By Deniz Ziya Temeltas and staff writers
For Turkish producers 2015 should be a great year — as well as a challenging one. Last year was a great year, too, but it marked the beginning of the new challenges facing Turkish producers.
Over 45,000 hours of Turkish programs were sold outside Turkey last year and that figure is expected to triple this year, with sales from China to Chile and from MENA to the North Sea countries. Plus, partnerships are expected to multiply, like the one that has been set up between Dubai’s MBC and Turkish company O3 Türkiye for the series Kaderimin Yazıldığı Gün (A Part of Me), as well as the remake of the American series Pretty Little Liars, a Warner Bros. teen drama produced for ABC Family in the U.S.
Nevertheless, with a new ratings system in place since last year, producers are taking more risks. Over 75 series have been canceled due to low ratings, thus increasing overall production costs. With the new ratings system, the threshold to kill a series has been lowered from nine points to about four and, like their American counterparts, Turkish broadcasters are quick to pull a series off the air if it doesn’t meet the public’s expectations.
In addition, demand for better wages and fewer work hours from “below-the-line” workers will further add to production costs, which now range from U.S.$50,000 to $190,000 per one-hour episode. Costs are also increasing for “above-the-line” workers, with O3-MBC paying $3 million just to retain popular actress Meryem Uzerli to star in a yet unnamed series. Uzerli became famous with the series Muhte em Yüzyıl and her new series is expected to be popular both in Turkey and overseas, just as Suleiman was in Continental Europe, North America and South America, where it was dubbed El Gran Sultan.
The risk of having a series canceled after fewer than the first order of 13 episodes is serious, especially after producers make initial investments that could reach $4 million per series. Usually, a second order runs for 26 episodes while a full season is 39 episodes of 90 minutes each.
In one case, Ay Yapin, Turkey’s largest producer, saw its series Kurt Seyit and Sura — seven episodes of which were shot in St. Petersburg, Russia — canceled after 17 episodes despite costing $2 million per episode. However, the production value and international appeal of the series generated enough foreign sales to cover costs.
And Turkish producers seem prepared for new challenges. Looking ahead to the pre-production start-ups in coming weeks, there are nearly 30 series being readied with start dates ranging from January to March.
The international acceptance of Turkish series — reaching more than 450 million viewers in over 75 countries — enriches Turkey in more ways than sales figures alone (which reached nearly U.S.$300 million in 2014). Indeed, the increased number of tourists and exports of Turkish products brings in even more revenue and is related to the popularity of the Turkish series overseas. The popularity of Turkish series has helped tourism, with more than 25 companies hosting tours of Istanbul venues shown in Turkish series.
Turkey has also developed a well-experienced international distribution industry with Istanbul-based companies such as Can Okan’s ITV Inter Medya and Izzet Pinto’s Global Agency. Plus, some of the producers and TV channels also have sales divisions.
In effect, the Turkish production process replicates that of the U.S. and some other countries. Basically, the producer pitches the network, which orders anywhere from 13 to 26 to 39 episodes of 90-minutes each. But as indicated above, the series can be canceled for poor ratings at anytime. Yet, depending on the producer’s influence, the network could allow some leeway, and the production company can tinker with new characters and/or new writers. If all fails and the series is yanked, the producer can bring the remaining episodes to another TV network. Usually, the network begins to pay producers two to three weeks after the series starts airing, and the payments are done per episode.
Sometimes networks cover all production costs and in these cases, the networks’ international sales divisions get distribution rights, retaining 30 percent for their services in the case of independent producers.
When network license fees don’t cover production costs, producers team up with one of the country’s top six independent international distributors for overseas sales. Nevertheless, the commissioning channel still keeps 50 percent of the producer’s share of revenues from international and domestic sales. Normally, no upfront money or advances against commission are involved and distributors can also syndicate the series to other domestic networks one or two years after their primetime (8 p.m.-11 p.m.) network run. Those networks schedule the re-runs in the afternoon or late-night time slots.
It’s also interesting to review the international acceptance patterns of the long series, or soap operas as they are called in the U.S., or telenovelas as they’ve been known in Latin America since the late 1950s. While in the traditional U.S. model, soaps don’t have definite endings, Latins assign them an ending, creating anywhere from 140 to 160 one-hour episodes, and now, with the development of super-series, the episodes have been reduced to 60 or 80 at the most.
The Turkish novelas, which entered into the domestic Turkish TV market in 1974, and internationally in the year 2000, also range between 52 and 78 one-hour episodes. Today, the new entrant into the long series TV format is South Korea with these programs being popular in China and increasingly in Southeast Asia. In terms of international appeal, the U.S. soaps were not widely accepted and were quickly supplanted by the more popular Latin telenovelas starting in 1979. It is possible that American international TV distributors did not market their soaps as aggressively as the Latins did, with the Americans preferring instead to focus on their weekly series, which were carrying large deficits that needed to be recouped with foreign sales. Turkish international TV distributors have learned from their Latin counterparts and thus have heavily marketed their long series, which are now well received worldwide, even in the Latin TV market.
On the other hand, South Korean international TV distributors have not yet embarked on successful marketing campaigns of their long series in the West, limiting themselves to sharing tables at pavilion stands during TV trade shows, and without trade advertising or PR support.
For the time being, South Korean producers of long series seem content with their organic growth in China, North Korea (with DVDs smuggled through China) and in some other Asian countries. At last year’s L.A. Screenings, four South Korean producers organized a general screening luncheon with the help of KOCCA, the country’s foreign marketing government agency, but the result was at best disappointing in terms of organization, promotion and attendees (mostly made up of KOCCA and Consulate officials and Korean producers and distributors).