Extreme dizi-ness:
stretching the bounds of genre in
(New?) Turkish television

by Josh Carney

The Red Apple

On August 24th of 2020 Fahrettin Altun, head of Turkey’s Directorate of Communications (DOC, İletişim Başkanlığı in Turkish), posted a four-minute video on Twitter under a message that read,

“For us, #Kızılelma [The Red Apple] is a great and powerful Turkey. It is the blessed march of our nation that has written epics from Manzikert to July 15. The Red Apple is the mighty plane tree under whose shadow many oppressed people cool off. It is what all humanity longs for, from Jabal Tariq [Gibraltar] to the Hejaz, from the Balkans to Asia.”[1] [open endnotes in new window]

“Kzıl Elma” video shows an image of the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb in Medina and the Kabba in Mecca, suggesting the breadth of Turkey’s historical influence and religious interest.

On the same day, the video was also published on the official Turkish language YouTube page for the DOC, where it was titled “Kızıl Elma” and included that same message as description, there attributed as a quote from Altun.

[Click here to see complete clip. Viewing the video clips as you go along is integral for your understanding of this essay.]

The clip, the soundtrack of which is a strident march ostensibly played by the Ottoman Mehter military band, is a paean to Turkish greatness. It features a host of historical characters, including Sultan Alparslan (ruler of the Seljuk Empire), Sultan Osman (founder of the Ottoman Empire), Fatih Sultan Mehmed II (conqueror of Istanbul), and the everyman figures of the “Mehmetcik” soldiers who fought for Turkish independence as well as the everyday civilians who thwarted the July 15th coup attempt in 2016. Turkey’s President, Tayyip Erdoğan, also makes an appearance, both in person, where he is implicitly compared to Fatih Sultan Mehmed, and in voice, where he narrates the procession of Mehmed and other key characters into Istanbul’s Aya Sofya Mosque.

“Kzıl Elma”: Turkish soldiers charge, carrying the flag during the Turkish War of Independence. “Kzıl Elma”: A modern military rocket is fired from a vehicle, juxtaposing military greatness from past and present and suggesting continuity.
“Kzıl Elma”: Ottoman Mehter Military Band in a field at night. Kzıl Elma”: A young girl wearing a Turkish flag headband carries a Turkish flag in her arms. This actor appears as the daughter of a martyred sea captain in the “Mavi Vatan” (Blue Homeland) video discussed later in this paper.
“Kzıl Elma”: Turkish Air Force. “Kzıl Elma”: Fade between a modern Turkish soldier in an armored vehicle and Sultan Alparslan, both with raised hand giving the four-finger Rabia salute. This sign is popular among Erdoğan and his admirers in Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It is of recent origin (2013), so the Alparslan character’s use of the symbol is anachronistic but in line with the video’s theme of continuity.

As made clear by the focus on Aya Sofya, humans are not the only characters in this video: military technology is linked with Alparslan, and sacred architecture seals the bond to sacred lands. The mythical “Red Apple” —the idea of territory as a fruit to be plucked—that has long fueled Turkish dreams of conquest is here indexed through the green dome of Prophet Muhammad’s tomb in Medina, the Kabba in Mecca, Aya Sofya, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, which is the concluding image. The chorus repeats, “the red apple, our goal, will be reached.”

“Kzıl Elma”: Fatih deepwater drillship, named after Fatih Sultan Mehmed II (Fatih means “conqueror”), is used by the Turkish government for petroleum exploration in the Mediterranean and Black Sea. Kzıl Elma”: Turkish tank fires its cannon.
“Kzıl Elma”: Fatih Sultan Mehmed II walks in procession towards Aya Sofya mosque. “Kzıl Elma”: President Erdoğan walks in procession. This appears just after the Fatih scene, making the comparison between the two rulers explicit.
“Kzıl Elma” depicting, left to right, a  young Turkish“Mehmetcik” soldier from the Turkish War of Independence, Fatih Sultan Mehmed II, Sultan Osman, and Sultan Alparslan. They are all praying in Aya Sofya, which was reconsecrated as a mosque rather than a museum  in July 2020, one month before this video was released. Concluding image from “Kzıl Elma” depicting the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, suggesting again the breadth of Turkey’s historical influence and religious interest.

The video came out two days before the 949th anniversary of the battle of Manzikert, where Sultan Alparslan defeated the Byzantines, thus, as popular history tells us, opening up Anatolia to westward expansion by the Turks. It also came out one month after Aya Sofya had been reconsecrated as a mosque rather than a museum. While such key timely references undoubtedly served as logic for this video, I will here focus on another set of references.

