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Turkish Soap Operas Flourish Worldwide. Their Audience is Successful and Erdogan Uses Them as a Political Weapon

Traditional characters and folklore. Turkish soap operas spread around the world, and Erdogan increases his soft power thanks to them

This Article is part of the debate on
Mental Wealth Turkey

Lluís Miquel Hurtado
A woman watches a Turkish Soap Opera

Three years since the first Turkish series appeared on Spanish television, the popularity of such series, far from going away, has only grown. On 8th January 2018, Fatmagül, a drama about a young peasant girl from a village near Izmir who is raped, was broadcast on Nova (a channel mostly oriented to women). The show paved the way for this fiction in Spain, which has gradually climbed to become one of the general-interest channels’ most popular genres. 

Woman (Kadin in Turkish) and My Little Girl (Kizim) on Antena 3, and Love is in the air on Telecinco, are already big hits. They have huge audiences and are frequently discussed on social media. But how can we explain this amount of success in a society that is less traditional than the Turkish one? What does this industry mean for Erdogan’s government? And who is its target audience in Spain? 

“For decades, Turkish series have been popular in Central European and Middle Eastern countries. Since 2014 they have also gained momentum in Latin America and the United States,” José Antonio Antón, Deputy Director of Content of Atresmedia TV, explains to EL MUNDO. For that reason, the media group, which includes Nova and Antena 3, jumped at the opportunity to air Turkish TV and became a “pioneer” of the genre in Spain.

“It was such an amazing success when it started on Nova that we saw there was a huge audience and that it could work on Antena 3, but we decided to wait until we had a very powerful and special series to make that first commitment”, says Antón. That’s where Woman came in. The 2.68 million viewers who tuned in to watch it on 28th December 2020 made up the biggest audience yet for a Turkish series at that time. This past Sunday, the 21st February, My Little Girl brought in 2.63 million viewers.

Between familiar and exotic

At this point the first questions arise: what is the audience demographic for this genre and why are these people interested in a more traditional society than the current one in Spain? “The viewer is constantly moving on an axis between familiar and exotic. That keeps them hooked,” says Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, who is Venezuelan and works as a Professor at the University of Georgia. She is also one of the most important researchers of the global phenomenon of telenovelas – or, dizi (drama), as they are called in Turkey. “Although we have become used to calling them Turkish soap operas, the Turks have fought tooth and nail to have them called dramas,” she recalls. That’s a way of avoiding the low-budget stigma. A low-budget is not the case with Turkish productions; even if behind the quality, there have been strikes and conflicts over wages and long shooting hours.

“The traditional plot of the Turkish telenovela follows a pattern that already characterised Latin American melodramas in the last century. They make the audience feel involved and close to the characters who, at the same time, develop very deep psychologically,” point out Tatiana Hidalgo-María and Jesús Segarra-Saavedra, professors of Social Psychology at the University of Alicante. Both experts see “the familiarity of the plots” and “the common conflicts of soap operas” as the keys to success, “especially among female audiences”.

If you want to know who makes up the audience, “just look at the channels that mainly broadcast these fictions (Nova and Divinity, also aimed at a female audience). But if we look at the audience data, there has been a growing interest (not hugely substantial, but certainly there) in the male audience and, above all, a change in the age demographics. More and more young women watch Turkish soap operas, because they find in them an exotic and traditional narrative; a relatable base with an innovative component: the psychological profile of the characters,” claim Tatiana Hidalgo-María and Jesús Segarra-Saavedra, who are also both participants in the Teletropías project, a committee on television discourse.

The cliché of the female audience

However, Atresmedia, a media company which produces nine of the ten most watched series on Spanish TV, refuses to frame this success in terms of a middle-aged or older female audience. “It is clearly a cliché. Each Turkish drama has a different topic and target audience. They cover all target and age demographics. We have already released multiple titles. Some have a younger profile and others have a more adult profile, some are very much targeted towards women and others have a more balanced profile”, José Antonio Antón points out.

