By Sam Ford
Almost a decade ago now, I was working as project manager at an MIT research lab called the Convergence Culture Consortium. The project focused on understanding the myriad changes to the media landscape amidst the rise of social network sites, new video sharing capabilities, and more affordable means of digital content production. One of our initiatives was a large-scale study of the videos on YouTube generating the greatest number of views, comments, shares, and responses—a study eventually published in Jean Burgess and Joshua Green’s 2009 book, YouTube.
In the course of analyzing popular videos, I discovered that two television series airing at the time, one from the Philippines and one from Turkey, were being uploaded with great frequency. Both were consistently driving engagement on the site, week after week. Yet neither was the sort of “lead examples” that belonged to a group of rising stars known exclusively by their YouTube following nor media programming from longstanding global media industries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan.
The first, Marimar, was a 2007 GMA Network Filipino adaptation for of a 1994 Mexican telenovela by the same name. And this adaptation was the culmination of transnational global flows that started in the 1990s.
The drama of Marimar centers on love across socioeconomic lines, as a rich young man and a poor, innocent young woman (Marimar) who lives on the beach fall in love and intend to marry, much to the objection of his family. The novela follows both the drama surrounding this love along class lines and the extreme lengths the man’s family will go to keep him from marrying a poor girl, as well as the coming of age of the title character as she deals with all the tragedies brought about by the young man’s family, and subsequent plans for revenge against the wealthy family.
The massively popular Mexican version of the series was dubbed into Tagalog and first aired in the Philippines in 1996 as Televisa began a push into the Filipino market, as part of a broader push into Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific Islands—and which led revenue from exports for Televisa past $100 million for the first time that year, according to Andrew Paxman and Alex M. Saragoza, in their essay “Globalization and Latin Media Powers: The Case of Mexico’s Televisa,” in Vincent Mosco and Dan Schiller’s 2001 book Continental Order? (This trend began in particular in the Philippines when Venezuelan Marte Televisión’s La Traidora was the first Spanish-language telenovela brought to the Philippines, in 1994).
But the dubbed Mexican version of Marimar became a national sensation. When the star of the original Marimar, Thalia, visited the country, she was greeted by thousands at the airport at 4:30 a.m. and hosted by President Fidel Ramos. A 1996 New York Times piece by Edward A. Gargan quotes Mrs. Alvarez, one of those who greeted Thalia’s plane, “It’s different from our soap operas…She has the same problems we do. It shows the discrimination against poor people. Her house was burned down when she was poor. They mistreated her. They degraded her. She’s almost Filipina.”
The passionate Filipino fervor for Marimar caught many by surprise, both inside and outside the country. However, as Brown University’s Transpacific Popular Culture project points out, the shared Spanish colonial histories of the two countries created plenty of opportunity for cultural translation. And, whereas U.S. shows more frequently imported into the Philippines at that time were aired in English, the dubbing of Marimar into Tagalog deepened the feeling that the show was “almost Filipina.”
The adapted Filipino version of Marimar, which ran from 2007-2008, not only became a hit domestically but internationally as well, through both the international GMA Pinoy TV network and online sharing activity. And a new Filipino version of Marimar was made in 2015. In many ways, the story of Marimar in the Philippines could be seen as the story of Latin America as a major exporter of international drama series.
The second series that caught our eye on YouTube back in 2007 was a Turkish drama called Binbir Gece (in English, “A Thousand Nights”). The story of its reception has become quite emblematic of the flow of Turkish series into Latin America. The drama, which ran from 2006-2009 in Turkey, evokes the traditional Arabian Nights stories. The series is built around an “indecent proposal” scenario in which a mother agrees to spend the night with her boss in exchange for money, which she plans to use for her son’s leukemia treatments. The series focuses on the struggle of both the woman and her boss to deal with the ramifications of their night together, and the feelings they have for one another, heavily complicated by the circumstances of that first night.
In 2014, according to a article by Paulina Abramovich for Agence France-Presse, then-struggling Chilean network Mega took a bet on rights to the Turkish show after rights to the program was turned down by one of the country’s leading broadcasters, Canal 13. When the Spanish-language version of the series dubbed into Spanish by Chilean actors hit the lineup as Las Mil y Una Noches, it became the most viewed series of the year in Chile and changed Mega’s fortunes. It sent Mega and other Chilean networks on a quest to find other Turkish dramas.
Binbir Gece was soon distributed across the region. In her 2015 piece for the news agency Global Voices, Patricia Carolina Saucedo Añez highlights that the show inspired a trend in Chile and Argentina of naming children after the main characters. And, soon, Binbir Gece was on the air in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay, according to Michael Kaplan’s 2016 piece for International Business Times. This growth is part of a broader strengthening of television exports for Turkey. According to an October 2015 piece from Dilek in the Turkish Daily Sabah, Turkey’s television exports went from less than $10,000 in 2004 to around $350 million in 2015, with a target for 2023 of $1 billion.
The popularity of the series in Latin America, and of subsequent Turkish telenovela imports, has been part of a broader strengthening of economic ties with Turkey. A February 2017 piece in Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News describes how many political and economic players in Turkey see these television exports to Latin America as a tool for further opening trade opportunities to the region—they see these shows as a way to introduce and improve recognition of Turkish culture in Latin American markets, leading to an increase in selling other Turkish products and in driving tourism. (However, as Turkish scholars Sevda Alankus and Eylem Yanardağoğlu point out in their 2016 International Journal of Communication piece “Vacillation in Turkey’s Popular Global TV Exports,” Turkish telenovela exports to the Middle East and North Africa, these series remain primarily produced for the Turkish national audience first, and marketed abroad if they are first successful domestically. Thus, “the constant priority given to the national market by the TV production sector should temper any claims that the Turkish government has taken deliberate actions to use TV series to consolidate its soft power,” they observed.
The exporting of Turkish telenovelas to Latin America was an interesting reversal for Turkey, which has imported Latin American telenovelas for years. Turkish TV and Cinema Producers Guild President Burhan Gun highlights a couple of cultural trends driving the ease of translation between two cultures that may, on their surface, not seem so similar. