The Influence of Turkey’s TV Series on Azerbaijani-Turks in Iran
Image: Yuri Snegur/Shutterstock
Amongst Turkey’s fastest-growing exports are its TV drama serials. Known as televizyon dizileri or dizi for short, these are currently watched by an estimated 700 million people in more than 146 countries, from Latin America to the Balkans, the Middle East to Southeast Asia. Worth barely US$100,000 in 2008, dizi-exports have exploded over the past decade and by 2020 were worth an annual $500 million. And that number is expected to double again by 2023. Remarkably, Turkey is now the world’s second-largest exporter of TV drama after the US.
The theme of a dizi series might cover a gamut of themes from romance to action, history to comedy. Unlike many European or North American TV serials, each episode is typically as long as a full-length feature film (over two hours). Although originally designed to screen weekly, global streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu allow viewers to binge on a whole season at one – very long – sitting.
Turkey’s Soft Power
Undoubtedly Turkey is aware that its TV productions are not only economically valuable. They also provide a valuable source of ‘soft power.’ Mainly produced in Istanbul, TV serials frequently use framing shots that showcase the city’s historical landmarks and impressive riverscapes. Tourist attractions, like the Hagia Sophia, Galata Tower and Topkapi Palace, feature prominently, while the Bosphorus bridges present spectacular viewpoints encompassing both sides of the giant metropolis. Through TV representations, Turkey’s historical, cultural and natural beauty is promoted subconsciously to a worldwide audience. Indeed, TV serials have reportedly played a significant role in attracting more tourists to Turkey, especially from Arab countries
The Maiden Tower, ‘Kiz Kulesi,” near Uskudar in Istanbul is an iconic image of Turkey that features often in Turkish serials. It’s one of the few structures left from Byzantium times. Image: Hakan Yasar/Shutterstock.
Meanwhile, the unspoken assumptions underpinning depictions of Turkey as an affluent, well-functioning society challenge negative representations of the country in Hollywood and the Western media. The painfully negative stereotypes peddled most infamously by the 1978 movie Midnight Express (1978) are long gone. Instead, dizi serials promote modern Turkey’s political, ideological, economic, and cultural influences to regional and global audiences.
This is understood at the highest levels. In 2016, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrated the success of one particular Turkish TV series by quoting an African proverb: ‘until the lions start writing their own stories, their hunters will always be the heroes.’
“That’s why lions will continue to write their own stories,” said Erdogan, framing Turks as the lions and emphasizing the importance that Turkey attaches to television dramas as representations of the nation for both domestic and international consumption.
The influence of Turkey’s TV Series on Iran
Iran is one country where Turkish television series enjoy particular popularity. That’s despite the fact that Iran does not officially allow private television or radio stations and that satellite receivers are technically illegal. In practice, however, satellite dishes are very commonly used, giving millions of Iranians access to non-governmental television and radio from all across the globe. In this way, many Iranians watch Persian language satellite services like GEM TV broadcast from the diaspora as well as foreign channels. Iranian platforms such as Filimo offer dubbed versions of foreign series with a suitable degree of self-censorship necessary to avoid Iranian government interference.
Tabriz, the largest city in northwestern Iran, is one of the historical capitals of Persia and the present capital of East Azerbaijan Province. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Increasingly, Turkish TV shows are trending in Iran thanks to series like Binbir Gece (One Thousand and One Nights), Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century), and Kara Sevda (Endless Love). They have attracted many viewers for their acting, production, and colourful features. For Iranians of any background, these TV shows are seen as high-quality entertainment products, something often lacking on Iran’s official channels.
