The Magnificent Century - Wikipedia

The Magnificent Century - Wikipedia

In recent decades, Turkish television series have experienced astonishing success, becoming one of the country's most significant economic and cultural exports. If they sell abroad, however, TV series are subjected to ever-increasing government pressure

22/04/2024 -  Kenan Behzat Sharpe

From Macedonia to Pakistan and Chile to Mexico, Turkish television series have taken over the world. Since the early 2000s, when Gümüş (Silver) became a hit in the Middle East, Turkish series have been exported across the globe. While the most popular ones tell stories of star-crossed lovers or the Ottoman past, the rise of the dizi (TV series) sector reveals a lot about contemporary economics and politics in Turkey.

A profitable export

Turkey has long been an exporter of vehicle parts, textiles, hazelnuts and olive oil. Scripted TV series are a relatively new entry. According to the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce, their export was worth roughly $600 million in 2022.

Some 152 countries buy the rights to screen these shows. While growth has mainly been in the Middle East, the Balkans, and Latin America, new Turkish series created for streaming platforms like Netflix have further raised the country’s profile as an entertainment powerhouse.

Global demand for Turkish dizi grew by 184% between 2020 and 2023, according to a recent report . Turkey is now one of the world’s the leading exporters of serials, coming third after the United States and Britain.

This is a surprising success story if considering that Turkey only began seriously investing in the sector in the 1980s. In fact, until 1993 the state had a total monopoly on television broadcasting, which meant ratings were not a primary concern.

However, while the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation was the only TV channel, early series like Aşk-ı Memnu (Forbidden Love, 1975) and Perihan Abla (Sister Perihan, 1986) ascended to cult status.

In the two decades since private TV channels opened in Turkey, the country has enjoyed an astronomic rise within an increasingly global sector. Whereas the early days of Turkish TV were dominated by dubbed versions of American shows like Little House on the Prairie and Dallas, thanks to streaming Turkey is now posed to begin sweeping the U.S. market .

Series like Şahsiyet (Persona, 2018) and Bir Başkadır (Ethos, 2020) reveal that Turkey excels not only at soap operas but in the so-called “prestige television” genres associated with more sophisticated themes such those produced by HBO. []

Politics and society

One of the global hits of the Turkish dizi industry was the 2008 remake of Forbidden Love, based on a late Ottoman novel of romance and intrigue set in a rich family’s Bosphorus-side mansion.

Shot in contemporary Istanbul and set in the present, the show featured attractive actors like Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ and Beren Saat, decked out in the latest fashions as chosen by specially hired costume designers.

The series carefully toed the line between traditional values and modern romance. The portrayal of steamy love triangles avoided any explicit sex scenes while the story focused on the taboos and mores of a Muslim, if secular, rich family.

This combination made Forbidden Love a great success in Middle Eastern countries while also appealing to European and Latin American audiences. The series was so popular in Spain and Romania, for example, that after the dubbed version was aired they produced re-makes with local actors.

A series focusing on the life of Süleyman the Magnificent, Muhteşem Yüzyıl (The Magnificent Century, 2011), was also a big splash. The series was particularly popular in the Balkans, a region ruled by the Ottomans for centuries.

Despite conflicted feelings about the Ottoman rule and efforts by a few nationalist politicians to ban these shows, audiences in the Balkans were captivated by the portrayal of a common history and curious about shared cultural attitudes, words, foods, and practices.

Turkish dizi have even supplanted Lain American telenovelas, as their salacious portrayals of love affairs and crimes of passion can come across as unrealistic to Balkan viewers compared to the more culturally familiar Turkish series .

However, Turkish series have also gained avid followers in other geographies. American musician Cardi B has also come out as a Magnificent Century fan.

The Turkish dizi sector has also made enemies. Saudi Arabian company MBC Group, the top broadcaster in the Middle East and North Africa, was partly responsible for the success of Turkish series in the region.

However, geopolitical conflict between Turkey and Saudi Arabia over Qatar lead Crown Prince Saudi Mohammed bin Salman to describe Turkey as part of an extremist “triangle of evil”. From 2018 until 2022, MBC Group had an effective ban on Turkish series until it signed a five-year partnership with Medyapım and Ay Yapım, two of Turkey’s biggest production companies.

Government intervention

Turkish dizi are very much enmeshed in both domestic and global politics. In 2012, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan complained that the portrayal of Sultan Süleyman in the Magnificent Century was too focused on romance.

According to Erdoğan, the 16th-century sultan should be shown less in the harem and more on horseback fighting the empire’s enemies. Careful not to displease the Prime Minister, the creators quickly wrote in more scenes of the sultan praying and fighting.

Since then, a number of historical series have appeared that more closely follow pious, right-wing interpretations of Turkish history, like Diriliş: Ertuğrul (Resurrection: Ertuğrul, 2017), which portrays the period leading up to the foundation of the Ottoman Empire with a focus on conquest in the name of Islam. Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan was among the many global fans of the show in the Muslim world.

One of the tools the Turkish government uses to compel the dizi sector to conform to its views of religion and nationalism is Turkey’s media watchdog. The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) frequently hands down fines for content that it deems “obscene” or that “violates the national and moral values of the community and Turkish family structure”.

While RTÜK has long blurred out alcohol and cigarettes, it also gives fines for sex scenes or other suggestive content. Even the relatively chaste scenes from Forbidden Love in 2008 are impossible to imagine being aired on Turkish TV today.

Charges of obscenity and violating moral values are used on controversial shows like last year’s hit Kızılcık Şerbeti (Cranberry Sorbet). While the show initially made waves for challenging social taboos about the divisions between secular and religious sectors of Turkish society, it was slapped with a fine and temporarily taken off the air in April.

The official reason given was that a particular scene encouraged violence against women. However, because the scene in question showed a religious woman jumping out of a window to avoid marital rape by a man her conservative family pressured her to marry, fans of the show speculated that the show was being punished for its politics .

As Turkey’s media watchdog tightens its grip even on streaming platforms operating within the country, in particular targeting LGBTQ+ content, it is unclear how much room will be left to the dizi sector to experiment and develop beyond certain accepted themes.

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