This past winter, two new Turkish online streaming services released their first Turkish original shows: In January, Blu TV released Masum and in March, Puhu TV released Fi. A look at the production and success of these shows reveals how streaming is globalizing the Anglo-American notion of quality programming—a homogenization that is contrary to multidirectionality arguments supported by the rise of new centers of production. These multidirectionality arguments focus solely on the volume and route of global television flows, while a closer look at the content tells a different story. As Masum and Fi reveal, travelling content, regardless of its origin, can imitate Anglo-American standards. To fully assess the real extent of globalization, we must take into account generic, thematic and aesthetic qualities, and once these elements are considered, it becomes evident that these examples of Turkish quality programming speak Turkish but don’t look Turkish at all.
Scholars and journalists see new centers of production as potential powerholders in a less hierarchical global market. The multidirectionality of flows is taken as evidence of this shift. With new centers of media production rising, speculation about the end of Anglo-American dominance in global television markets has grown. Following the earlier success of the Netherlands, South Korea, Turkey, and Israel became important players in the market in the mid-2000s. Nevertheless, the extent of these new centers’ influence is still limited considering how North American and Western European markets remain resistant to flows originating from new centers. Despite the ongoing exchange of television content across the Atlantic, the US market is difficult to enter even for European producers. Western European shows have managed to gain a foothold in the North American markets to some extent, but the platform of access seems to be decisive for their survival. These dramas–such as Les Revenants and Broadchurch—do moderately well as finished programs on cable and online streaming platforms. Once they are adapted for network television, though, they fail to get high enough ratings to stay on air.
While the channel of access emerges as an important variable to evaluate the multidirectionality of television flows in general, online streaming appears to be the greatest game changer in terms of making international content more accessible. As the examples of Les Revenants and Broadchurch show, online streaming platforms house foreign content that would not otherwise make it on the television screen. On MIP Markets YouTube channel, Anette Romer, Head of Acquisitions & Formats at TV2 (Denmark) and a member of the MIP Drama Buyer Advisory Board, explains this phenomenon thus: “The advent of streaming means there’s a global audience for any title”[i]. At first glance, this seems like an opportunity for new centers of media production, who can sell content to online streaming platforms in different parts of the world. These new centers of production can also carry their content abroad by expanding their own online streaming services beyond national borders. However, this theoretical advantage is veiled by the practical dominance of Anglo-American content and the strong globalization of U.S. online streaming services. In other words, online streaming continues to work mostly in favor of existing powerholders in the system. Anglo-American quality content still appears to be the winner in this context.
Digital platforms like Netflix are particularly effective at disseminating characteristics attributed to Anglo-American quality shows since they prefer to cater to niche audiences whom domestic mainstream channels tend to neglect. In a way, “quality programming” emerges as a brand marker for these digital platforms of access. What becomes a brand marker in the U.S. market becomes a global identifier once these platforms expand to new territories around the world. By providing viewers from different parts of the world easier access, these services also familiarize global audiences with quality programming. Emerging local streaming services mimic this model and aim to produce such shows to attract viewers to their platforms by applying the same standards to their originals. Unsurprisingly, Turkish streaming services Blu TV and Puhu TV follow this route in terms of branding themselves as quality content providers and market their first Turkish originals, Masum and Fi, respectively, as quality content.
Although what quality means has long been debated[ii], there are certain elements that viewers, critics, and scholars alike associate with this notion. Especially in the American context, “quality TV” is characterized by higher production values, a cinematic audiovisual style, complex and controversial storylines, genre hybridity, and reflexivity.[iii] In other words, quality programming, whether one describes it in terms of a genre or a visual/narrative mode, actually conjures up similar things for many people. Quality programming also tends to cultivate a synergy between content and technology. Cable channels and online streaming platforms have hosted more examples of this type of programming because they are able to go beyond the limits of American networks’ least-offensive programming strategies. Both Masum and Fi use this model as what I describe “HBO-Netflix type of quality,” and there is not much evidence for a Turkey-specific spin on quality.
Blu TV’s Masum, the first original Turkish show released on an online platform, is a suitable example of the globalization of Anglo-American quality. If your first encounter with Turkish television was the popular historical melodrama Muhtesem Yuzyil (Magnificent Century), Masum will surprise you. There is no exoticization, no Oriental imagery, and no Ottoman royalty. Masum also looks different than the region’s favorite Turkish love stories like Gümüş (Noor) and Binbir Gece (One Thousand and One Nights). No touristic images of Istanbul. No manors overlooking the Bosphorus. No video clip-like scenes with full-length songs full of emotional longing.
