Updated: May 28, 2020
In the past year alone, much has been written about the growing popularity of Turkish drama series, known in Turkey as dizileri (or dizi in English), and how in a few short years, the industry is now only second to Hollywood in exports of its shows. Many renowned global newspapers such as the New York Times, The Guardian have provided coverage on the topic, each positing its theory to explain the meteoric rise of these shows worldwide.
Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto, a member of the illustrious political family of her land, also talks about it in her book “New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi and K-Pop”. Bhutto suggests that as demographics of societies have changed through migration, either from the East to West or from the rural to urban areas, the coinciding decline in the soft power born of American military presence have altered the kinds of stories the changing audience can relate to. As the migrants still struggle to build a better life, they find more resonance with the traditional, conservative, family friendly plots essayed by Turkish dramas. When discussing the decline of American TV/Hollywood, in a New York Times article, she says, "There isn’t one moment we can point to, rather it’s a perfect storm of factors including plummeting American prestige, the belated rediscovery that local cultures are valuable in and of themselves, and the rise of classes with different tastes and backgrounds emerging out of the turbulence of globalization, migration and urbanization."
The rise of the Turkish dizi industry is nothing short of phenomenal, which went from having exports of ~ $10,000 in 2004 to ~ $500M as reported in November 2019. The viewership is extraordinary - Magnificent Century (2011-2014; 139 episodes) is said to have reached a global audience of 500M+. Audiences all across the globe where Turkish drama can be accessed are embracing the storytelling, with unexpected success stories out of Latin America and South Asia. Interestingly, the English speaking countries remain a relatively unexplored territory for Turkish drama. In 2016, Netflix’s decision to start streaming Turkish drama, quickly followed by investments in local productions, is leading the charge in recreating the same kind of popularity for the genre that it enjoys in other global markets.
As an active participant in the thriving and growing English speaking fan base for Turkish Drama, I wanted to share my theories about why we gravitate towards these tales coming out of a land most of us have no connection to through ancestry, culture or language.
Finding my way to Diziland
An enthusiast of the global world of the literary/visual arts, I found Turkish dizis on Netflix in 2017. With little prior exposure or direct contact with Turkey or her culture, except for being familiar with Mevlana Rumi’s poetry, I fell in love with the Turkish pace of unfolding a layered narrative. Even though many Turkish shows are remakes of originals from other countries, the dizis give the same story a life of its own. Intricate human relationships steeped in family values and traditions are portrayed through evocative imagery and music that stoke the senses, while powers of intentions are masterfully woven into the fabric of the story.
There is a spiritual realism in how the characters are brought to life, almost always pervaded with themes of slow burning, epic love. Productions are set against visually appealing cinematography showcasing the best of historic Istanbul or other locales. As much as the story is about the characters, it also feels as though it is about the land that houses the inner fabric of Turkey and her society. With most scenes shot on location as opposed to within manufactured sets and studios, accentuated by melodious tunes by brilliant composers, all the elements in a given shot tell a story. From the gritty neighborhood streets to the immaculately furnished mansions, the lavish fashions to the simple ones, from traditional values to the modern ones, with each portrayal one begins to appreciate the various social layers that exist and how that affects the interactions and choices in a hierarchical society.
Since Turkey is a melting pot of different ethnic groups, united through the Turkic languages and also through their practice of Islam, the actors and actresses are not homogeneous in their facial structures, features, colors or physical attributes. Their near Caucasian features and physique appeal to Western sensibilities, and their strong family values speak to those with Eastern sensibilities. Many of the celebrities have athletic backgrounds, many are highly educated, they bear their facial imperfections as badges of honor, they are articulate, seem accessible, and seem very open to sharing their family and real life interactions through social media channels on Instagram or Twitter. When these ‘real’ people play the characters on screen, there is an added layer of authenticity that seems infused into their performance.
As a South Asian immigrant to the United States, I resonate deeply with the modernism embedded in the traditional values depicted in the shows. The natural fusion of values between the East and the West, with deep roots in spirituality, seems an extension of who I am as a person today and my love for Turkish drama gives credence to Ms. Bhutto’s theory of migrants finding resonance in the family centered tales. Where my own theory takes it a few steps forward lies in how the fans for this genre engage as fans.