The clip emerged a month before the premiere of Awakening: The Great Seljuks (Uyanış: Büyük Selçuklu, 2020-2021)[2] on state broadcaster TRT1, a historical fiction serial that picks up with the Seljuk Empire just as Alparslan is killed, and in between seasons one and two of Foundation: Osman (Kuruluş: Osman, 2019-present) on government-allied channel ATV. The latter serial, as implied by its name, follows the rise of Osman and the founding of the Ottoman Empire.

This cross-referencing between the propaganda videos and government-aligned “historical” TV drama takes place in a media landscape that has shifted considerably in recent years. A key aspect of this shift is the rise of Turkish TV dramas, or dizi(s) (“dizi” is Turkish for “series”)[3], which started making forays into global markets with the offhand success of Gümüş (2005-2007) in the Arab world as Noor in 2008, followed by the sale of Magnificent Century (Muhteşem Yüzyıl, 2011-2014) to over 40 territories in 2012. Since then, the advance of dizi has been a story of global conquest, with Turkey often said to be second only to the U.S., since 2014, in terms of scripted TV exports (Kaptan & Algan, 2020—although this number has been questioned by Vitrinel & Ildır, 2021). This media marketing success has led to mixed reactions, including spurring an interest in Turkish language and tourism on the one hand but also, on the other, fatwas against some serials and boycotts of Turkish TV content in parts of the Arab world (Carney, 2013a; Kaptan & Kraidy, 2021; Kraidy, 2019). The export of dizis has an ambivalent legacy that Kraidy and Al-Ghazzi (2013) have termed “neo-Ottoman cool,” and one whose global reach is linked both to cultural (e.g. Berg, 2020; Salamandra, 2012) and commercial factors (Bilge Yeşil, 2015). Such trends inevitably lead to discussions of soft power (e.g. Al-Ghazzi & Kraidy, 2013; Alankuş & Yanardağoğlu, 2016; Çevik, 2019) and, indeed, the Turkish government, under the firm leadership of President Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), has increasingly promoted serials that depict a strong and just Turkish or Ottoman state, both domestically and abroad.

But the Turkish government has simultaneously cracked down at home on dizis that offer alternative visions, either of a past or present that are out of step with conservative norms (e.g. Carney, 2012, 2013b). For if global success is one facet of Turkey’s contemporary media landscape, then authoritarian control in the form of censorship, ownership, expropriation, and criminalization is another. Crackdowns on expression in all forms of media that ramped up with the Gezi Park protests of 2013 increased exponentially in the wake of the July 2016 coup attempt. In terms of television, over 30 stations were shut down, and nine out of the ten most watched channels are now directly government-owned or in the hands of AKP allies (Sümer & Taş, 2020). Content that makes it to air is subject to oversight by the Radio and Television Supreme Council (Radyo ve Televizyon Üst Kurulu, RTÜK), which has, and regularly exercises, the power to level crippling fines and to remove programs from the air. The latest salvo in this trend is a so-called “disinformation” law (Michaelson, 2022), which threatens freedom of speech through an unprecedented assault on press, Internet, and social media that targets businesses, organizations, and users.

The simultaneous promotion and policing of TV content is one piece of a larger social project called “New Turkey,” President Erdoğan’s program to foster a more religious, conservative, self-sufficient, and regionally powerful nation under his direct leadership. Though many of the reforms for “New Turkey” concern matters of public morality, such as strictures on drinking and unmarried cohabitation, or on family life, such as encouraging women to bear three children, they also include intense neoliberal market reforms, militant nationalism, and a global outreach often spurred by notions of a greater Islamic Ummah. The latest stage in the program is literally a new name, as the country first adopted the name “Türkiye” as an international “brand” in 2021, and then officially changed the name in 2022.[4]

Historical dramas have been an important component of this effort to remake and rebrand Turkey, both domestically and abroad, and there is no indication that this trend will slow. In 2021, just between channels TRT1 and ATV, viewers were served approximately 16 hours of “historical” drama per week—four nights of about four hours each, including recaps and commercial breaks. Against this backdrop, the genre of video with which I began has increased exponentially, especially since the founding of the DOC in 2018. This genre appears to offer particularly clear insights as to the AKP’s vision for “New Turkey,” the type of citizen that will make up this community, and the historical precedents that lend it gravitas. Considered on their own, the videos would seem to hail viewers, making that offer of ideology to subjects that Althusser (1971) calls interpellation. Viewed in concert with the overtures of historical TV drama, this hailing may even take a further form, suturing viewers between the fields of history, nation, and identity through a kind of representational excess that might best be described as full-spectrum dominance of the airwaves.