Instead, there is a cop struggling to get over his ex-wife’s marriage to another man. There is a case which he is assigned to investigate. And there is a family dealing with multiple tragedies at once. This small-town crime story meshed with family drama could have been set in Cote d’Azur, Northern Denmark, California, or the Korean coastline—virtually any place near a body of water. In addition to having universal themes like murder and family problems, Masum’s narrative and aesthetic style are also globally recognizable. It is a textbook example of quality programming.
Blu TV’s Masum conforms to Anglo-American quality standards both in terms of its content and its platform of access—a Netflix-like digital platform. As a limited series[iv], the program benefits from being commissioned for Blu TV, Doğan Media Group’s digital platform. The limited form—which is also associated with Anglo-American quality programming—is rare[v] for Turkish television. Shorter runtimes and fewer episodes are almost impossible in the super-competitive domestic TV market. Blu TV manages to bypass these limitations as a digital platform. Like Netflix, Blu TV provides freedom both to viewers and content creators because it challenges the visual and narrative standards of mainstream television. With its higher production values and shorter runtimes—approximately 50 minutes, Masum looks very different than mainstream Turkish shows.
Blu TV CEO Aydın Doğan Yalçındağ acknowledges the influence of the Netflix model. In a recent interview, he takes pride in releasing an original, Masum, before Netflix Turkey did.[vi] His statements prove how global Netflix-ization has become and how much Turkey, a rising content exporter, imports a very specific mode of storytelling—in terms of quality content—from the American market. The release of Masum provides an example of the internalization of Anglo-American standards in new centers of production. When these centers imitate generic and stylistic indicators of American quality programming, the Anglo-American hegemony in content production remains intact. There are new centers of production, but their products lack cultural specificity.
It is possible to describe Masum as a high-quality psychological thriller that brings a troubled cop back to the small town he grew up in. Yusuf deals with his own family problems as he tries to solve a crime involving his childhood best friend Taner and Taner’s family. The beautiful aerial shots accompanied by a techno-folk soundtrack make the show’s opening credits look like an introduction to a British crime drama.
Masum is a contemporary story, but it oscillates between different periods of time with flashbacks and dream sequences, similar to the French zombie show Les Revenants. It has a slow pace, which would make it more fitting for Scandinavian or French television than the Turkish screen. Thanks to superb acting from a star cast, though, the slow-burn storytelling doesn’t become exhausting. The show’s cast includes acclaimed actors such as Haluk Bilginer, Nur Sürer, Ali Atay, Okan Yalabık, Serkan Keskin and Tülin Özen. The creator Berkun Oya and director Seren Yüce are both award-winning storytellers in Turkey. The show’s composition of a famous cast and crew further aligns the program with Anglo-American quality standards. There are some plot details that would speak to Turkish viewers more clearly, such as Tarik’s imaginary conversations with his military commander. Turkish audiences, familiar with the traumas of mandatory military service, will make more sense of these exchanges. Nevertheless, the ways in which these scenes are filmed still mimic Anglo-American quality programming aesthetics. In other words, the subject has Turkish elements but the visual and narrative language is not very Turkish.
It is not surprising that Oya[vii] found a digital home for his project, which prioritizes a Netflix-style programming model. In fact, in his previous project he had proved that he could reach Western European and North American viewers by utilizing global quality programming strategies. Oya previously created Son (The End), produced by Ay Yapım, one of the leading television production companies in Turkey. In 2012, despite its moderate ratings in Turkey, Son ended up becoming the first drama to be sold to Western Europe when the Swedish public television stv2 purchased the rights to air it with subtitles. The Dutch format adaptation, Vlucht HS13, was aired on NPO in 2016, while the Spanish version El Accidente is expected to be aired by Telecinco in 2017. Although the American version, Runner, did not make it to the air on ABC despite the pilot order, Son entered the North American market when it became available on Netflix last year. In other words, Oya had already proven his ability to reach North American and Western European markets, something uncommon for Turkish content. Despite their success exporting content to the Middle East, the Balkans, Central Asia, and most recently Latin America, Turkish producers are still working to gain influence in Western European and North American markets. While they struggle to enter the Western markets, Anglo-American quality programming is becoming a standard for online streaming platforms in Turkey, raising more questions about the extent of multidirectionality.
