Turkey’s 'morally clean' TV series under fire

Amid a big expansion in their foreign audience, Turkish TV series are barred from featuring alcohol, smoking and anything sexual, but are free to show unstinted violence.

al-monitor The opening scene of the popular Turkish TV show Elif. Photo by YouTube/Elif Dizisi.

Apr 12, 2019

Turkish TV series are enjoying an export boom. A heavy dose of violence and gunfights may have contributed to this boom. Under pressure to attune to the government’s conservative worldview, TV series in recent years have been cleansed of love-making scenes and “bad habits” such as alcohol, drugs and smoking, leading producers to add thrill by increasing the dose of violence.

Arguably, the “moral” filter has facilitated the sale of TV series to foreign markets, especially Muslim countries in the Middle East.

In 2010, Turkish companies sold TV series to 20 countries, generating some $50 million. Last month, Culture and Tourism Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy said overseas sales had reached $350 million, making Turkey one of the biggest exporters of TV series in the world. The minister said Turkish TV shows have aired in more than 150 countries.

The expansion also appears to benefit others in the business community. Sekib Avdagic, the head of the Istanbul Trade Chamber, said TV series marketed overseas are stoking demand for other Turkish products as well. “We are happy to see that Turkish productions are gluing millions of people to the screens of their TV sets, smartphones and computers in many countries, from Sweden and Costa Rica to China and Spain. With the ground already laid by the series, it becomes very easy for our entrepreneurs to enter the markets of those countries,” Avdagic said. Fragrances named after Turkish soap-opera stars have broken sales records in the Middle East, he noted, adding that the TV series had helped attract more Middle Eastern tourists to Turkey and fanned interest in Turkish-language courses in countries such as Egypt, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece.

Also, Turkish furniture makers have boosted exports to countries where Turkish soap-operas enjoy high popularity, such as the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Oman and Kuwait.

According to Izzet Pinto, the owner of Global Agency, a leading soap-opera exporter, Turkish actors have become so popular in the Middle East, the Balkans and South America that Turkish TV series are now being sold at much higher prices than those of American ones to those regions.

While their international audience expands, the TV series are under fire at home for absolving violence from the “bad morals” category.

For Ismail Gunes, a former chair of the Professional Association of Cinematographic Authors, the scale of violence and luxury in the TV series has become tantamount to pornography. “Porn generally brings to mind sex only, but what we see now in the TV series is the pornography of violence and luxury. Look at the pomp of the venues in the series! This is bearing on the people. They are yearning to live the lives shown in the series,” Gunes told Al-Monitor. He added, “Unfortunately, movies and soap operas with the most violence and swearing get the highest ratings in Turkey, as they do around the world.”

Mafia wars and gunfights have become so overblown and preponderant in the series that some viewers have taken to social media to express their indignation.

Cengiz Gulec, a renowned Turkish psychiatrist and academic, says the prominent use of firearms in the series is detrimental especially to children and adolescents, encouraging them to violence. “Such soap operas promote problem-solving through the use of violence and its most explicit instrument — guns,” Gulec told Al-Monitor. “More reasonable means of problem-solving such as negotiation or persuasion are omitted. That’s very objectionable in terms of the mental health of society.”

And what about the “moral filter” that bars sexuality and booze from the screen?

Hasan Askin, an avid soap opera watcher, said, “No one makes love, drinks or smokes in our TV series. Even spouses don’t kiss. They don’t make love but they do make wars. The way the stories are told goes against the nature of life.” Decrying the intensive use of blurring, including for alcohol, cigarettes, car logos and signboards with trademarks, Askin added, “And the swearing is bleeped out. So, it’s either a blur or a beep all the time. But in mob wars, dozens of people can be killed in a single episode.”

The moralistic omission of some aspects of human life, including sexuality, amounts to “alienation from real life and distortion of reality,” Gulec said. “Censoring traits that are inherent to human nature and part of daily life is ridiculous.”

Ayhan Akcan, a psychiatrist who sits on the board of the Umut Foundation, a leading campaigner against individual armament, said that as TV series have been "encouraging the use of guns,” acquiring them has become much easier in Turkey in recent years, including purchases via the internet.

“The rate of firearms usage in murders has climbed to 70% [as] the rate of firearms usage increased 10% from 2015 to 2018,” Akcan said. “A third of the murder perpetrators are below age 28 and most of the victims are young people as well.”

Aksan sees a link between the TV series and the young killers. “Group dynamics are important in adolescence,” he said. “Adolescents become members of groups or gangs they form with their friends, away from their parents. And when guns become a complementary element here, serious problems emerge, including murders and suicides. They [often] learn this from the TV series. They take the characters as role models and copy their behavioral patterns.”

Turkey’s broadcasters are under the supervision of the Higher Board of Radio and Television (RTUK), which watches out for and penalizes programs that go against “Turkish family structure.” RTUK chair Ilhan Yerlikaya said in December that “it is time to rid TV series of violence and other concepts that could have an adverse impact on Turkish family structure and be a bad example for our children and youth.” Yet no action has been taken so far.

Ismet Demirdogen, a RTUK member nominated by the main opposition, told Al-Monitor, “Hundreds of violent scenes enter homes via television sets every day, but, unfortunately, the RTUK has been a passive bystander. Penalties are being slapped only on the few oppositional channels.”

Since members nominated by the ruling party hold the majority on the board, the violence on the screens is apparently not so objectionable to the government.

Meanwhile, some soap-opera makers have begun to add extra scenery and other images that appeal to foreign tourists, following a recent legal amendment that stipulates incentives for productions that promote Turkey abroad. Propped up by the incentives, the sector aims to boost its exports to $1 billion by 2023.

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