The influence of Turkish Soap operas in the Balkans and in the Middle East

The concept of soft power enjoyed great success in Turkey and has been widely adopted both by observers and politicians.

Since the 1990s and increasingly later in the 2000s, the Turkish economy grew quickly and the Turkish state tried to affirm itself as a regional power. The government emphasised the rise of its cultural and diplomatic influence. As a matter of fact, over the years, foreign ministers and other political figures have emphasised the historical links with neighbouring countries as well as the “Turkish Model” as a source of influence.

A number of media and cultural organisations have been presented as tools of the Turkish soft power. Some of them are directly controlled by the Turkish government, such as the National broadcaster TRT (Turkish Radio and Television Corporation) or the Yunus Emre Institutes. In the 2000s, TRT started to expand its outreach to Europe, Asia and Africa, through TRT World, which broadcasts news and cultural programmes in English, as well as TRT Türk and TRT Avaz, which broadcast in Turkish and target Turkish communities living abroad as well as Turkic countries such as Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan. Moreover, the Yunus Emre Institute was launched in 2007 as a public foundation to teach Turkish language, promote Turkish culture, develop international exchange programmes and support Turkology departments in foreign Universities abroad. The Institute started its operations in 2009 and is now present in almost 40 countries around the world. But what has been presented as a key element of Turkish soft power is the country’s highly successful TV series production.

Turkey has become the second largest exporter of TV series after the U.S. Turkish TV series have reached an estimated number of 400 million viewers in 75 countries, and generated an exponential export revenues from US$10 millions in 2008 to US$150 millions in 2013. The export success of Turkish TV shows, particularly in neighbouring countries, was interpreted as evidence of the country’s rising cultural attractiveness. Thus in a speech held at the Istanbul Television Forum and Fair in June 2014, the Turkish Minister of Culture argued that the TV series’ export of series had a “key role in wielding soft power across the region”. The chair of the Association of Television Broadcasters, Zahid Akman, was quoted saying that this success meant that “Turkish culture and life is shared with many people of different cultures”. Reciprocally, series were argued to benefit Turkey’s attractiveness in the neighbouring countries in the Middle East and the Balkans, as well as in Asia and Latin America. Studies on flight search data show a positive correlation between the dissemination of Turkish TV series and the search for flights to Turkey, in countries like Oman and Jordan.

The success of Turkish TV series has been recurrently explained based on an argument of a supposed “cultural compatibility” with target countries. Thus, according to the Lebanese political scientist Jana Jabbour, the romantic soap opera Gümüş was particularly successful in the Arab world, where it reached 85 million viewers, for cultural reasons: “The series became attractive in the region as it portrayed Turkey as a country where people have a modern yet Muslim-compatible lifestyle: the protagonists drink alcohol, dance in nightclubs, and kiss in public, yet they often pray, and they respect the patriarchal model of their family by listening to the elders and living with their parents.”

Similarly, the Serbian sociologist Ratko Božović attributes the success of Turkish TV shows in the Balkans to the fact that “the mentality depicted in those shows has to do with a traditional understanding of morality that people in Serbia remember at some level.”

Despite the fact that the “soft power discourse” claims that Turkish TV series have a positive impact on Turkey’s regional influence, no link has been demonstrated between the country’s public diplomacy and the strategy of TV series producers. While there is no doubt that producers have interests in expanding to foreign markets and using cultural proximity as a selling argument, they are not responding to a national agenda. In fact, their relationship with the Turkish government can be tense. In 2012, for example, the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, voiced his anger at the most popular Turkish TV show, Muhteşem Yüzyıl, for “distorting historical facts” about the life of the 16th century Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. This did not lead to actual legal actions, but the show was taken off from the Turkish Airlines programme for a short time.

The argument that Turkish TV series are an instrument of soft power raises the question of its effectiveness. Does watching Turkish TV shows make people support the country’s foreign policy? This seems as likely as becoming pro-American as a result of drinking Coca-Cola. There are no convincing grounds to argue that the success of Turkish TV shows can translate into concrete outcomes for Turkish foreign policy.

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Cultural Diplomacy

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