The recent exchange of blows between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's son Yair Netanyahu, have not stopped the television series “The Bride From Istanbul” from striking roots in the Holy Land. Stars of the series who were deluged with hugs, kisses, and even marriage proposals while visiting Israel, aren’t deterred by the chilly relations between the two countries and the insults that have been tossed between Erdogan and both Netanyahus, father and son. They’re just happy with the growing sums in their bank accounts.
The entire Turkish television series industry, which according to the Turkish presidency’s liaison bureau earned more than $350 million last year, is planning to increase revenues to more than $1 billion by 2023.
This isn’t a vain ambition, given the meteoric rise the Turkish industry has achieved since 2008, when revenues from series totaled only $10 million.
Turkish TV series are now broadcast in some 150 countries, penetrating into difficult competitive markets, like India and Latin America, which themselves produce hundreds of series. The most significant leap by the Turkish series has been in the Arab market, ever since they started dubbing the show in Arabic or adding Arabic subtitles.
A few scandals have arisen as a result of the storm in which Arab countries have been taken over by Turkish television, with husbands divorcing their wives because they suspected they were secretly in love with the series’ stars.
But like Israel, which does not separate politics and entertainment, the Arabic television network MBC decided this month to stop screening these series due to inconsistencies in Turkish policy with their interests. Turkey, an ally of Iran as well as Qatar with whom the Gulf States and Egypt are waging a political and economic struggle and which is itself considered a hostile country in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, “will no longer be able to enjoy free propaganda,” MBC sources said.
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“Why do we have to spread a pleasant image of Turkey and its charming landscapes through the screening of these series?” MBC representatives said, when asked to explain the decision. And it was not an inexpensive decision. According to industry estimates, it cost the network $50 million due loss of advertising, drops in viewership and the need to purchase alternative content.
It is not known how much network viewership dropped following the decision but reactions on social networks show deep disappointment of viewers, who fell in love with the Arabic-dubbed series that presented the Arab public with a different lifestyle that nonetheless comes from a Muslim country. Turkish producers, for their part, were quick to put some of their content on YouTube, thus retaining at least some of their Arab viewers.
Compared to Turkey’s huge success, the Egyptian TV industry can only lament its gloomy situation. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins in six weeks and during this time, most of the entertainment after the breaking fast consists of watching TV series. Production companies spend a year producing series with 30 episodes so that an episode can be screened every night of the month and on the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of the holiday. It’s the season that yields the big profits that sustain the producers, screenwriters and actors for the entire year.
This year, however, the sitcom, which had been the most popular genre until a few years ago, is going to practically disappear. Egyptian film critics attribute this to the low level of the content and the fact that audiences are fed up with copied American formats, preferring dramas that deal more seriously with real-life issues. But herein lies the economic difficulty that threatens the entire industry. Producing a sitcom is a relatively inexpensive due to the small number of actors needed and a basic set. Drama production requires large casts and huge expenses for sets and costumes.
The success of these series lies mainly in big names that attract viewers, but these big names don’t work for free. According to reports in the Egyptian entertainment media, there are actors who are paid 45 million Egyptian pounds ($2.5 million) for a whole series. That’s a low figure in Hollywood terms but a huge fortune compared to Egyptian wages.
Owners of production companies have complained that the wage of a famous lead actor can reach about half of the total production costs. The rest must be divided between the operating expenses and the salaries of the other actors, who get peanuts. Last year a new decree was imposed on Egyptian producers, under which government television networks are forbidden to purchase series for more than 70 million Egyptian pounds. This means holding tough negotiations with actors to reduce expenses or canceling production plans.
Egypt’s film industry is not in its best shape and it has fewer jobs to offer than the television industry. A ray of light appeared this year from Saudi Arabia, whose crown prince wants to develop the kingdom's film industry. Saudi Arabia, which lacks a professional infrastructure in the field, has brought great hope to Egyptian actors and screenwriters already dreaming about fat salaries. But for now, the dream of Saudi cinema has yet to be realized, and it’s likely Egyptian artists will have to continue to drive taxis or a wait tables between performances.