Turkish Soaps Slip by Middle East Censors

The wildly popular sexy series stay a step ahead of politicos and rake in big bucks for producers

In the West, attitudes toward sexual themes on TV are relaxed, but in the conservative Middle East, such themes are taboo — except when they come disguised as a Turkish soap opera.

Earlier this month, Pakistan’s media regulator banned a TV condom ad produced by U.S. nonprofit DKT Intl. in which a newly married man recommends the product to a friend. The attempt to introduce family planning to a country of 180 million with an annual 2% population growth was “in sheer disregard to our sociocultural and religious values,” the country’s media watchdog said in a statement after receiving thousands of complaints from Muslim viewers.

At the same time, steamy Turkish soaps are hugely popular in Pakistan, including “Forbidden Love,” featuring busty Turkish beauties in miniskirts, and peppered with love triangles and incest; “Noor,” about a woman pursuing a man who is mourning his dead lover; and historical bodice-ripping megahit “Magnificent Century.”

Produced by Tims Prods., “Century,” based on 16th-century figures in the Ottoman empire and focused on an influential slave in the sultan’s harem, has been sold by distributor Global Agency to 48 countries, mostly in the Middle East, reaching an estimated 200 million viewers.

Turkish soap operas hit a reported $130 million in foreign sales last year, up from a mere $1 million in 2007. Turkish culture is hot in the Muslim world, and what’s depicted on the shows is seen as a counterinfluence to auds living under ultraconservative rule in region.

In Turkey, the show scores an average 27 primetime share on Wednesday nights on Star TV.

Since all three shows depict Muslims engaging in varying degrees of scandalous behavior, conservative Pakistani pols have proposed a ban on the Turkish sudsers, and so has Pakistan’s United Producers Assn., claiming soaps’ dominance in the ratings undermines local TV producers. But so far no government action has been taken.

Egypt, too, has seen a political backlash against the popular programs: In August, several channels pulled the shows to protest Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s support of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi after Morsi’s ouster by the military.

Ironically, Erdogan himself has railed against “The Magnificent Century,” claiming the show was a historical travesty. Though the soap’s star, Meryem Uzerli, has left the program, production continues — and viewers continue to watch.

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