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01 May 13

Turks Bewitch The Balkans With Their Addictive Soaps

Turkish soaps have replaced Latin American shows as must-sees for many TV viewers in the Balkans - tapping into nostalgia for a system of family values that people in the region have lost, and lament. 

Amina Hamzic, Maja Nedelkovska, Donjeta Demolli and Nemanja Cabric BIRN Sarajevo, Skopje, Pristina, Belgrade
Yasemin (Nurgül Yesilçay) and Savas (Murat Yildirimfrom Love and Punishment

Turn on the TV in any part of the Balkans today and you may well tune into a Turkish soap opera.

Booming in popularity across the region, according to media research agencies, dozens of these imports are being screened daily on televisions from Albania to the Black Sea. 

Sociologists explain the phenomenon, in part, as a sentimental reaction on the part of viewers in the Balkans to an old patriarchal family model that appears dead in the Balkans but which is still alive in Turkey – at least in TV shows.

Viewers that Balkan Insight talked to say they love the shows for their realistic characters, intriguing plot lines that include whole families and the lack of violence and obscenities.

Darko Brocic, director of the AGB Nielsen, which conducts media research across the region, says the popularity of Turkish shows has become immense in recent years and shows no sign of fading.

”Turkish soaps have replaced shows from Latin America, which boomed 15 years ago, and have taken over part of their audience share,” he says.

“They aren't always the most watched shows on TV, but they are in the top 15,“ he adds.

Ottomans are back:

Data show that, in the region, Turkish shows are most watched in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia followed by Kosovo and Serbia, where the phenomenon is still developing.

Research by Mareco Index Bosnia shows that in the first quarter of 2013, for example, 13 Turkish shows were being screened on nine stations by two TV networks.

The most watched show in Bosnia and Herzegovina was “Magnificent Century“, which is set in the golden age of the Ottoman Empire at the court of Suleiman the Magnificent.

In Macedonia, of nine Turkish shows on air, five were ranked in January 2013 among the top 15 in terms of viewers, according to AGB Nielsen.

As Time Goes By” and “Asi” came first and second in terms of viewers. “Zavet (“Pledge”), “Mother” and “Memories Still Hurt” also ranked in the top 15. The trend continued in February with minor changes at the top of the list.

Three Turkish shows are currently on air in Kosovo. The most popular in December 2012 were  “What is Fatmagül's fault,”  which ranked top of all programmes and “Love and punishment,” which came third according to data by Index Kosova. 

In Serbia, four Turkish soaps are currently on air on three television stations, although none made it onto the Top 15 list compiled by AGB Nielsen.

The most popular Turkish show that appeared in their measuring was “When Leaves Fall,” which ranked 17th in the overall TV programme in February 2012. 

Research from this year shows that in January 2013 the top two Turkish shows were “Magnificent Century,” which ranked fourth, and “As Time Goes By,” which came seventh.

Tapping into nostalgia:

Characters from As Time Goes

Serbian sociologist Ratko Bozovic says people identify with the patriarchal values of the Turkish shows, and enjoy spotting the many cultural and linguistic similarities that they recognize while watching the shows.

“The mentality depicted in those shows has to do with a traditional understanding of morality that people in Serbia remember at some level,” he says.

Bozovic said that all Balkan countries have seen dramatic changes in terms of family life, and the Turkish shows help them recall value systems that now seem lost.

“The traditional family model has gone to ruins in the Balkans while the new model is not functioning yet,” Bozovic explains.

Artan Muhaxhiri, a sociologist from Kosovo, attributes the success of these series more to the fact that they do not require much intellectual effort.

Scenarios are constructed in such a way that both dialogue and events are simple, sometimes verging on banality, he maintains.

“The stories are melodramatic, lengthy and emotionally charged, which promotes the establishment of relations of viewers to crowds of characters,” he says.

Muhaxhiri believes that Turkish series have an additional advantage in penetrating the Albanian market, as “the cultural references are very similar to those of our viewers.

“Social norms and values, the general mentality, family relationships, lifestyle, clothing, food, furniture, character names - Albanian viewer can easily identify with all these cultural elements in Turkish soaps,” he adds.

Love actually:

Darko Brocic, director of AGB Nielsen, says that while Turkish shows are widely watched throughout the region, their popularity depends on the particular show.

“Generally, love stories do better among audiences because these shows are mostly watched by women,” he says.

“Even the historical topics are imagined more as stories from everyday life, so the historical component is not the main one,” Brocic adds.

Turkish producers didn’t invest much in that area, and the accent, even in “Magnificent Century”, is more on the intricacies that take place at court than on the historical events, he continues.

Commenting on the rise of dubbed Turkish soaps in Macedonia a few years ago, he observes that these shows also became more popular precisely because of the dubbing, as it helps viewers who have difficulties following subtitles.

