The soft power of Turkish television
The success of television series outside Turkey signals a re-branding of the country's image.
By Cigdem Bugdayci for Southeast European Times in Istanbul – 23/07/11
The popularity of Turkish television series, from the Balkans to the Middle East, has brought Turkey to an international audience, and is subtly transforming the image of the country abroad.
Songul Oden (right) and Ayca Varlier play in the Turkish soap opera "Noor", which has been a huge hit in the Middle East. [Reuters]
Since 2001, 65 Turkish television series have been sold abroad, bringing in over 50m dollars to the booming Turkish television industry. Turkish actors and celebrities are now well-known figures in some countries and scenes of Istanbul have drawn tens of thousands of tourists.
According to Izzet Pinto from the film distribution company Global Agency, Turkish series are quite a novelty for a public very much used to watching only American or Latin American TV productions.
"The TV series are a big commercial opportunity for Turkey," Pinto tells SETimes.
However, more than the millions of dollars in sales, the emergence of Turkey as a popular brand is equally significant. In the Balkans and Middle East, regions traditionally wary of Turkish influence, the soft message of television holds the power the country to re-market itself.
According to a recent Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation report entitled "The Perception of Turkey in the Middle East 2010", 78% of the respondents said they have watched a Turkish TV series. The report states that the series have become an important part of Turkey's soft power by creating a lasting influence on Turkey's image in the region.
Although unplanned, the spread of Turkish television falls neatly into the soft-power strategy of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu as outlined in his seminal 2001 book "Strategic Depth".
Davutoglu advocates a pro-active and multi-dimensional foreign policy that sees Turkey's shared history and culture with former Ottoman lands as a strategic advantage -- forming one prong of Turkey's soft-power strategy.
However, the appeal of Turkish television, mixing emotionally rich images with a sense of well-kept traditionalism, has also received criticism from some conservatives in Turkey who feel the basis of family is being threatened through images of sultry kisses, adultery stories, murder and crime.
According to AKP deputy from Istanbul Halide Incekara, Turkish TV series don't represent the Turkish family and morals. "The TV series hurt the image of Turkey abroad as they are so full of corrupt storylines and unacceptable behaviors," she tells SETimes.
On the other hand, Orhan Tekelioglu, a communications professor from Istanbul Bahcesehir University, told SETimes that it is not possible to make any claims on the popularity of TV series without additional research. However, he points out there is actually a strong tendency for the "protection of the family" in the series, which has its roots in the Turkish modernization process.
Tekelioglu also interprets the news about the international spread and success of TV series in the Turkish press in a different manner, telling SETimes, "The sales from the TV series are greeted with 'hails of victory' as if coming from 'an army campaign' -- this must be what they call neo-Ottomanism."