In what follows I examine these videos as paratexts (Gray, 2010) of the dizi meta genre[5] that engage in a form of transmedia storytelling (Jenkins, 2003) about Turkey’s national past and present. My purpose here is both to trace the limits of what the dizi is and, in doing so, to highlight the ideological struggle waged through dizi. As a structuring framework, I refer to Michel de Certeau’s (1988) conception of strategy employed by those in power versus tactics improvised by the weak[6] I couple this with Raymond Williams’ (1973) reading of Antonio Gramsci in terms of dominant, alternative, and oppositional cultural currents, recognizing that the field of hegemonic struggle is also the site of change. In the next section I further describe the coordination of videos and dizi in terms of strategic assault. I then shift to examine the rise of video on demand (VOD) as a form of tactical retreat, characterizing key formal and content-based innovations that have accompanied the shift to VOD before I move on to explore in greater depth the particular case of metatelevision. Finally, I consider how these extremes of the dizi spectrum might best be named.

Strategic assault

“New Turkey” is an expansive project that purportedly aims to change many aspects of life for a better future, so there is surface irony in the fact that its cultural compass is firmly rooted in a particular imagination of the Ottoman past. While so-called “neo-Ottomanism” has been much discussed in terms of international politics, that conversation sometimes neglects the cultural shift Turkey has seen in the past two decades. In short, the distant past has become a pervasive part of the Turkish everyday, through a rising interest in Ottoman language, arts, and history; through massive public celebrations for key historical Ottoman victories; and, of course, through popular television, where the government has made concerted and, increasingly, successful moves.

While there are many ways to approach this trend, including Andreas Huyssen’s (2003) notion of rising “cultures of memory” and Zygmunt Bauman’s (2017) formulation of a “retrotopia,” I think that considering the trend in terms of nostalgia and affect is particularly fruitful, and I tend to do this in light of Svetlana Boym’s (2001) division between restorative and reflective nostalgia. As Boym tells us, restorative nostalgics “do not think of themselves as nostalgic; they believe that their project is about truth” (41). Such nostalgia, according to Boym,

“manifests itself in total reconstructions of monuments past, while reflective nostalgia lingers on ruins, the patina of time and history, in the dreams of another place and another time” (41). 

Resurrection Ertuğrul actors Nurettin Sönmez (left) and Cengiz Coşkun (right) appearing in costume on 29 May 2016 at a celebration marking the 563rd anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul. This is an example of what I call prescriptive activation of the Ertuğrul text. That is, the government makes use of the text outside the normal bounds of its weekly TV slot, attempting to activate the text among users in novel ways for political purposes. Resurrection Ertuğrul actors (left to right) Celal Al, Cengiz Coşkun, Cavit Çetin Güner, Engin Altan Düzyatan and producer Mehmet Bozdağ at “Democracy Watch” celebrating the thwarting of the 15 July coup attempt in Kısıklı (Üsküdar), Istanbul on 25 July 2016. This is a further example of what I call prescriptive activation.

I have previously used this lens to consider why the TV serial Magnificent Century, the 16th century story of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent and his influential wife Hürrem, succeeded while its early followers failed (Carney, 2014) and, ultimately, to suggest why Resurrection Ertuğrul (Diriliş Ertuğrul, 2014-2019), a government-supported reaction to Century that covers the period just before the Ottomans, finally clicked with viewers (Carney, 2019). I have also paired this understanding of nostalgia with Achille Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics (2003, 2019) to discuss the AKP government’s instrumental use of Resurrection for political purposes, including both a representational necropolitics that fetishizes death for the nation, and a literal necropolitics during a deadly siege by Turkish security forces on fellow citizens in 2015-2016 (Carney, 2018b). I call such instrumental use prescriptive activation, which can be defined as a producer’s extra-textual attempt to activate a text among its public in particular ways. When I say extra-textual, I mean the way the text gets extended beyond the actual episodes of the dizi, as exposure at social/political moments when the characters are brought out at commemorative events, or when the theme song is used at public demonstrations organized by the government. It is against this nexus of neo-Ottomanism, nostalgia, and necropolitics and with a particular focus on the dynamics of prescriptive activation that I approach the propaganda videos.

