Turkish Soap Operas: The Unstoppable Boom

Turkey’s economy may have slowed sharply last year but one export remains red hot: Turkish soap operas.

Often slushy, kitsch and highly addictive, Turkish soaps have since 2008 become a staple in living rooms across the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans; enjoying wild popularity in ostensibly traditional societies for their portrayal of modern life styles and relationships. The popularity of the shows – from the Ottoman-inspired “Magnificient Century” to the slick “Ask-i Memnu” starring heartthrob Kivanc Tatlitug – has spawned a sizeable secondary stimulus for Turkey, boosting the country’s tourism and fashion trades as soap-addicts flock to Turkey to tour the sites of their favorite shows.

Despite Turkey’s economy braking to a growth rate of 2.2% last year from 8.8% in 2011, Turkish soap opera exports more than doubled to $130 million last year as the country sold 13,000 hours of programming, according to figures from the Tourism and Culture Ministry. The growth was propelled by a raft of expensively produced Turkish shows selling to increasingly far-flung new markets in Asia, Africa and Central Europe.

Underpinning the expanding geographical reach is a sharp rise in the price of the shows.

According to Ay Yapim, a leading Turkish production company, some top series are being sold for $150,000 per episode, skyrocketing from an average price of $4000 per episode five years.

Government and industry officials say this year is expected to see yet more record growth.

“Turkey’s growing soap opera exports are increasingly important for the promotion of our national brand,” says Abdurrahman Celik, who manages copyrights at Culture and Tourism Ministry in Ankara. “We’re even exporting our soap operas to the Ivory Coast, Gabon, Mali, the Seychelles and Vietnam.”

Turkey’s government – eager to capitalize on the bankability of the wildly popular shows – earlier this month floated the idea of creating a regional film-making hub in Istanbul that would act like a “Hollywood on the Bosphorus.” Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan said the government was in talks with Entertainment Development Partners, a Los-Angeles based entertainment consortium, which was mulling a $3 billion investment in Turkey.

“Turkish soap operas are positively affecting the country’s economy. People buy dresses, food, accessories that they saw on the Turkish soap operas. The number of tourists has increased hugely since the exports of soap operas,” said Firat Gulgen, chairman of Calinos Holding, which exports 50%-60% of Turkish soap operas.

Latest data appears to confirm that trend. Official figures from the Culture and Tourism Ministry showed that the number of tourists coming to Turkey increased 26.06% on the year in March to 1.841 million, while visitors from Saudi Arabia rose 88.74% on the year in March, from Qatar 102%, from Yemen106% and from Israel 184%.

Middle Eastern countries still represent the bulk of the viewership for Turkish soaps, but the emergence of a glut of new markets has entertainment companies bullish about sustaining rapid growth.

“We expect $100-$150 million of soap opera exports this year and are now selling to around 70 countries. The Middle East region has the higher market share for exports but the Balkans, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and India are new markets for us,” Mr. Gulgen said in a phone interview.