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Turkey recasts ‘Top Gun’ to give its TV soft power a harder edge

Long willing to do battle across the Middle East, Turkey now also wants to win hearts and minds far beyond the reach of NATO’s second-biggest army.

Shows like 'The Shadow Team' indicate a hard-power pivot by Turkey
Shows like 'The Shadow Team' indicate a hard-power pivot by Turkey

Long willing to do battle across the Middle East, Turkey now also wants to win hearts and minds far beyond the reach of NATO’s second-biggest army.

And it has a blueprint to do it.

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Free Sky, a new Turkish fighter pilot television drama that local media have dubbed a homegrown Top Gun, isn’t just channeling Tom Cruise’s heroics in the cockpit. Like the 1986 American blockbuster, Free Sky was made in collaboration with real air force pilots and equipment used by the Turkish military. 

It’s the latest of a growing crop of Turkish shows heralding a hard-power pivot for a lucrative soft-power sector that’s built a global audience of millions, so far mostly with romantic Istanbul melodramas and historical tales of Ottoman conquest.

Other examples include The Shadow Team — a local equivalent to US spy thrillers like Amazon Prime’s Jack Ryan or Apple TV’s Tehran — about Turkish intelligence agency MIT, and The Patriots, a new show this year about an elite army unit deployed abroad to counter “global powers.”

“In the past we’d have been saying the Japanese build these,” one character says in an episode of The Shadow Team as she inspects a kamikaze drone model. “Now it’s us making them.”

Initially made for domestic audiences, the shows are now at the forefront of international expansion by state broadcaster TRT, projecting Turkish interests abroad just as Ankara flexes its military and diplomatic muscles in contested theaters from Syria and Libya to Ukraine and the waters of the east Mediterranean.

TRT is preparing to launch an online streaming service, Tabii, with apps in English, Arabic, Spanish and Urdu later this year, leapfrogging traditional export routes dominated by foreign networks and distributors to access viewers directly. Free Jet and The Shadow Team will both feature on the site, while TRT is marketing The Patriots separately.

“The motivation is to diversify content to appeal to younger and diverse audiences while promoting Turkey to the world as a counterweight to western hegemony, but also staying aligned with traditional conservative family values,” said Miriam Berg, an assistant professor at Northwestern University Qatar who’s studied the reception of Turkish dramas abroad.

The rise of Turkish television to global prominence has coincided with the expanding footprint of Turkey’s military and its arms exports. 

Between 2018 and 2022, its weapons sales abroad grew by more than two-thirds from the prior five years, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, taking Turkey’s share of global arms exports past 1% — well above countries like Australia and Canada.

And by blending military prowess and television exploits, Turkey wants two of its biggest exports to go global, with a sizable side serving of Turkish nationalism. 

The color red in Free Sky is reserved for scenes with blood and — “the thing we care about most” – the Turkish flag, explains its director of photography.

Encouraging sales abroad is a key pillar of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s economic policy as he tries to find enough foreign currency to fill a chronic current-account deficit that’s weighed on the currency and government coffers. 

TV shows also indirectly support tourism, another bastion of the economy, as positive depictions of Turkey encourage foreigners to visit, move to and invest in the country.

TRT says the country’s shows already command an audience of 800 million people in 146 countries from Latin America to the Balkans and the Persian Gulf. Film and series exports rose to around $750 million in 2022 and are expected to double to $1.5 billion this year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced in January.

As Erdogan struts the world stage after securing another five years in office, Turkey is flaunting soft and hard power alike in the military-oriented series on Tabii. 

In The Shadow Team spy show, viewers see James Bond-style product placement — but instead of Rolex watches or Aston Martin cars it’s the latest kit from Turkey’s booming defense industry.

The first series revolves around a plot to assassinate engineers working on the armed Baykar drones built by Erdogan’s son-in-law and used in conflicts from Azerbaijan to Ethiopia. 

Taking center stage in one episode is an anti-radar system made by listed state defense contractor Aselsan Elektronik AS; another features a cyber skirmish with state-owned STM. The credits are replete with logos of arms companies.

Free Sky’s F-16 fighter jets are the same warplanes whose fleet Turkey wants to expand by lobbying the US and for which it’s developed its own missiles. The series’ Turkish name, Hur, is also that of a national initiative to build a homegrown jet.

The aim is to publicize pilot skills at home and abroad and boost youth recruitment to the military, Free Sky’s line producer, Selda Gunsay, explained in an interview with a local aviation website.

A spokeswoman for Tabii declined to comment on the nature of collaboration with the government agencies and companies shown, or the budget allocated to the streaming platform.

“All our shows are independently produced with some of the leading production companies in the region. Like any other global media production, to ensure accuracy of facts we consult with experts in the relevant fields to ensure accuracy,” she said by email.

The Tabii catalog also includes dramas on the life of 13th-century poet Rumi, a devout teenage superhero and a businessman-turned-revolutionary whose story resembles — without naming him — that of Osman Kavala, whom Turkey jailed for allegedly trying to topple the government to criticism from the US and EU. 

By cutting out the middle man with Tabii, “they can cut costs and overcome diplomatic sensitivities that can come with satellite TV,” Berg said by phone. 

In 2018, Turkish serials faced a ban — since lifted — by channels in Saudi Arabia and the UAE after the government in Ankara opposed their diplomatic isolation of Qatar.

Officials know that soft power can help convey Turkey’s perspective on real current affairs. A 2022 international study by media watchdog RTUK found that TV shows “contribute via their contents to the construction of a global perception of Turkey with its social, cultural, economic, military and national security contexts.”

Initial indications suggest the serials are finding their mark with some foreign fans. Ratings for The Shadow Team are fewer in number but higher in value in the US, Iran and Egypt than in Turkey itself, according to online database IMDb. The Patriots is almost twice as popular in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as at home.

Even before the official international launch on Tabii, fans already hooked on previous Turkish shows have found unofficial subtitled versions online, helped by Facebook forums where people swap recommendations.

“They are fighting a cause, someone who wants to destroy their country,” Oma Ali, a 66-year-old retiree in Trinidad and Tobago, said of The Shadow Team. “If I cannot reach Turkey, at least I can still see it through the series.”

But for all the high-stakes military adventures, some viewers are still drawn to the will-they-or-won’t-they romance storylines that put Turkish TV on the map in the first place. Ali said she expects to see The Shadow Team’s two main agents get together by the end. 

“If not, it’s a flop,” she said.

Also read: 'Ethos' lays bare Turkey's social divides

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