Turks resorting to TV as an anti-depressant
Barçın Yinanç ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
TV series in Turkey were previously inspired by a largely left-wing culture, but there has been a shift to historical dramas and to literary figures of the right wing, according to Ali Tayfun Atay (L).Faced with difficult, monotonous lives, television represents the bread and circuses that allow ordinary Turks to escape their daily drudgery, according to a Turkish sociologist.
“In the face of colorless, difficult lives people still see TV series as the only way to have the force survive the next day by taking refuge for a couple of hours in dreams, in a sort of ecstatic way. TV series are like an anti-depressant,” Tayfun Atay recently told the Hürriyet Daily News.
The fact that a women’s talk show hosted the man who murdered his wives has become highly controversial. It seems women’s programs in Turkey don’t care about giving some messages to society, such as on issues like domestic violence.
In the 1990s when private TV channels started to appear, there were such programs involving “cultural engineering.”
But with the rating system gaining importance and as individual expectations started to gain priority, the content became focused on expectations. No doubt this worries the elites. But television is still at the heart of mass culture in Turkey. Therefore, what is important is the concern about “how can I keep eyes on the screen?” Betrayals, divorces, the fact that the man who murdered his wives speaks on TV, all these are things we hear in our neighborhood. So when you bring them to the screen, you attract attention.
So TV content reflects the Turkish people?
Let’s say not on a one-to-one basis but it gets appreciated to the point it reflects the people. The spectator rejects programs with a message content.
The spectator becomes attracted to the program to the degree the spectator finds itself in the program and sees symbols metaphors from his life.
But do you think Turkey’s political elites are using television as a tool to make the society more conservative? If so, normally the spectator should also reject that sort of message-driven content.
Indeed TV is used as a tool. But the government gets the message from society anyway. On the one hand, the government is the spokesperson of the conservative circles. It does what they want. We also need to take into account the results that accompany the change from an elitist bureaucratic system of 90 years to a more populist system that reflects what the people wants. The fact that TV content has become more conservative is the urge to secure commercial income by reflecting the expectations in society.
So you do accept that the content has become much more conservative.
Of course, but popular culture represents the average, therefore it has a conservative practice. You cannot expect popular culture to take a revolutionary track. Television is conservative in the mainstream. But we are talking about political conservatism.
The government says that it has been representing for the past 12 years the wishes of half of the society which is religious/conservative. Yet at this point there is a tendency of obscurantism that goes beyond conservatism. How are they doing it? They changed the definition of A-B group in the rating system. It used to have a more urban character, whereas they now included the religious segments which might not have a high-level education but have a high level of income.
Therefore the TV series which had a leftist “color” with more political messages are no longer watched. Or conservatives avoid them and the media has become aware of that and in this respect, a conservative change made itself felt, especially with TV series.
There is also a political dimension. The government started censoring some scenes, some practices and some performances. And anyway the masses were already disinterested with [the issue subject to censorship] and the ratings were going down anyway. I call this the conservative new normal. So we now have content in parallel to this new normal. This happens via the rhetoric and symbols that are used. At the end of the day, we live in an environment where secular lifestyles fade into the background, where religion is no longer sidelined but, on the contrary, there are increasing references to it. We live in an environment where there is more reference to being pious. Perhaps that existed before but was not so visible.
But there are also those who act with the grudges that accumulated during all those years. This reflects itself with TV series. In the past TV series were inspired by rather left-wing culture. Now there is a shift to historical dramas and to literary figures of the right wing.
So what you say is that the increasing conservatism on the TV screen is the reflection of what already exists in society. But you also claim there are certain circles that go beyond acting in according to the commercial dynamics and that is where obscurantism starts.
The first part of what you have said reflects a commercial-economic dynamic. Perhaps it is a good thing.
The sector realized that the spectators are not just from the chic/intellectual neighborhoods like Nişantaşı or Çankaya. With the change in the ratings system, programs started to appeal to the general average and the sector started to produce programs to appeal those segments.
Obscurantist policy is the outcome of a practice.
