dramatic and comedic skills. Their directors were artists. Talented scriptwriters produced shows of quality with substantial state help. The government poured money into the television industry, providing auteurs with cameras, equipment, state subsidies and permission to film in Syria’s historic sites. But then the war broke out and the country’s bright promise flickered. It was at this moment, Ismail says, that the Turks were ready to move in.
As Syrian dramas had already become a “pan-Arab phenomenon”, MBC decided to dub all the Turkish dramas they bought into the Syrian Arabic dialect. “That is one of the reasons for their huge success,” Ismail concludes. “We dubbed the Turkish dramas with the most prevalent and established drama accent: Syrian.” Before Turkish dramas flooded Middle Eastern screens, people in Lebanon watched Mexican and Brazilian telenovelas. Though they were popular, they eventually ran out of steam for two reasons. The first was language. Telenovelas were dubbed into fusha, a standardised literary Arabic that is understood from Iraq to Sudan, and is used in newspapers, magazines and newscasts. Free from local accents and slang particular to each country, it is a formal, classical Arabic.
The second was a question of values. “The Mexicans really did not resemble us at all,” says Imane Mezher, the format distribution and licensing coordinator of iMagic, a Beirut-based TV production company. iMagic makes Arabs Got Talent and the Middle East version of the X Factor, and experiments with new formats such as World Bellydance Championship, and an Islamically approved Extreme Makeover in which contestants don’t alter God’s design out of vanity, but have reconstructive surgery due to life-threatening issues.
Mezher shakes her head at the memory of the telenovelas. “You have a daughter and you don’t know who her father is, you don’t know who the mother is. The stories were moral-free. At the end of the day, like it or not, we like things to be a little more conservative. The Turks are amazing at that. They are the real mix: the European freedom that everyone longs for and, at the same time, the problems are conservative, the same we face. The people have the same names as us, the same stories as us, and people love that.”
Yet over the past 18 months, the international reach of Turkish TV has been significantly curtailed. At 1am, Saudi Arabian time on 2 March 2018, MBC took dizi off the air. Six dizi were pulled, at a cost to MBC of $25m. “There is a decision to remove all Turkish drama from several TV outlets in the region,” the channel’s spokesman said. “I can’t confirm who took the decision.”
Since 2015, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had been in negotiations to buy MBC, but found the $3bn asking price too high. In November 2017, MBS, as he is known, arrested most of MBC’s board and shareholders as part of what was billed as an anti-corruption sweep. After an 83-day stay in a luxury jail, MBC’s founder Waleed bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim, a Saudi businessman whose sister was married to a former king, was released. His company now had a secret new majority owner, whose first order of business was to cancel all of MBC’s dizi programming.
Before then, the Middle East and North Africa region accounted for the largest international consumption of dizi. Magnificent Century was advertised alongside Game of Thrones and Oprah in Dubai, while Ece Yörenç – Fatmagül’s scriptwriter – was asked by Saudi Arabia to write TV series for its local channels, and rumours circulated of princes and politicians inquiring after show plotlines during state visits to Turkey. It is possible that this kind of Turkish soft power irked MBS. And it is certain that he was infuriated by Turkey’s brazen flouting of his 2017 blockade of Qatar. Thus, in March 2018, MBS accused Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of trying to build a new “Ottoman caliphate”, included Turkey in what he bizarrely called a “triangle of evil”, and swiftly erased dizi from Middle Eastern TV.
It is impossible to separate politics, both internal and geopolitical, from dizi’s upward momentum. Erdoğan himself was famously antagonistic to Magnificent Century, finding it too risque and not sufficiently versed in true Ottoman history. His government withdrew permission for its producers to film in historical sites such as Topkapı Palace, and Turkish Airlines pulled it from its in-flight entertainment systems in order to avoid government ire. A deputy from Erdoğan’s AKP party even went so far as to submit a parliamentary petition to legally ban the show.
Although Magnificent Century has never been used by the state to project Turkish soft power to the world, other dizi have. Two more recent productions for TRT, Turkish state television, have the government’s wholehearted endorsement, if not their guidance. The first, Diriliş: Ertuğrul, or Resurrection: Ertuğrul, begins at the start of Ottoman glory, with Ertuğrul Ghazi, the father of Sultan Osman, the founder of the empire. The dizi’s tagline is “A nation’s awakening”, and for five seasons viewers have watched Ertuğrul battle crusaders, Mongols, Christian Byzantines and more. It has the honour of being the most popular show to air on state TV. “Until the lions start writing their own stories,” Erdoğan said of Ertuğrul, “their hunters will always be the heroes.”
Another show, Payitaht Abdülhamid or The Last Emperor, bookends the Ottoman obsession: it is based on the last powerful Ottoman sultan, Abdul Hamid II. It first aired in 2017, drawing in big numbers – every Friday, one in 10 television watchers tuned in as the sultan staved off rebellions by the Young Turks (who would eventually unseat him) and scheming European powers. Both supporters and detractors of the dizi pointed out that its portrayal of the sultan was modelled incredibly closely on Erdoğan. Followers of the Turkish president saw symbiosis between the two proud leaders who were unafraid to confront the west, and who dreamed of making Turkey central to pan-Muslim unity. Critics pointed out the two men’s paranoid reliance on intelligence services and an oppressive grip on power.
By 2023, the Turkish government hopes dizi will pull in $1bn from exports. In his Istanbul glass office, İzzet Pinto, the founder of dizi distributor Global Agency, told me that $500m is a more realistic target given the loss of the Middle East market. But he foresees that remake rights, expansion in Latin America and the opening of western Europe – notably Italy and Spain – will help offset those losses.
Over at Tims, Selin Arat predicts that Turkish series have reached a stable level of popularity. Demand might not grow much more, but there is a global hunger for what Turkish TV can offer. Arat concedes that the Saudi stance against dizi is a setback, but, he says: “It won’t be the end of the Turkish dizi invasion.”
All Rights Reserved for Fatima Bhutto