This story first appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
When the NBC legal drama Game of Silence debuts on American TV screens next year, few viewers are likely to know what a victory it will represent for the Turkish television industry, which has had years of explosive export growth. The NBC drama is the first U.S. adaptation of a Turkish series, marking a major milestone for the world’s second-largest TV industry after the U.S. You read that correctly: Turkey’s TV exports were worth roughly $200 million in 2014, according to the Turkish Exporters Assembly. That’s a staggering two-thousandfold increase over just 10 years ago when international sales were hovering below $100,000. This year the number is expected to reach the $240 million mark.
“It’s a watershed for us,” says Izzet Pinto, CEO of Istanbul-based international sales outfit Global Agency. “What Homeland has been for Israel, Game of Silence is for Turkey. It’s our first big thing.”
While it’s not quite the conquest of Constantinople, Game of Silence could very well put Turkey on the global TV map after a decade of telenovela-style dramas from the Mediterranean nation that were often relegated to the Middle East and Eastern European markets. That was until such lavish historical dramas as Thousand and One Nights and Magnificent Century became international hits.
These newer shows — what Pinto calls “dramas with a novela touch” — have higher production values while keeping in line with traditional Turkish (read: no sex) mores.
Thousand and One Nights — very loosely based on the classic collection of folk tales — was the first drama to sell to Chile and became a massive hit. The finale earned a 30 share and became the top-rated show in the country in 2014, even topping the country’s World Cup match against Brazil. That opened the doors to other telenova-loving Latin American markets, and Turkish shows have dominated the region since.
“Once we entered [Latin America], the reaction has been phenomenal,” says Pinto.
Costume drama Magnificent Century — based on the exploits of Ottoman sultan Suleyman the Magnificent — followed (with the same actor in the lead role, local heartthrob Halit Ergenc, who has since become a superstar throughout South and Latin America) and sold to 68 countries, including Mundo Fox in the U.S.
Even more than Thousand and One Nights, Century represents a step forward for Turkish television, with its enhanced production values and a clear Turkish point of view, says TIMS Productions CEO Timur Savci. He shepherded the show through a two-and-a-half-year production process, unheard of in the Turkish television market, which typically relies on quick turnover.
“I envisioned it as a global project from the beginning,” says Savci. “I wanted to avoid the past mistakes of Turkish dramas that weren’t strong visually or narratively.”
This was no small task when one considers that succeeding in Turkish TV is not easy. Indeed, the Turkish television market can be brutally competitive: With eight free-to-air channels, and shows that typically run 90 minutes and often begin with hourlong recap episodes, broadcasters are quick to cut underperforming programs. Episodes are expensive and shows don’t get series commitments easily. A new show can be killed after just a few episodes.
Now, however, the lure of quality over quantity is beginning to take hold. “Turkish dramas can often focus on volume, but creative producers are coming into the mix,” says Savci.
Magnificent Century has become so successful that the spinoff Magnificent Century Kosem will launch at MIPCOM, and an L.A.-based outpost of TIMS opened in May to produce an English-language version. The pilot is set to shoot next year.
Elsewhere, reality megaproducer Endemol Shine entered the market in 2008, but focused mainly on reality shows before expanding into drama in 2012. Their babies-switched-at-birth melodrama Broken Pieces also is a certified global hit, selling to 20 countries and counting across the Middle East, Central and Eastern Europe, and it’s been renewed by broadcaster Star TV for 34 episodes.
“The Turkish industry has done well enough that we have grown to a certain level of production,” says Broken Pieces star Erkan Petekkaya. “But now that foreign capital is investing in Turkey and in Turkish drama, it is a pioneering effect. The fact that a global company is now entering the Turkish market is phenomenal.”
As is NBC’s adaptation of Game of Silence. While it remains to be seen if the show will be a hit, the fact that Hollywood has come calling bodes well for an industry trying to move beyond its epic dramas and fit the confines of the global TV sector.
“We can adapt to international demand,” says Mehment Demirhan, head of acquisitions, sales and co-productions at national public broadcaster TRT. “It falls on us to meet those expectations for the market.”