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International TV execs talk Turkey

Discop buyers buzz about Byzantine bazaar

ISTANBUL — In the crowded corridors of an international television market in a swanky hotel near Istanbul’s famous Taksim Square, it is abundantly clear that in Turkey, content in king.

Glossy posters promoting the latest dramas, telenovelas, sitcoms and reality shows plaster the walls as the smart young men and women who predominate among the buyers and sellers at Discop Istanbul skit around in a hubbub of dealmaking, gossip and competitive intrigue.

Turkey’s TV market is still booming — barely ruffled by a slight dip in advertising revenue during the recession of 2008-2009 and apparently unaffected by the big chill still gripping Europe and the U.S. Total media spending is worth approximately $3 billion a year, with television advertising accounting for some $1.7 billion of that to pay for series that have become more and more expensive.

Strategically straddling Asia and Europe, and with historic connections to the Middle East, Balkans and Central Asia, Turkey is a huge and diverse market with a population of 80 million that supports 22 national terrestrial channels plus several cable, satellite and digital providers.

Research shows that while per-hour TV viewing on terrestrial channels has dipped slightly — from 3 hours, 52 minutes in 2009, to 3 hours, 48 minutes last year in the 5+ age group (with a sharper fall, to 2.55 from 3.10, in the key 12-19 demographic) — the slack appears to be taken up by cable and satellite.

Currently, ratings are hard to come by. Nielsen ended operations in Turkey in December, after a police raid over allegations of bribery to influence viewing data, notes Yuliya Sobakar, international sales manager for Paris-based Mediametrie and Europa Date TV Worldwide. That leaves a gap which won’t be filled until May when TNS begins operations. Meanwhile, channels such as state broadcaster TRT — which has an approximate 5% market share — are collecting its own data.

Turkey’s TV market is defined by a handful of big channels, led by Kanal D, A TV and Show TV, with 14%, 10% and 9.6% market share, respectively. Dramas drive ratings and advertising.

“Market share for the big groups may be dropping, but they’re still dominant and the biggest producers and commissioners of drama,” Sobakar says. In 2010, the last year for which figures are available, drama was by far the most popular genre — 25% by total program volume and 35% of total television consumption. For primetime, the figures are 44% of shows and 62% share.

Fredrik Af Malmborg of Sweden’s Sparks Network, an international distributor and developer of TV formats, estimates that Turkish television airs approximately 100 original 90-minute dramas a week. “The quality of the best series is very good,” he says. “In a wider region of 700 million people — Middle East, Europe, the Balkans and Central Asia, where dubbed drama in primetime is increasingly accepted by viewers — that is a fantastic opportunity for producers.”

It’s the kind of wider market producers need if Turkey is to sustain the current hothouse levels of production and cost inflation.

In the decade since Turkey’s drama wave began, production costs have spiralled and licensing demands for overseas sales have shot up.

Hasan Bozaslan, international sales director for Samanyolu, the country’s second-biggest media group, which runs 12 channels and has a 6% market share, says the company keeps production expenses down by developing series inhouse. Costs that until a few years ago tended to be around $100,000 per 90-minute episode have risen to averages of $300,000, and in some cases as high as $800,000, as channels compete for talent, higher production values and viewers.

“The only way channels can make money on series is by running up to three or four repeats,” Bozaslan says, “and for the more expensive shows, recoupment and profits can only be obtained through international sales.”

Pana Film’s mafia drama “Valley of the Wolf,” which costs around $200,000-$300,000 an episode in its first season, grew to around $800,000 per episode in its fifth, Bozaslan adds.

This price inflation forces execs to fight for ever higher ad rates; Samanyolu gets around $300 per second for peak-time drama series, such as popular show “The Hill,” which mixes romance and armed insurrection in a storyline based on Turkey’s PKK military insurgent group. For those with pricey drama, that’s the lowest rate they expect advertisers to pay.

Turkey’s historical connections in the Middle East have brought the international sales that are helping sustain the powerhouse drama wave.

Fadi Ismail, g.m. of O3 Prods., a subsid of UAE’s MBC Group, was one of the first to see the potential for Turkish drama in the Arab market. “We share cultural, historical and social ties,” he says.

The way Turkish drama pushes social and sexual taboos — the nudity witnessed in, for example, international hit series “Magnificent Century,” which Turkish international distributor Global Agency has sold to 40 countries — has proved a hit with auds across the Middle East.

The series, which caused controversy at home not only for the nudity but because of allegations that producers played loose with historical accuracy to increase ratings, has spawned imitators, including state broadcaster TRT’s “Once Upon a Time Ottoman,” which launches later this month.

But Turkish international sales agents need to be wary of killing the goose that laid the golden egg in the Middle East — a key territory in a foreign sales market worth $73 million in 2011.

“Turkish series have doubled in price 40 times in the past four years,” Ismail says. “The short-term gains are immense, but there will be no long-term gains if this (pricing) continues.”

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