How Turkish TV is taking over the world


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?

‘The first agreement we should make is: don’t call them soap operas,” Dr Arzu Ozturkmen, who teaches oral history at Bo?aziçi 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.

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