Puhu TV’s Fi, which was released in late March, follows this trend with its generic, thematic, and aesthetic qualities.
Fi is based on Azra Sarızeybek Kohen’s best-selling novel of the same name. Like Masum, it is a multi-layered psychological thriller. In the show, Can Manay (Ozan Güven), a famous psychologist with a mysterious past, falls in love with his neighbor Duru (Serenay Sarıkaya), a dancer. As the show goes on, what looks like a love-at-first-sight story transforms into an intense thriller set in an intricate web of relations and fatal secrets.
The runtime is sixty minutes—shorter than mainstream shows, and each season will have 12 episodes—unlike the thirty-episode standard for the Turkish television. In addition to its popular cast members, high production values, and complex narratives, Fi’s sex scenes and profane dialogues mimic HBO-type of quality. Released on an online streaming platform, the show is enjoying the liberty to use such scenes and dialogues, which are not normally welcome on television.
Unlike Masum, which was conceptualized as a limited series, Fi will continue beyond the first season. (Kohen’s trilogy consists of two other books, Çi and Pi.) The show’s bold scenes and popular actors drew more attention and a bigger fan following than Masum. Although both shows conform to the Anglo-American quality standards, but the major difference that distinguishes Fi from Masum is that the former carries traces of melodramatic aesthetics associated with Turkish television dramas. There are a few “zoom-ins” on the faces of main characters during tense encounters throughout the show. And with one of the major settings of the story an art school, lengthy music and dance performances are scattered throughout the episodes.
Fi’s popularity among Turkish viewers might be because of these examples of melodramatic televisual choices, to which Turkish viewers are accustomed. At the same time, it is necessary to mention that the story revolves around an urban and educated group of characters, who seem to be immune to society’s moral pressures. Privileged enough to seek therapy, to commit their lives to art or to choose whichever partner they want, the show’s characters paint a picture which can be transplanted to any other metropole in the world. Their stories will be more relevant to a Parisian viewer than a rural Turkish viewer. Despite Fi’s storytelling revealing its Turkish accent in a few places, its essence remains closer to the language of Anglo-American quality programming.
With the growing global accessibility of American and European online streaming platforms and the emergence of local versions like Blu TV and Puhu TV, these quality programming standards are slowly consolidated in other markets. A closer look at Masum and Fi, two Turkey-based applications of these standards, reveals how digitalization helps to globalize the Anglo-American definition of quality programming now more than ever. Still, Fi’s relative success over Masum in attracting viewers by continuing to incorporate the melodramatic components associated with Turkish television underlines the need to find the golden ratio between the Anglo-American quality standards and Turkish televisual traditions to achieve domestic success while producing globally mobile shows.
Sebnem Baran is a PhD Candidate at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Los Angeles, CA.
[i] For the video interview with Romer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PLwwdjGwnXX8Qz9XxVoXXp1BNxHzkZXEYk&v=GL3ncyPuBhM
[ii] Logan, Elliott. ” ‘Quality television’ as a critical obstacle: explanation and aesthetics in television studies.” Screen 57.2 (2016): 144-162.
[iii] See Brunsdon, Charlotte. “Problems with Quality.” Screen 31.1 (1990): 67-90.
[iv] For a discussion on the difference between limited series and miniseries and their connection to quality discourses, see Myles McNutt’s article: http://www.carseywolf.ucsb.edu/mip/article/limited-series-are-product-brand-management-not-innovation
[v] 20 Dakika (20 Minutes), based on a French film and produced by Ay Yapım, starred regionally popular Turkish actress Tuba Büyüküstün. Its ratings performance was moderate. Another miniseries, Çıplak Gerçek (The Naked Truth), based on an Israeli format, received very low ratings. Therefore, Masum is an exception for the Turkish industry both with its runtimes and episode numbers.
[vi] For the interview, please see http://www.cnnturk.com/yazarlar/guncel/ozan-onat/turkiyede-internet-televizyonculugu
[vii] Masum’s first trailer acknowledges that the story is based on Berkun Oya’s play Bayrak. Oya is also credited for the script and project development. Although Golden Orange Awardee Seren Yüce is the director, Oya emerges as a proto-showrunner via his authorship. Oya’s name is a recognizable trademark for the targeted audience in Turkey. As a successful playwright, he has been writing and directing award-winning plays for his own theatre company Krek.