Chauvinism is one issue that has arisen. This is one of the most fervent political debates in Spain, but its definition is more vague in Turkey itself or in Latin America. “This is a problem with Turkish society, which is very conservative and very sexist. Latin America was its first market, but women’s equality is not such a major issue there as it is in Spain. In some circles, and thanks to the movement of these shows to general-interest channels, discussions are starting. Some wonder why they broadcast content about subjugated women without commentary or context,” says Pablo Sapag, a lecturer in the Department of Global Communication at the Complutense University of Madrid.

However, other experts point to an empowering message from characters like Fatmagül. “When she was a girl, she was raped and forced to marry. She is a victim of everything possible, but she evolves into a woman who takes the men who harmed her to court; who manages to get a whole country on her side. If Fatmagül had stayed in the village and covered her hair, this wouldn’t be the case,” says researcher Acosta-Alzuru.

Both Atresmedia and Telecinco (a general-interest channel which is part of the Italian Mediaset group) look to “the universality” of their themes. “That’s why these series are a success in countries with radically different societies and cultures,” says the Deputy Director of Content at Atresmedia. “Love, emotion, the heart… that will always move us,” adds Patricia Marco, Broadcast Director at Mediaset España, where Love is in the air has accumulated 1.6 million viewers in its two airings last week and is on an “upward trend”.

It is these increases and the reduced cost in the purchase of these productions that is leading TV channels to complement their national series with Turkish fictions. In fact, Mediaset will premiere the Turkish series My Home My Destiny (Doğduğun Ev Kaderindir) on Telecinco “shortly”, which will then remain on its online platform Mitele Plus. Atresmedia is already preparing the launch of the Spanish remake of Fatmagül, Alba, shot in East Southern Spain (Villajoyosa and Costa del Sol). The Turkish distributor Inter Medya has already sold productions such as Broken Wings (Kanatsiz Kuslar), Bitter Lands (Bir Zamanlar Çukurova) and The Ambassador’s Daughter (Sefirin Kizi), which will join Black Money Love (Kara Para Aşk), Endless Love (Kara Sevda) and Hayat, to Spain, according to its sales director, Beatriz Cea. “This generates a lot of interest in that culture. Many tourists want to meet the actors and visit the filming locations,” Cea says.

Erdogan’s foreign policy

And in the midst of this commercial success, the political tentacles of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, which has turned the Turkish audiovisual industry into one of the key elements of its foreign policy, are also creeping through. “The success of Turkish soap operas allows Turkey to be a global player with a soft power based on three pillars: the projection of Turkish Airlines, one of the airlines that had grown the most up until the beginning of the pandemic; tourism promotion, especially towards Istanbul, a crown jewel; plus the exportation of these series,” says Sapag. Turkey’s audiovisual sector has already positioned itself as the second most important globally after the American sector. By 2023, according to official estimates, this industry could be worth between 500 billion and one trillion dollars to the state.

This situation does not exclude these productions from facing sanctions or having to go through the filter of Erdogan’s government and through the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), an “absolutely political” body, according to Carolina Acosta-Alzuru. A few days ago, Love is in the air was fined for a bubble bath scene because it was considered “contrary to Turkish family values”. The Ambassador’s Daughter was fined for an opening scene that, in the RTÜK’s eyes, “incites oppression and violence against women,” and, in 2017, Sultan was also fined for “broadcasting scenes with elements likely to damage children’s trust in the family” with an atmosphere of “lust and drinking.”

The fines come for attitudes that are contrary to Turkish family values

“The so-called Arab Spring in countries like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria has played a key role here,” says Pablo Sapag, author of the book Periodismo de guerra (War Journalism) and an expert on the Arab world. “Most of these telenovelas were Egyptian, but since 2000 Syria has become a major producer in the Arab world. When it was about to start exporting, the uprisings in 2011 started and Turkey was left without a competitor. This allowed them to export to Latin America as a stepping stone to Europe, but also to become an economic and political power in the region with the ability to control it”.

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