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From Dubai to Chile, Turkish TV series expand their empire

Set workers prepare for a scene of the 'Dengeler' TV series on the set at Tophane district in Istanbul on February 28, 2024. - Over the past fifteen years, Turkey has firmly established itself on screens the world over, becoming the second-largest exporter of series, just behind the United States, to nearly 170 countries. (Photo by Ozan KOSE / AFP)

In the skies above İstanbul’s Tophane neighborhood, seagulls are sent scattering by a drone that’s filming a policeman arresting a young woman on the streets below.

But it’s for a television series called “Dengeler,” one of about 60 filmed annually in Turkey that have made İstanbul and other Turkish cities familiar to viewers in nearly 170 countries around the world.

Over the past 15 years Turkey has established itself as the foremost exporter of TV series after the United States and Britain.

“Latin Americans find Turkish series very close to their culture,” said Erdi Işık, development manager at Ay Yapım — Turkey’s leading exporter last year and whose production “Yargı” (Family Secrets) last November won an International Emmy for best telenovela.

“When I show samples to a panel, even if they don’t understand a word of Turkish, they catch what it’s about because the family culture is very much the same,” he said.

Censorship constraints in Turkey also provide more modest material, important for audiences in the Middle East and Spanish-speaking countries who are accustomed to watching soap operas as a family.

However, “we think of the Turkish market first,” he said, even though “we pick actors that can fit international expectations,” citing a list of about 20 actors that appeal to the public outside Turkey.

Turkish actress Canan Urekil (L), starring in the “Dengeler” TV series, looks at the set in Istanbul’s Tophane district on February 28, 2024. Over the past 15 years, Turkey has firmly established itself on TV screens the world over, becoming the second-largest exporter of television series, just behind the United States, to nearly 170 countries. (Photo by Ozan KOSE / AFP)

Family history, thwarted loves

“Bitter Lands,” another success story, won best telenovela of the year in South America in 2020 with its lead actress likewise crowned.

Long popular in the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans, all once ruled by the Ottoman Empire, Turkish TV series about history, family intrigues and thwarted love stories are now present on every continent, even in the United States, where they have captured the Hispanic market.

“They are now broadcast in prime-time in Spain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt,” said Xavier Rambert, head of research and marketing at Glance, an audience measurement company in London, who praises the “effectiveness” of Turkish productions.

“Their ability to provide masses of content at very controlled costs makes it possible to fill the programs at reasonable prices,” he added.

In total nearly 700 million viewers enjoy “alla turca” telenovelas, according to the Turkish culture ministry.

The success is also due to the quality of the productions, said Özlem Özsümbül, sales director at Madd, the company that distributes series produced by Ay Yapım. “We always shoot on location,” she said.

Each episode is written and shot from one week to the next, based on a general plot that evolves to adjust to the audience. A two-hour episode can be entirely written, shot and produced in six days.

Characters can be ejected, or minimized. Only the biggest stars are guaranteed up to 15 episodes, Özsümbül said.

But while “TV series are produced for audiences in Turkey, they can’t recover their costs by airing in Turkey” alone, said Özlem Özdemir, founder of Episode magazine, which covers Turkish TV shows.

‘New generation’

Productions are therefore adapted to the international market. “Our system is unique as we shoot about two-and-a-half hours every week. And then, we re-edit for the foreign market to adjust the commercials,” said Ahmet Ziyalar, co-founder of Inter Medya and CEO of Inter Yapım.

A weekly episode of 90 to 120 minutes in Turkey can be converted into three 45-minute episodes broadcast daily in Latin America.

Meanwhile, Ziyalar has launched a so-called “New Generation” series of eight to 12 episodes intended only for streaming platforms.

“They are shorter, faster, bolder and sexier — less concerned about censorship. They are also more artistic,” he said.

This is why the heroine of the series “Degenler,” whose arrest was filmed by drone in the Tophane neighborhood, does not hesitate to hurl pro-Kurdish slogans at the police officer who stopped her.

“We can be more political when we produce for a platform,” screenwriter Sarp Kalfaoğlu said. “Degenler” will be streamed in Turkey by Gain.

“We think these new-generation series can find a place in the international market as well as the mainstream series we will keep producing,” said Can Okan, CEO of Inter Medya, who will soon present them at the Series Mania international festival in Lille, France.

Okan said he recently reached an agreement with Colombian broadcaster Caracol for a series of 120 episodes in Spanish.

“We know [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is not always happy with our content, but he doesn’t say anything since we bring in a lot of money,” said Erdi Işık.

As well as a lot of tourists.

© Agence France-Presse

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