To be clear, the Iranian government is aware that Turkish and other non-state television series have become very popular. From time to time, Iran’s semi-official news agencies such as Fars News or Mehr News publish articles that frame these TV shows as “culturally and morally subversive.” They are sometimes accused of poisoning Iran’s “authentic” national culture and harming “family values.” Government media outlets typically perceive the influence of Turkish channels as a threat, especially to the country’s sizeable Azerbaijani-Turk population. This group can generally understand modern Turkish due to the linguistic proximity of Turkey’s Turkish and Azerbaijani Turkish. Despite being the country’s second-largest ethnic group, and around 30% of its population, Iranian Azerbaijani-Turks have no media outlets that broadcast in their own language. Moreover, watching a Turkish television series in the original language version is possible without subtitles or dubbing into Farsi/Persian, particularly useful for Iranian Azerbaijani-Turks with limited schooling. There are people born and raised in Iran whose Farsi is so poor, they can’t benefit from Iran’s national TV and radio programs.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
In a 2018 interview, Mohsen Latifi, the director-general of Iran’s East Azerbaijan provincial radio and television, highlighted the unequal competition they had with Turkish TV channels:
“Turkish channels use common language and [feature] a lot of cultural elements that we have in common.”
According to Latifi, a study conducted by the research center in Tabriz on sympathy for Turkish TV channels revealed that more than 44% of the city’s population uses satellite dishes. Of those, 75% view the Republic of Azerbaijan and Turkish channels broadcast on TurkSat.
TV series from Turkey are important cultural and linguistic resources for learning and promoting Turkic languages among the millions of Azerbaijani-Turks who reside not only in Iran’s Azerbaijan provinces but also in central regions of Iran such as Tehran, Qom, Qazvin, Hamadan, and Shiraz. In the national capital, Tehran, Turkish TV shows were reported as being overwhelmingly the primary motivator for enrolment in Turkish language courses at the Yunus Emre Institute, a non-profit organization created by the government of Turkey.
By offering its viewers positive linguistic and cultural experiences, Turkey’s television serials challenge Iran's stereotypes and negative perceptions of Turks and Turkic languages. After all, Turks are often stereotyped in Iranian mainstream cinema and television as “backward” or “ignorant” people. Their accents when speaking Farsi are often highlighted, made fun of, and framed as evidence of Turks’ inferior status. The consequence of this ideological representation has been an internalized idea of Turkish inferiority (and Persian superiority) by both minority and majority communities in the country. This unfortunate representation has given many Turks a negative experience of Iranian television and cinema, further encouraging the popularity of the Turkish dizi series.
Cemal Hunal is greeted by the public at an event in Istanbul. Hunal plays Ares/Ahmed from Diriliş: Ertuğrul, a historical adventure series about the life of Osman I’s father set in the 13th century. Image: Turkey Photo/Shutterstock. Image: Turkey Photo/Shutterstock
For many Iranian Turks, TV serials based on Turkish history are particularly popular – and relevant. Examples include Diriliş: Ertuğrul (Resurrection: Ertugrul), Uyanış: Büyük Selçuklu (Awakening: Great Seljuk), and Alparslan: Büyük Selçuklu (Alparslan: Great Seljuk), all offering historical narratives that are very different from the official discourse in Iran regarding the country’s various Turkic rulers – notably the Seljuks. Turkic dynasties ruled Iran for almost a millennium. Yet in Iranian nationalist historiography, their importance is regularly downplayed, and they’re generally (mis)represented as “conquerors” and “invaders” who destroyed an ancient “Iranian-Aryan” civilization. Of course, such discourses in Iranian historiography have had harmful impacts on the country’s perceptions of its Turkic population. Turkish historical TV shows offer an alternative social construction of these histories. They give positive historical representations of Turkic historical figures and challenge the negatively fixed nationalist images of Turks still dominant in Iran.
Television series and cultural products are more than forms of entertainment. Their narratives and representations construct and influence our perceptions about ourselves and the world around us. With the ever-growing success of Turkish TV series, more Iranians are likely to watch, to question the misrepresentation of their own communities in programmes aired on Iran’s state-run television channels, and to feel more positive about themselves.
 A historical drama called Diriliş: Ertuğrul (Resurrection: Ertuğrul)
 Farsi is the only official language in Iran where over half of the population are ethnic minorities.