Turkey’s Kanal D Turns 20 Volatile

Irfan Sahin averages 10 cups of Turkish coffee and too many cigarettes a day. As he edges toward his 50th birthday, he quips that these habits might keep him from reaching old age, yet he appears anything but worried.

“It’s the quality of life that matters,” he says with a relaxed grin, “and I’m one of the luckiest people in the world, because my job is my hobby.”

Sahin’s job is heading Dogan TV Holding, one of Turkey’s biggest broadcast and production groups, with domestic and international TV, digital, production and music branches under its wings. This week, as the oldest and largest of these companies, Kanal D, turns 20, Sahin reflects on the history of the channel and his own pioneering role in

Turkish television.

When Kanal D began broadcasting on Dec. 19, 1993, it was the eighth private Turkish TV station to bow in a market that was just finding its feet. After decades of strictly controlled public broadcasting, the dawn of pirate satellite transmissions had brought deregulation, and the Turkish sector was prime for speculation. Sahin worked for one of Kanal D’s competitors at the time, and he recalls that the emerging market had a Wild West mentality where the rules were created on the fly.

Twenty years on, many of Kanal D’s former competitors have disappeared, while those still around have undergone bankruptcies and asset sales in a volatile media market. But Kanal D has been consistently successful, taking a place among the top three channels in Turkey since its foundation. This has been all the more true in the years since Sahin came to its helm in 2006.

He attributes this success to some basic guidelines he put in place when he arrived: target a population with an average age of 28, catching the youthful spirit of the country; mainstream the channel by providing programming that a family of five (two parents, two children and one grandparent) can watch together; and increase content production and ownership. In addition, he has overseen a standardization of industry norms for matters ranging from contracts to trial periods for shows.

If managerial reforms have been part of Sahin’s formula for success, though, it’s his role in production that accounts for some of Kanal D’s greatest triumphs. Prior to taking charge of the channel, Sahin worked for two years as head of one of its production branches.

Though he had no experience in that sector, his first project, “Gumus,” although mildly successful, would make an indelible mark on the Turkish TV sector by introducing Kivanc Tatlitug and Songul Oden — now superstars — to auds and run 100 episodes.

Two years later, Sahin, as head of Kanal D, sold the show to Arab broadcaster MBC for a pittance, and started a revolution. “Noor,” as the show was renamed, became a phenomenon across the Arab world, reaching an audience of 85 million viewers at its peak and kindling a demand for Turkish content that turned the country into a major global player in less than five years. Sahin notes that since he took charge in 2006 they’ve sold 55 dramas to 80 countries, becoming the biggest content exporter in Turkey in the process. Needless to say, the latest series are fetching far greater prices than “Noor.”

Sahin’s most recent project, “Kayip” (Secrets), started airing on Kanal D in the fall and will travel to international markets soon. D will bring about 20 new shows to air in 2014, including a hospital drama, local versions of “The Killing,” “Chase” and “Money Drop,” and a shift to focus on comedy, with at least four sitcoms in the works.

The company’s digital growth is also impressive. Its Web portal Kanald.com.tr is the eighth most popular site for video in Turkey, with 80 million videos streamed in November. Since advertising revenue in this sector is minimal across the board in Turkey, Sahin has a two-tier approach to managing: increasing content and viewership at little cost by drawing on the channel’s unparalleled archives, and using the platform to advertise other Dogan companies.

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