The hottest TV shows in the Arab world right now aren’t even Arabic.
Turkish melodramas such as “Nour” and “The Last Years,” which air on leading pan-Arab satcaster MBC, have proved a smash hit with Arab auds ever since they debuted on the channel earlier this year.
“Nour,” about a young Turkish woman who marries a rich businessman only to discover he’s in love with someone else, preemed on MBC 1on March 29. Since then, interest in the skein has been so high that MBC execs also started airing it during primetime just after “Oprah” on MBC 4, their majority English-language femme-skewing channel.
MBC even launched a pay TV channel in partnership with Showtime Arabia entirely dedicated to “Nour” that allows viewers to watch episodes of the sudser round the clock.
The success of the experiment is due in large part to MBC founder and chairman Sheik Waleed al-Ibrahim. It was his decision to acquire the Turkish dramas and have them dubbed into colloquial Syrian dialects, rather than the more formal, classical Arabic used for other skeins.
The result is that some Arab viewers initially didn’t even realize they were watching a Turkish show.
“Turkish drama has been our big story this year. It’s doing great,” Waleed tells Variety. “It has a lot to do with the cultures, which are similar. When you dub into the Syrian dialect, it’s a perfect formula. Turkey and Syria are very similar in culture and even the landscape. You have many Turks who live in the borders with Syria who speak Syrian and vice versa. People here thought at first that it was a Syrian production.”
Dubbed foreign dramas are nothing new to the Arab TV biz, with Mexican telenovelas long a staple of daytime Arab TV skeds. What is different this time around, however, is the proximity in both geography and culture of the country being used. Turkey’s TV industry produces more than 100 TV soap operas a year, at an average cost of $250,000 per series. That means MBC and other Arab TV channels have abundant new sources of content.
“Despite being very nice looking, the Latin Americans don’t look that much like us,” says MBC’s director of content Badih Fattouh. “Turkey is an Islamic society like us, even if they are a little more modern. Also there’s a little more freedom in their programming, so that can be sexy without being sleazy or vulgar.”
TV drama production has traditionally been the forte of the Egyptian industry. Recent years have seen an overreliance on the same actors and all-too-familiar storylines, leaving Arab auds hungry for new ideas. The success of the Turkish series doesn’t spell the end for Arab drama yet, however. The onset of Ramadan, the biggest season in the Arab TV calendar, which this year begins Sept. 1, will see the likes of “Nour” and “The Lost Years” give way to big-budget Arab dramas, known locally as musalsalsat, from Egypt, Syria and the Gulf.