This is something separate from conservatism which is open to change. Looking from that perspective, you should aim change without downgrading the gains and accumulations of the republican era. Yet we witness an atmosphere where the practices of 90 years of the modern republic were taken into parenthesis and there was an emphasis on Ottoman, Seljuk and Islamic history. We see the denial, sidelining of what we can call secular styles, behaviors, gestures like being intolerant to kissing, bans on alcohol on TV series, et cetera. An acute example is when the prime minister interfered with the dresses of female actresses in a historic drama and said these events did not exist in our history. To make this interference and legitimizing this interference by relying on a cultural basis is something that goes beyond conservatism.
But conservatism is to accept change in continuity; the other is to deny the practices that come with change. I believe the conservatism is exaggerated and that something that is not in the nature of society is being imposed on it.
So are we talking about social engineering?
Yes, but the Turkish television industry did not surrender to this obscurantism. When you look at the content of some new TV series, I see a resistance to this obscurantism. You see that especially in the sphere of comedy.
Do they survive?
Yes, I think the crisis that started two years ago has been overcome. The sector sort of adapted to the situation, without surrendering. That’s why we call them resistance arts. In other words there is political oppression, an ideological pressure but a resistance is also displayed.
Isn’t a bit too early to say that the crisis has been overcome?
The situation is more positive compared to two years ago. The representatives of the sector were very pessimistic at that time. Now it is not that bad. In the past, programs with religious content were popular during the month of Ramadan. But these Ramadan TV series which even had some erotic content were also watched and got high ratings.
What kind of an evaluation can we make about Turkey when we look at the TV series sector?
People haven’t gotten tired of watching series. At one stage we thought there was a saturation. We now see this is not the case. When you add those who started being broadcast this year, there are at least 100 series on four or five channels. In the face of colorless, difficult lives people still see TV series as the only way to have the force survive the next day by taking refuge for a couple of hours in dreams, in a sort of ecstatic way. TV series are like an anti-depressant.
Series are popular throughout the world but is the anti-depressant metaphor that you used unique to Turkey?
Turkey watches television much more than other countries – four hours a day.
Is this because it is the cheapest entertainment tool?
Of course. In the face of a colorless, motionless life, it provides a colorful, dynamic refuge. In those four hours people watch series.
What do you think about the popularity of Turkish series?
They appeal to countries that are in our cultural basin. This is a Middle Eastern and Islamic basin. The Balkans and the Mediterranean is also part of our cultural basin. First of all, the quality of our productions is very high. The cultural industry flourished with the liberal environment of the 1980s. The fact that the series portray a framework of a secular society that reflects the traditions of this cultural basin within modernity appeals to countries which are not secular.
But when we look at recent developments; from exporting TV series, we have come to the point of importing fatwas. This is dangerous.
On the one hand there is a policy of looking toward the Middle East, but we need to also see the influences of policies that are being shaped by the expectations of political actors of that region. We should not underestimate the tendency in Turkey to practice politics in accordance with the expectations of the political actors in that region following the developments in Egypt, Iraq and Syria.
The government moved from the point of explaining the benefits of secularism to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to acting in accordance with Muslim Brothernood’s policies. The cultural and religious developments there have started to shape the practice of the government toward secular segments. This is reflected in TV series, that’s why I use the metaphor of “from exporting series to importing fatwas.”
Who is Ali Tayfun Atay ?
Ali Tayfun Atay, currently the head of the Sociology Department at Okan University, is a social anthropologist working on cultural identity.
An Ankara University graduate, Atay completed his Masters and PhD studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, where he conducted research on the Islamic Sufi movement in London and the cultural adaptation problems faced by Turkish, Kurdish and Cypriot-speaking communities living in Britain.
Atay, who was a consultant for the Turkish delegation at the 2002 UNESCO Cultural Heritage talks, has conducted fieldwork on ethnicity, religion, cultural change and the interaction between nature and culture in Turkey.
He has also been involved in the media since 2003 as a writer, consultant and editor for the Turkish broadcaster NTV, as well as the Turkish dailies Birgün, Milliyet and Radikal.