Relations between Athens and Ankara can often become cool but Greeks’ love affair with Turkish soap operas is still hot. Yet not everyone is taken in by their leads’ bedroom eyes.
Earthquake diplomacy and business interests have made way for a new breed of Greek-Turkish relations regulated by the remote control. The seduction began a few years ago when Nazli, a poor Turkish baklava maker’s daughter from Gaziantep, fell in love with a Greek tycoon in Yabanci Damat (Borders of Love). The Greek-Turkish series on the private Mega channel set the stage for Greek television’s courtship of viewers through Turkish soap operas.
Last summer’s hit was Binbir Gece (1,001 nights) which hit the ratings jackpot for Antenna television. Seemingly overnight, Sehrazat and Onur became household names, with viewers hooked on developments in their lives as architect Sehrazat went to great lengths to raise her child alone–even if this meant sleeping with the boss. Underpinning the soap opera’s plot was the equally intriguing real-life romance of the two lead actors with its own scandal and turbulence.
“We knew that we had a good product,” says Antenna Group Media Relations Director Kostas Tsolakis. “It is popular in other countries also. In Greece, it had already been tested on Thessaloniki-based Makedonia TV and it had done well. But of course, we could not predict the ensuing hysteria, especially when the show’s leads Berguzar Korel (Sehrazat) and Halit Ergenc (Onur) visited Greece and received a royal welcome by hundreds of fans who had traveled from all around Greece just for an autograph!”
Tsolakis points to the bonds that Greeks and Turks share. “We have a history of population exchanges that works emotively with Greek viewers,” he says. Korel herself pointed to her Cretan lineage from her grandmother’s side of the family during the promotional tour.
No sooner did Binbir Gece end, that Kismet followed; next then came Gumus, while ALPHA joined the ratings race with Aci Hayat. Tried and tested plots, good-looking leads, exotic settings, and most importantly low production costs that keep purchase fees down, make Turkish soap operas an attractive package for Greek broadcasters look to hook audiences while minimizing outlays as they watch revenues from advertising shrink.
Greek actors and others in the television industry aren’t pleased with the competition. Screenwriter Rena Rigga, whose Spiti Mou, Spitaki Mou (Home Sweet Home) was replaced by Kismet, was quick to label heart-throb Burak Hakkit a “weasel”. Director Manoussos Manoussakis, who has been involved with a string of hits, spoke of the “de-Hellenization” of Greek television.
While the reasons television channels are lining up to buy Turkish soap operas–much like they did a few years ago when South American productions were the rage–may be largely financial, some critics who deplore the proliferation of Turkish productions also link them to politics. These critics argue that behind the glossy surface and innocuousness of these soap operas lurks something more sinister, or at least misleading. Sociologist Anastasia Patsiou says the shows create “positive stereotypes” for Turks and give Greek viewers the impression that “we are all the same” when in actual fact the characters represent a small fraction of Westernized Turks. “The truth is that mass media, and especially television, is a means of transmitting values and role models, and a strong vehicle that can be used to create propaganda,” she says.
This dichotomy is also reflected in social media like Facebook. Fan groups expressing their devotion for Turkish series on Greek television–an example, “Make ALPHA Bring Back Aci Hayat’–are matched by other groups who dislike the series.
“What caused me to create the ‘No More Turkish Series’ group was the fact that I kept seeing Turkish productions while zapping one day and I began to truly wonder where our quality Greek series that used to be shown are,” says Sakis Pitsiavas, the group’s administrator. “I honestly cannot watch this ‘beautiful Turkey’ they are presenting, with luxury houses and expensive cars, especially now when all we hear about in our country is the economic crisis.”
One would think that with all this popularity, Turkish language lessons, at least, would be thriving. “The one or two students who come to learn Turkish just because they like watching television usually leave us after several lessons as this is a shallow reason to learn a foreign language,” says Faruk Tuncay, principal of the Eastern Language and Culture Centre for the last thirty years. “I have noted an increased interest in Turkish lessons over the last ten years, mainly due to friendlier business and political ties. Perhaps it is this growing ‘friendliness’ that helped lay the foundations for these series’ current popularity.”
The Turkish soap operas aired on Greek television have also done wonders in promoting images of Turkey. “A number of our travelers ask to be taken to Onur’s house as part of their itinerary when they go to Turkey,” says Nikolas Papadopoulos of the Manessis Travel Agency.