The videos come in a variety of forms: photo documentary with traditional Türkü music; profile of individuals who had a key role in history; praise of AKP service (hizmet), especially in the realm of transportation; display of military technology; etc. But a striking number of the videos engage in heroic and often melodramatic depictions of the Seljuk and Ottoman past, as well as the struggle for Turkish independence and, crucially, in the timeless transition between or even coexistence of these “great” periods with the (implicitly) glorious Turkish present.[7] In these videos, heroic individuals are displayed alongside the Turkish everyman (or woman) who thus also basks in the aura of greatness, most frequently through martyrdom. They often feature the voice of Erdoğan, and quite a few of them also picture him in person, frequently in comparison with Fatih Sultan Mehmed.[8] The Turkish flag is, of course, a repeated prominent symbol, as are a host of images indexing Islam. There is also a great deal of intertextuality on display in this body of work, with characters from one video appearing in others as well.[9]

In August of 2021 the DOC web site released a slew of videos in celebration of Victory Day (Zafer Bayram), among them a series of three that focused on actual historical figures. One tells the story of a doctor in World War I, Tarik Nusret, who worked near the front lines in the Battle of Çanakkale (Gallipoli).

[Click here to see complete clip, which I shall analyze below.]

The techniques of melodramatic storytelling are on full display in this video, as we are introduced to Dr. Nusret in media res, treating a soldier in great pain alongside a nurse. Soldiers run by in the foreground and background while the nurse warns him that they are almost out of morphine. When the next young man is brought in on a stretcher, Dr. Nusret starts an examination, checking his pulse at the neck, but, as he turns the youth’s head up, both the music and the doctor’s gaze make clear that this is a moment of revelation. After an agonizing pause, Nusret tells the nurse that morphine will not help, and commands attendants to take the wounded soldier to the shade. He remains lost in thought for a moment but is quickly called to attend to the next soldier, in desperate need of an operation. We see Nusret getting back to work and then, after the sun has gone down, emerging from the tent to check on the soldier; a voiceover explains that short supply of morphine forced doctors to ration it only for those with a good chance of survival. Even when Nusret’s own son came before him, the narration continues, the doctor withheld morphine due to the life-threatening nature of the wounds. The video concludes with Nusret holding and weeping over his dead son.

“30 Ağustos Zafer Bayramı - Zaferin coşkusu ilk günkü gibi”: Ottoman doctor Tarik Nusret refuses a nurse’s offer of morphine for a wounded soldier just moments after Nusret understands that solider is his own son. “30 Ağustos Zafer Bayramı - Zaferin coşkusu ilk günkü gibi”: Ottoman doctor Tarik Nusret hugs and weeps over the body of his dead son.

Though much could be said about this video, I am most interested in the ways it utilizes the tropes and trappings of dramatic storytelling. Compelling acting, costume, lighting, multiple cameras, sound, and extra-diegetic music are all combined with relatively high production value to deliver this historical, heroic account of sacrifice for the nation that is entirely in line with the kinds of stories that receive extended treatment in primetime dizis. In this case, the propaganda video is a paratext of sorts by expansion of a coordinated message of Turkish greatness to the smaller moments and heroes of history—those with notable stories that bear telling but do not warrant an entire show.

In using the term “paratext” in this way, I lean heavily on Johnathan Gray’s (2010) study of the matter, though I am stretching the definition beyond his focus on texts such as trailers, posters, spoilers, fan fiction and other items that arise as secondary phenomena to a primary commercial text. While the argument for primary/secondary relationship could be made for some of the DOC videos, including the one I discuss next, I here use “paratext” to highlight the more general subordinate status of these texts. Although such texts may be relatively self-contained, as in the mini-story of Dr. Nusret, they are clearly part of a larger, coordinated strategy in which the whole is much more than its component parts. This strategy works through logics of accumulation and synergy. As Gray notes, in the field of media studies,

“Synergy is seen in terms of profits, but too rarely in terms of textuality, as something that creates sense and meaning, that is engaged with and interpreted as is the filmic or televisual referent, and that can ultimately create meaning for and on behalf of this referent.” (2010, 8)

If Gray’s advice that we attend to the meaning-making potentials of synergy is generally fruitful, it is especially so in the case of the DOC videos, which appear to operate largely to the side of direct commercial logics, partaking more clearly in the economy of ideology.[10] Ultimately, the accumulation of many related, often overlapping texts creates a form of hyperdiegesis, which Matt Hills defines as,

“a vast and detailed narrative space, only a fraction of which is ever directly seen or encountered within the text, but which nevertheless appears to operate according to principles of internal logic and extension” (2002, 104).

I contend that such “principles of internal logic and extension” operate among the DOC historical videos and also between these videos and their commercial dizi counterparts. When applied to the realm of history, this internal logic is marked by an attitude of sovereignty: a sense of what I have elsewhere described as “owning” the past (Carney, 2019). This includes the absolute right to decide what stories to tell (and what to exclude), how they will be told and, to the degree possible, even how they should be received.