The giddying rise of Turkish television series

Murat Sofuoglu
8 min readJan 27, 2017


In the space of a single decade, Turkey has gone from being a country with a barren television landscape to being one of the largest exporters of soap operas and drama series in the world. And that rise has coincided with an increasing assertive international policy in Turkey’s historic regions of influence.

A breakthrough Ottoman series Diriliş (Resurrection), which tells the origin story of the Ottoman Empire, was an immediate hit since its launch in 2014. (AA)

ISTANBUL — Sultan Faizy never misses an episode of his favourite Turkish dramas. The 33-year-old watches them as soon as they are released in Turkish, via satellite television. Then he watches them again when they are dubbed into Dari and aired on local Afghan channels, usually some months, or even years, later.

Turkish dramas and soap operas first began making inroads into foreign television markets, including Afghanistan, in 2007 and 2008. This was when Faizy discovered them. Until then, Indian television had dominated Afghan screens. But the new arrivals were an instant hit. Many Afghan viewers, including Sultan Faizy, found they had more cultural and religious affinity for the new Turkish shows.

Afghan kids watch a popular series about the Turkish underworld that deals with themes of patriotism and power struggles. (AA)

“If [a TV show] has some common ways of thinking with your society, then it is much more interesting to you,” Faizy said. “We have some common interests, some common culture with the Turkish people and Turkish society, such as our religion.”

It’s not only Afghanistan that has been taken by storm by Turkish TV shows. From Riyadh to Ashgabat to Sarajevo to Tunis to Islamabad, viewers are tuning in to a wide array of Turkish television, dealing with both historic and contemporary subjects.

Pakistani actor Khawar Hussain speaks during voiceover recording on a Turkish drama serial at a private studio in Karachi, Pakistan in late 2013. Turkish soap operas are very popular in Pakistan where people prefer to watch the series instead of Indian dramas. (AP)

The rise of the export market for Turkish television series has been dramatic. Turkey was a late bloomer, as far as its series go. The country had no private television industry to speak of until private channels were legalised in the early 1990s. Prior to that, the state-owned TRT held the exclusive rights to broadcast domestically, and controlled frequency allocation and satellite operations.

A smattering of locally produced series emerged after the legal changes in the 1990s. Yet even by the early 2000s, they were still yet relatively scarce and the export market barely existed — in 2004, for instance, it was still valued at less than $10,000. Within a single decade, it had ballooned, reaching nearly $200 million by 2014. And the boom continues. In December 2016, the Turkish cultural ministry confirmed that there are now 139 Turkish produced television series. This past year looks set to surpass the previous record. By October 2016, it had already reached close to $350,000,000, according to the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce.

The series are now watched in over than 100 countries, reaching an audience of some 500 million people.

“In terms of exporting TV series, we are the second largest producer in the world, after Hollywood,” Nabi Avci, the Turkish cultural minister, said during a meeting with film producers in late December last year.

A poster of the Ottoman series Dirilis has been pictured on one of the main avenues in Doha, Qatar where it began broadcasting in January 2016. (AA)

The robust television sector is becoming especially important for the Turkish economy at a time when other key industries, notably tourism, are struggling. (2016 has even been described as a “lost year” for tourism in Turkey.)

In an effort to further boost the sector, the Turkish government, specifically the cultural ministry, is pledging to increase its support for television series from $28.5 million to a record $40 million for 2017.

A sign of Turkey’s growing cultural influence

Though they explore a range of different themes and historic periods, the common thread linking the television series is that each one depicts either life in Turkey or in the Ottoman era. Turkey is a country where traditional eastern and Muslim values have long been interwoven with contemporary European influences. Some shows draw on historic themes, while others are set in more contemporary times.

“People who have watched these series recognise that Turkey is a country which is bound to its own customs, but at the same time living a very modern life,” said Aysegul Tuzun, the general manager of Mistco, the sales agent for TRT and distributor of Turkish content, including the breakthrough Ottoman series Dirilis and Filinta.

In addition to Turkish soap operas’ universal appeal, the rise of Turkish TV series has come at a time when Turkey has become more politically influential across the regions wherein it has centuries-old ties. The largest audiences are found in North Africa and the Middle East, the Balkans, and Central and South Asia. In fact, the only region where the series have a strong viewership beyond Turkey’s traditional sphere of political influence is Latin America. The other regions were all once part of the Ottoman Empire or of Muslim Turkic empires, which share a sense of common history and cultural values with Turkey.

A miniature of Ottoman soldiers. (Courtesy of TIMS Productions)

“Many Turkish series have been broadcast in the Middle East where generally they become number one instantly,” said Yusuf Esenkal, a co-owner of ES Productions, which has produced successful Turkish soap operas including Filinta, an Ottoman detective series. “They have triggered a curiosity in the international audience, even increasing an appeal to learn Turkish and boosting Turkey’s tourism.”

Whether series’ fans will continue to visit Turkey despite the turndown in the rest of sector, however, remains to be seen.

Since 2002, Turkish international political assertiveness has increased significantly under the modernist and conservative governments of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has advocated a global approach, aiming to expand the country’s influence across the territories governed by Turkey’s predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire.