Convergence of Values
For the most part, my movie watching had been an individual pursuit, enjoyed at my own curation and pace. For the first time, after watching Kurt Seyit ve Sura on Netflix (no longer available), I came upon a thriving online community of fellow English speaking Turkish drama enthusiasts, including those from foreign markets already familiar with Turkish drama. Thousands of members seek social media platforms to discuss the shows, plots, actors, indigenous customs and much more. Of the many discussion forums I visit for various news channels, academic or professional forums, I have not come across another where I made as many virtual friends across the globe, all united in our love for the thought provoking themes portrayed in the dizis and in our desire to expand our knowledge horizons.
The stories are told through characters making fluid decisions within fluid life scenarios. Much like any average mortal regardless of culture or creed, the lives in the stories often move at a glacial pace, with no hope for instant gratification (each dizi episode is 2+ hours long; even though recent series' are shorter, some have more than 100 episodes). Many outcomes remain open to interpretation, leading to deep discussions among the viewers. There is no given formula in how a story will end. There is no obligation to provide a happy ending and stories that may have started as a light-hearted family drama or romantic comedy may turn towards a heart-wrenching finale. Unlikely love stories survive the tests of time whereas ones that are expected to flourish may have a tragic end. Due to abrupt show cancellations in a highly competitive industry, some have no closure at all. Seemingly, presenting a dramatized version of real life, in the shows and in how the industry operates.
I find the underlying theme to many of these unexpected twists to be what the Turkish call kismet i.e. fate. One’s faith will be tested repeatedly, and we become witness to the journey as some fight through it all without compromising on their principles, while lesser characters waiver. This lends to the strain of spirituality in how the stories are told. The powers of intention matter and actions can morph over time as circumstances and stimulus change. The human experience is treated with compassion and reverence, which translates into an interwoven fabric of relationships where joys and sorrows are dependent on each other’s choices. It is not only the hero who evolves, but also supporting characters whose lives impact each other. Many of the stories I have watched remind me of Rumi’s profound words, “You are a mirror reflecting a noble face. This universe is not outside of you. Look inside yourself; everything that you want, you are already that.”
Why Turkish Drama?
In preparation for this article, I had asked the question “what we love about Turkish drama” off fellow aficionados from this international fan base, with most from English speaking countries such as USA, UK, Australia, South Africa, Canada or where English is widely spoken such as in India, Pakistan, Philippines, Greece, Spain, Italy, France and Latin American countries. The following chart shows a summary of responses received from this informal survey.
The 100+ respondents range in age from women in their early twenties to many in their 70s or 80s (vast majority of the forum members are women). There is a wide range of professional capacity represented from homemakers to women in the C-suite, an equally wide range in economic status. Most of the active participants are articulate and educated in their discourse. One of the underlying commonalities is an intellectual hunger to learn and assimilate a lesser known society, which is steeped in historical significance from a political, religious, social and cultural point of view.
This fair representation of an intellectually, economically and culturally diverse group of women converging on Turkish drama is an incredible resource that not only showcases the soft power of Turkish drama that has affected other areas of Turkish trade, but also identifies a large, influential, thoughtful, peace loving group of people who only wish to connect in their search for love and meaning in life.
I assert that, in addition to the emotional resonance with the beautiful productions, the ability to stream and binge watch coupled with the sense of community brought through the advent of social media spaces increases the network effect of Turkish drama in these new markets. Due to higher internet penetration in the industrialized nations, it is most likely that a high percentage of the growing audience for Turkish drama is turning to social media to discuss and connect with fellow film buffs (as of time of this post, this is further accentuated due to the current global crisis with COVID-19).
Not only is this online community congregating to discuss older, completed shows, during the regular season they have upgraded to getting together for ‘watch parties’ during live broadcasts of current shows and having a translator on board to provide translations of key scenes. These parties are followed by eager anticipation of translated episodes, typically available within 24 hours on multiple websites, each offering varying forms of subscription models.
And this unique dynamic of a deeply engaged community born of the digital age provides the Turkish entertainment industry a novel marketing avenue that it is beginning to leverage in order to proliferate the mindshare in an otherwise crowded market in the English speaking countries. Many completed and current shows are available on YouTube with or without translations, and many Turkish channels offer live streaming through YouTube. Last year, during a live watch party for an episode of Erkenci Kus (a hugely popular rom-com, 2018-2019), nearly 100 thousand people were watching it live on YouTube alone, not counting the channel's own online platform for live transmissions. Participating members hailed from the East Coast of Australia to the West Coast of North America.
