For about six months, the industry has been buzzing about Turkey and its potential as a fresh source of adaptable formats. That’s been spurred on by recent deals with the U.S., a successful export track record in neighboring regions, and a growing need for unique formats on the part of Western buyers. But, in the half-year since 2013’s Mipcom, people are wondering whether Turkey can really emerge as a new proving ground to be cultivated by the West, or if executives have been prematurely excited by some groundbreaking in-roads.
Turkey, which straddles Europe and Asia, has historically traded in series and soaps with largely local and historical themes. And its production industry is growing. According to data released at last month’s Discop market, it has surpassed Latin America to be the most prolific drama-producing nation outside the U.S. Other recent data says that a majority of Turkish channels air more than 100 new shows a year. Those are for the most part exported to the rest of the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, bringing in about $150M in 2013.
But outside those territories there wasn’t much action until October last year. During the Mipcom market, Turkey made a big entrance into the U.S. with the first scripted format set up at a network by American producers when Ghost Whisperer alums Ian Sander and Kim Moses sold the Eccho Rights-repped The End to Fox. Unlike much Turkish output, the story is contemporary and has a universal feel. It centers on a woman who must navigate a web of lies and intrigue as she searches for her husband whom she presumed dead following a plane crash — but it turns out, he never boarded the plane. Produced by local powerhouse Ay Yapim, it aired in the first half of 2012. In the past six months, The End (or Son in Turkish) has been sold into Germany and Russia for local versions, while Shine France took an option and Netflix signed a non-exclusive agreement for the original in Sweden and the UK. The End has also aired on SVT in Sweden, the first time a Turkish drama had been shown in primetime on a national channel — it doubled the slot average.
On the non-scripted side, in February, CBS gave a pilot order to the Nigel Lythgoe exec produced competition reality series In The Spotlight. That format, originally titled Keep Your Light Shining, is handled by major player Global Agency. It had previously sold it to about 12 countries including Germany, and CEO Izzet Pinto told me today that during Mip-TV he made further deals in Finland and Sweden. The twist with Keep Your Light Shining is that it has not been made in Turkey — all of the sales have been based on a paper format. Pinto says “the plan is to make it very successful,” and then, “I want to produce it myself,” for Turkey. The path to the West of Keep Your Light Shining is indicative of a new two-pronged trend in Turkey which sees local producers expressly tailoring product for the international market while continuing to cater to local and regional audiences with traditional content.
Bertrand Villegas, founder of TV research group The Wit, tells me Turkey’s future as a go-to spot “will depend” on the outcome of The End and Keep Your Light Shining. “If The End is really shown with a lot of success and gets other options in three or four countries, it will open another view of Turkish fiction and create a sort of niche that gets them out of the sentimental telenovela.”
(A word about politics: Turkey’s recent bans on Twitter and YouTube are not having a huge impact thus far on execs’ desire to find strong product, although there is some caution. One says, “It’s a situation that has to be monitored further. When huge restrictions are put upon major content platforms and government becomes heavy-handed, it’s very concerning and the U.S. will certainly be watching to see how this progresses. However, if an ‘entertainment format’ is created in Turkey and offered up to be sold to the U.S., I’m sure we will all still consider buying it. For now, anyway.)
Global Agency, for one, “has done an incredible job of stepping in,” an exec says, marveling that with Keep Your Light Shining, “they got CBS on board for a paper format.” Overall, this person is “impressed with Turkey’s marketing ability.” However, I’m cautioned, “People are open to new territories because there’s a little bit of desperation.” Another exec says, “It seems like Turkey is the new Israel, which is the new Netherlands. It’s the flavor of the moment because of recent activity, so we’re paying attention.” But, “We have to wait to see if they’re going to become a true leader the way Israel has taken root.”
Global Agency’s recent local top sellers have included Magnificent Century and 1,001 Nights. The latter, a modern-day drama, notably broke out of the local mold with a sale to Chile where it had strong ratings along with gaining a big social media following. “Latin Americans are bored with local drama. It’s the same genre and the same locations. They want something new,” Pinto contends. At Mip-TV, Pinto says Global Agency had its “best market ever in the last seven-and-a-half years.” Among the big draws were Forbidden Love, as well as non-scripted formats Dating Pool and Joker. The latter is already airing on Turkey’s TRT and sold to France before the market. Also making an impact with buyers, one UK-based exec tells me, is Global Agency’s Bring Em Back, a singing competition set to a live orchestra.
Pinto is eyeing the Western marketplace as a separate endeavor. Currently, Global Agency is working to sell the script rights to Game Of Silence. That crime series, he says, has potential in Western Europe and the U.S. It’s about four men who seek revenge for mistreatment they received while incarcerated during their youth. But he’s not looking to do co-productions which are “difficult… People are always talking about it, but it’s never happening.”
One example of a big recent series that has high production values, but remains somewhat traditional, is Kurt Seyit Ve Şura, a Doctor Zhivago-esque drama that debuted on Star TV locally in early March. Another big player, Eccho Rights, is handing what it calls “the most prestigous Turkish TV drama ever produced” (see trailer below). Like The End, it hails from Ay Yapim. The period piece stars Kivanc Tatlitug, who’s been called the ‘Turkish Brad Pitt,’ and tells the story of the dashing, womanizing Lieutenant Kurt Seyit — the first son of a rich Crimean landowner of Turkish origin — who falls in love with Sura, the beautiful daughter of a noble Russian family. But Seyit’s father has always been convinced his son should marry a Turkish girl. Prior to Mip, Eccho said the 40-part drama had sold into Georgia, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The feeling is that producers will continue to make content for the interior market that upholds tradition and local values, but will bend to a more international feel in order to access the West. “They really have to adapt,” Villegas says, although he contends that Turkey’s primary ambition is to be a “hub of production in the Middle East to replace Egypt.” Turkey is “a little more liberal… They’re not ready for Los Angeles yet, but over there, a Turkish series is seen as ‘cooler’ than an Egyptian series.” There are “some dynamic companies” he says, and they want to break out, “but it’s not as easy as Israel.”