“In Serbia there is no custom of dubbing programmes, except for children, but the Macedonians have done it well by casting good actors whose voices became recognizable to audiences,” he notes.

On the other hand, Bozovic says people are also drawn by the original Turkish language, as they can pick up on words that their languages have borrowed from Turkish and the other way around.

‘Adios’ to Spanish:

Asi , the character from a play under the same name played by Tuba Büyüküstün

Most people who follow Turkish soaps in Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia say they admire the family relations depicted in them, as well as cultural similarities.

Nefisa Bubić, a pensioner from Sarajevo, says the stories remind her of fairy tales in which good and evil are strongly opposed to one another.

“I like the way they represent relationships between children and parents in shows like ‘When Leaves Fall,’ which is full of the deep respect that once existed here as well,” she says, adding that she enjoys noting similarities between Turkish and Bosnian languages.

Irnesa Senderovic, also from Sarajevo, says these shows taught her what people can be like, what are they ready to do and thus what to expect from the future.

“I got fed up with Spanish-language shows because they all follow the same pattern and involve plots that don’t happen in everyday life to ordinary people,” she says.

She says that she likes the Turkish language and their culture, as well as finding the acting in the shows lifelike.

Elvira Malic, a trader from Sarajevo, finds Turkish shows relaxing. The characters are more realistic than those in shows from Spain and Latin America; even the most evil characters have some redeeming human qualities.

“I like the element of oriental exoticism that I recognize in the costumes of actors like those in ‘Magnificent century,’” she says.

“Their culture is also close to me, as there are a lot of things here left over from the Ottomans. We call our coffee ‘Turkish’, for example, even if we prepare it differently. I am interested in these things.”

Zvezda Blazevska, from Skopje, compares her husband’s passion for football with hers for Turkish shows.

“My family protest when I watch them and argue with me but I tell them that it presents real relaxation for me,” she says. “Most of them are dubbed, so I can do my knitting at the same time, which is a double pleasure.”

Almasa Alilovic, also from Skopje, says watching Turkish soaps has become a family ritual in their household.

“We watch Turkish shows together, which is nice,” she says. “You can hear something happening in the show and afterwards recognize a similar situation in your own life,” she adds. “It’s not like I identify myself with the stories, but there are beautiful stories in there.”

Alilovic likes love stories best, as well as the actors, who she says “are handpicked so they compel you to watch the shows and amaze you and make you interested in them”.

Aco Ristovski, from Skopje, likes the fact that characters are not superheroes; there is no violence, just ordinary human tales.

“They are like a light novel. They are more interesting than American ones with all those lawyers and businessmen who don't have the same customs as us,” he says. “Turkish shows are much closer to us.

“Many people make fun of those who watch Turkish shows,” he adds. “I tell them that I need this relaxation, and the offer on Macedonian television provides no other choice.”

All the way to Istanbul:

Snježana Radenković, from Serbia, says was so thrilled with some of the shows that she watched that she went all the way to Istanbul to find out more.

“I saw the old city and the Topkapi Palace, which includes the harem, as well the old houses that look like those in the shows that I enjoy,” she enthuses.

She says her friends also watch these shows, and they are a frequent topic in their conversations.

“When I headed to Istanbul, I left a message on my Facebook profile that I was going to find Savash (a character from Love and Punishment played by Murat Yıldırım), and so many people liked my status and commented on it that I realized that everyone watched the same show,” she says.

She feels many people do not want to admit that they watch these soaps because they feel ashamed to do so.

“It’s not 'in', although it is perfectly all right to watch Hollywood productions,” she continues. “But I do not feel ashamed at all. On the contrary I am delighted.”

Amela Bicic, a student of journalism from Belgrade, says that almost the whole of her family in Belgrade, as well as those scattered across the world, in the US and Canada, enjoy watching Turkish shows.

Her two grandmothers both buy magazines in which they follow the latest gossip about their favourite actors together.

Although she doesn't watch much television herself, she sometimes sits with them in order to spend time together - and says the Turkish shows seem superior to their Spanish and Indian rivals.

“Indian shows are awful. The acting is terrible. Turkish shows you can watch and cry through all the time. They are much better than the others,” she says.

Syzana Gashi, a fan from Peja, in Kosovo, has lots of time to spend on her favourite shows. “I have a plenty of time in the day since I quit my job, that's why I watch TV soaps,” she says.

On the other hand, Lirim Bekteshi, from Gjilan, compares soaps to “reading a novel. They give you the same story, just visualized,” he explains.  

Hajrie Reka, from Pristina, says watching TV soaps has become almost a way of life. From Latin American shows to Turkish ones, she has seen them all.

“I love them; they relax me after the stress of the day,” Reka concludes. “It’s an addictive habit.”

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