Netflix has already produced multiple Turkish originals in the past 2 years; Amazon Prime is about to enter the fray. Local streaming services in Turkey such as BluTV, puhuTV and others are also making original productions available on their platform with English subtitles, and subscriptions from English speaking markets are growing. Surprisingly, even though YouTube plays an important role in introducing new markets to Turkish drama as many of these shows are available with English subtitles on the platform, it has bowed out of the arms race with Netflix and Amazon in producing its own high-end shows. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that relevant players have understood the potential power of Turkish drama in English speaking markets, and are formulating strategies for deeper penetration.
Who Are We?
If I had to describe the audience for Turkish drama in the English speaking market, after spending many hours studying language patterns and repeated themes of discussions, I would characterize us as those whose souls hunger for a world where our children can thrive and be happy. We want to find ways we can unite in love and Turkish drama has provided us a platform to find and blend with kindred spirits. However, within this rosy picture lies a surprising contradiction.
Many of the themes presented in the shows are rooted in social practices and choices that lead to contentious discussions, exposing the age-old divide between conservative and liberal moral values. The online debates can often lead to cliquish behavior, with groupthink defending an interpretation with vehemence, which sometimes borders on cyber-bullying. The heated arguments seem a common phenomenon in the digital space but after a prolonged and deep study of the discourse and the disagreements among many of these women on these Turkish drama forums, I came to understand a fundamental truth for myself. Underneath the infrequent skirmishes and blunt discord, regardless of social background or status, there lie an array of scarred life stories that cement the polarizing views we come armed with on topics such as love, relationships and justice, which are the overarching themes in the dizis. And while these wounds still hurt and fester at some level within us, we harbor a deep need to be heard.
Our interpretations of the shows are through the filters of our life experiences and being able to discuss our views offer a form of validation of our life’s values. And this is what draws many of us to Turkish drama. Within the masterful storytelling brought to life by emotive, ‘real’ people, we find pieces of our own lives in some part of the narratives and have also found a diverse group of people who validate some of those unresolved parts of our lives, helping us to heal wounds in a relatively safe environment. Relationships formed in the digital realm can never go deep enough to truly hurt us, but it goes deep enough to appease our need to be connected and be heard.
Unify & Grow
For its viewers, Turkish drama has become a unifying factor that cuts across culture, religion and ethnicity in incredible ways. As much as the productions draw me in, the opportunities to have meaningful, thought provoking discussions with other intellectually curious minds is what keeps me here. It is powerful to discover that, in a world that seems belligerent and war-prone, we can be part of a global village of thousands of people who are similarly looking to participate in peaceful dialogue and grow in love.
Kudos to the Turkish industry for formulating the unique equation that makes their productions so addictive, and kudos to the pioneers in the English speaking markets who created the early spaces on social media platforms that the rest of us could converge on, namely Kivanc Tatlitug North America (under the umbrella of North America TEN) and Turkish Drama Appreciation Group on Facebook. Since then, many sub-groups have formed, fine-tuned for preferences, and many mini-fandoms are also available through Instagram and Twitter. Audience mobility is fluid, where many of us overlap on various forums, taking our camaraderie with us.
I hope we continue to grow together and find wider, readier access to more productions out of Turkey (after a hiatus due to COVID, some productions are finally heading back to the sets in the next couple of weeks). For those of you yet to discover the genre, I would invite you to give it a try. If it fits with what you seek in life, maybe you will find the same treasures that I did.
(c) mh/ @entrespire - twitter
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Special thanks to members of the following Facebook groups, who took time to respond to my questions:
· Turkish Drama Appreciation Group
· Kivanc Tatlitug North America
· Erkenci Kus – For English Speakers
· Kivanc Tatlitug Global
· Turkish Learning Kivanced
My deep gratitude to the host of individuals who shared detailed responses via private message/ phone interviews
The Istanbul Guide:"Turkish TV series: a craze spreading far and wide"
The Guardian: "How Turkish TV is taking over the world"
Netflix Media Center: "Netflix Is Now Truly Turkish"
Global Agency: "Erkenci Kus"
Research includes articles that appeared in:
The New York Times, The Guardian, Deloitte Consulting - Turkey, Washington Post, Daily Sabah, Hurriyet Daily News, Scene Arabia, Yeni Safak, Television Business International, TRTArabi, Drama Quarterly, Bloomberg; various academic papers and reports were also studied.