For the viewership in southeastern Europe, Turkish television series satisfy intellectual curiosity, forge cultural understanding and question centuries-old prejudices.
A few years ago, the Turkish TV series were said to have increased divorce rates in Baghdad. However, despite the negative spin, people in the Middle East became addicted to them. So what effect did they have on Western neighbours of Turkey?
In 2008, I turned on one of the most-watched Bulgarian channels, Nova TV, and saw “Binbir Gece” (1001 Nights). Nevertheless, that was just the beginning. Then came Gumus, Ezel, Yaprak Dokumu (When Leaves Fall), and many more took over the prime time of the most-watched televisions and online platforms in the country. These soap operas reached tremendous popularity. At some point, I have been constantly asked for spoilers – “How many more heart attacks will Ali Riza have?”. Even more, a famous talk show satirized the character in sketches; thus, his iconic “I do not feel well” transformed into a popular one-liner joke.
Interestingly, in the commentary sections, people were asking if these soap operas represent Turkish life? Well, since Gossip Girls’ Upper East Side does not depict the average American’s life, ditto Adnan Ziyagil’s mansion is far from representing the living standards of an average Turk. But, then again, some entrenched stereotypes remain deep-seated, such as the expectation to find camels in Istanbul.
Once part of the Ottoman Empire, Balkan nations have still mixed feelings toward their shared heritage. However, research shows that people who follow the Turkish series have more positive impressions of Turkey than those who do not watch them.
In 2011, Bulgaria became the second-biggest customer of Turkish TV series worldwide. The situation in the other Balkan countries was not very different. For example, in North Macedonia, the series constituted the most-watched content after the news. Similarly, in 2009 “Aci Hayat” (Bitter Life) became the most viewed program in Kosovo. Likewise, inspired by the Turkish series “Ezel”, Romanian producers adapted its script to produce “Vlad”.
However, in parts of southeastern Europe, breaking prejudices is not an unequivocal undertaking. Many reasons, ranging from religious differences to negative attitude toward the Ottomans, still shape the mindset of many. As a result, some governments chose to build their historical narratives around “chosen traumas'' and “imaginary victories.” In this context, the Battle of Kosovo has been used (and abused) to construct Serbia’s national identity. Thus, Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic described the genocide of Srebrenica as a victory, as revenge for the alleged trauma that took place after the Battle of Kosovo.
Against this backdrop, few radical groups in Serbia launched campaigns to stop the broadcast of some Turkish television series, but that did not affect their popularity. On the other hand, in North Macedonia, despite the ratings, a bill banned the Turkish TV series in 2012. Ivo Ivanoski, then Minister of Information, asserted: “The Turkish series is wonderful, but we cannot forget 500 years of servitude under the Ottoman Empire.”
In a similar vein, the series’ broadcasting in Greece was labelled an “invasion”. However, the ebbs and flows of politics on both sides of the Aegean Sea did not abate the audience’s interest in the “Magnificent Century.”
How did these series become so popular?
According to Joseph Straubhaar, Professor of Communications in the School of Journalism at The University of Texas, audiences tend to choose programs most culturally relevant or proximate. That cultural proximity has a strong tie with multi-layered, elaborate cultural identities. Within this frame of reference, Ratko Bozvic, Serbian sociologist, says that “the mentality depicted in those shows has to do with a traditional understanding of morality that people in Serbia remember at some level.”
Similarly, Erik H. Erikson, a prominent name in psychoanalytic identity theory, specifies identification as the initial emotional connection with a person or object. Namely, the Turkish Tv series contains this resonance to make the audience feel familiarity.
Besides, research points out that there are three major factors in perceiving and interpreting audio-visual entertainment. First, emotional self-preservation: experience mediates feelings to ignore the exhaustion of reality. Second, intellectual curiosity: learning about the world. Last, subjective positionality–delve into your own personalities and explore the positioning in life. Turkish series successfully provides all these premises.
The consequent boom in tourism is a natural result of the awakened intellectual curiosity. The stunning scenery of Istanbul turned Turkey into a top tourist destination for people from the Balkans. Moreover, attractive tours to the sets and meeting actors became in enormous demand.
Yasemin Y. Celikkol, a postdoctoral researcher at Northwestern University in Qatar, attributes the series’ success to the feeling of familiarity. The series “Falling Leaves” is “about the terrible things that happen to families when they move to cities,” and it was a big hit in Bulgaria. Celikkol associates it with the rural-urban migration in the country.
Furthermore, according to Straubhaar, the television series bypasses regional and national borders thanks to the melodrama genre. People love the series because they take a break from reality (financial crises, corruption etc.). At the same time, they discover unknown places which still exhibit similar family values.
In southeastern Europe, for many decades, Turkey was a ghost from the past. However, thanks to television series and other cultural assets, there is a new willingness to satisfy intellectual curiosity, forge cultural understanding and question centuries-old prejudices.
In his “Critique of Pure Reason,” Immanuel Kant states that mutual identities emerge through mental foundations as “friend/enemy,” “agreement/conflict,” “us/them.” Moreover, differentiation in these factors affect the identification process; change and shape it. The identities in the Balkans developed in the same way. They created and completed each other.
Sometimes “us” needs to meet “them.” The Turkish television series reminded people that –they can be different yet so similar. Crying for similar tragedies, just in other languages; split by borderlines but sharing the same feelings.