Volkan walks out of his house one morning to discover that, overnight, Turkey has joined the European Union. The first thing he notices is that everybody has become blond. Then he is offered muesli for breakfast instead of his usual bread, cheese and tea. His sister has moved in with her boyfriend. And his two best (male) friends have fallen in love and plan to get married.
Then he wakes up.
Volkan is a character in Avrupa Yakasi (The European Side), a drama series running on ATV, one of Turkey’s main nationwide television networks. It is shown in 90-minute weekly episodes. It is set in the upmarket Istanbul neighbourhood of Nisantasi and is ostensibly a comedy about daily life. Volkan had his Euro-nightmare in an episode broadcast when Turkish enthusiasm for membership of the EU was at its height a couple of years ago, and it had everybody in stitches.
It also touched a nerve. Avrupa Yakasi is a new kind of drama on Turkish TV – one that, sometimes not so gently, skewers the social, religious and class insecurities of Turkey’s new bourgeoisie. Gülse Birsel, the writer and star of the series, mines this rich seam of Turkish life for her characters and plots. Volkan is something of an exemplar of this new type of urban Turk: a city snob who still clings to his village traditions.
Drama on Turkish TV once involved parodying the poor. Now, Ms Birsel, says, the new urban rich are the target. For her, this class is as much rent by insecurities as any other. “We are all trying to be European, dying to look and act like Europeans, but we don’t really know who we are in the end,” she says. Avrupa Yakasi is immensely popular and it is about what she refers to as “the conflict that Turkey is having with itself and among its people and their values and lifestyles. We are all living beside each other and trying to live together.”
If television holds up a mirror to a society, Turkey’s reflected image is rather attractive. Turkish people are opinionated and talkative (not to mention argumentative), and TV reflects this. They also watch a lot of television, and they invariably end up watching themselves. Home-produced drama series, soap operas and talk shows dominate the airwaves. They have in common a degree of seriousness that is rarely found on television elsewhere.
Many of these are state-of-the-nation programmes, and they can be very Istanbul-centric. But whether they are dramas, documentaries or news, they address issues of national political and historical relevance: the secular/religious divide, the debate about the EU, or – among recent highlights – the legacy of the 1960 and 1980 coups d’état.
Until the early 1990s Turkey had only one network – TRT – the state broadcaster that acted, and to an extent still acts, as the official voice of the bureaucratic state (its headquarters are in Ankara). The past 15 years, however, have seen a proliferation of private channels – four popular nationwide stations, including Star, Kanal D and Show TV as well as ATV and many all-news stations, including NTV, CNN Turk, Habertürk (haber is the Turkish word for news) and 24. Each has its political sympathies. Sometimes these are obvious, sometimes not, and they appear to depend on ownership, which is exceptionally concentrated.
Still, there is little doubt that the emergence of private TV stations is one of the most important free-speech developments of the past two decades. Collectively, television has become the nation’s debating chamber (newspaper readership is very low). The “national interest” that TRT once reflected is now just one point of view among many. “Television has provided the space for our political, social and national conversation,” says Bedriye Poyraz, who teaches communications at Ankara University.
Much of this conversation is strikingly highbrow. In no other European country do so many talking heads sit in so many television studios discussing with such earnestness the great issues of the day. As Mehmet Ali Birand, who anchors the evening news on Kanal D, says, this reflects the state of society. “Turkey is trying to find new values, discussing new problems, and it’s fabulous,” he says. “Nobody learns about these things in school, so television is a great tool [for] the education of the public.”
Discussion programmes can last for hours and they often attract small numbers of viewers. But news programmes can generate huge audiences, and one or more of the main evening bulletins on the four big channels appear in the ratings top 10 in any given week. One notable trend in the past few years has been a growing seriousness in the way news is presented, reflecting a desire for information in turbulent times. There is more analysis of domestic events, more international news and fewer magazine stories. “The main news is now serious stuff on the four major networks,” Mr Birand says.
The only rival to drama and news is football – or, more accurately, discussion about football, since none of the private channels can afford to show even a minute of actual play. There is even a programme called Futbol Entelektuel on one of the minor channels. But it is politics that sets the television agenda. “If you go into a café in France or Italy,” Ms Birsel says, “you hear people talking about their lives, or what they did last night. If you go into a café in Turkey, everybody is talking about politics. I use that in my stories.”
This article is part of a series on television around the world. For earlier pieces, visit www.ft.com/arts/tv