One of the most popular Turkish TV series, Dirilis, is grounded in Turkish history. It is the origin story of the Ottoman Empire, set in the 13th century at the time when it was a small Turkmen principality in Anatolia. Dirilis, which means “Resurrection,” was an immediate hit with the Turkish public when it was first launched in late 2014. Mehmet Bozdağ, the producer of the series, announced in December 2016 that a website has been launched to introduce the show to international audiences.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pictured with Dirilis cast during one of his visits in their film set in Istanbul. (Courtesy of Presidency of the Republic of Turkey)

Turkish series collectively encourage foreign understanding and interest in Turkey, reinforcing its broader political outreach. The series help populations whose ancestors were living under Ottoman rule to remember their common past with Turkey.

Timur Savci is the owner of the TIMS Productions, one of the leading Turkish production companies and exporters of television dramas. He says the production of television series is injecting money into the wider Turkish economy.

“The series play a unique role in Turkey’s export sector, we shouldn’t forget this fact,” he told TRT World. “We don’t use any materials from overseas, the production is 100 percent Turkish-made.”

The fact that Turkey’s television series have been so successful abroad is all the more noteworthy, he stated, given the sector’s newness. “The country’s TV history is 50 years behind in comparison to the US,” Savci marvelled.

“The series are Turkey’s most important means for soft power,” Savci said.

Building on historic ties

The impact of the Turkish television series abroad is easy enough to perceive. In Afghanistan, Faizy said, it helped to reinforce local perceptions of Turkey as “a brother nation.”

“Turkish customs channeled through the series help us change our ideas and change our clothing styles,” he said. “Some of their traditions, which are really good, like kissing elders’ hands were not very common in Afghanistan [before the series].”

While Afghanistan was never part of the Ottoman Empire, it was at the centre of two of the great Turkic empires that preceded it. For Afghans like Faizy, the series have allowed for a greater understanding of the mutual common cultural and traditional roots. Seeking sanctuary from the ongoing conflict at home, many middle class Afghans travel regularly to Turkey and even buy apartments there, he said, finding it more hospitable and welcoming to them than the rest of Europe.

Iranian student Amir watching satellite Turkish TV channel, European or Turkish TV is forbidden, but common in modern Iranian houses, Isfahan, Iran. (Getty Images)

The success of Turkish TV series has also triggered some backlash, both for political and economic reasons. Macedonia, a former Ottoman territory in the Balkans, passed a bill in late 2012 to limit the Turkish series’ broadcasts in the country where they have a strong following in order to prevent Turkish influence on the country.

The Greek Orthodox Bishop Anthimos criticised Greek fans of the Turkish series. “Watching Turkish soaps is tantamount to telling them we’ve surrendered,” he said in 2012. Greece was a former Ottoman territory for more than four hundreds years, and has an ongoing conflict with Turkey over the status of Cyprus. Still, a top culture ministry official of the country, Georgi Nikitiadis, publicly admitted in 2014 that he and his wife were fans of the Turkish series.

For others, the reasons are religious. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia described a popular Turkish soap opera, Gumus, known as Noor in the Arab world, as being “anti-Islamic” and said that television channels broadcasting the show are “an enemy of God and his Prophet”.

In Egypt, national satellite networks dropped Turkish television shows from the air in the wake of the 2013 military coup against former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. As Egypt moved away from its former ally, Turkey, the networks turned instead to Indian television series to replace them.

A scene from the Turkish series Filinta. The soap opera, which is an Ottoman detective series, has interest from networks in 30 countries from across Latin America and the Middle East. (AA)

“Egypt used to be a leading market for Turkish series, until the Egyptian military toppled the first freely elected government of the country. It was protested by Ankara in powerful terms,” ES Productions’ Esenkal noted.

But even the negative reactions are a testimony to the rising stature of the country. And the television series have propelled fans to visit Turkey, going beyond merely watching the series on their screens, to physically exploring the country.

Visiting the city of Istanbul, an ancient city which best embodies the Ottomans’ cosmopolitan culture, is a logical extension for those fascinated with both the historic and contemporary themes explored in the series.

“Our country is like a natural plateau. Istanbul is so beautiful, and just by itself it is pulling a lot of attention. Back in the day there was a series called Asmali Konak (The Mansion with Vines) which was shot in Cappadocia. After the series’ was broadcast in Turkey, tourism agencies organised many tours into the region because people showed an incredible interest in Cappadocia,” Tuzun said.

Ethiopians watch a Turkish series in their home. (AA)

Ultimately, for the series — like Turkey’s growing political influence — success lies in their storytelling, and ability to break down cultural boundaries.

“If you look at themes the successful series are based on, they are all about human stories,” Tuzun told TRT World. “When you are able to connect humans, success comes alongside it. Whether it is a movie or a TV series, with human stories, you actually create a universal story.”



Murat Sofuoglu

Murat is a producer at TRT World. He has previously worked on a number of social projects relating to identity issues in Turkey and the neighbouring regions.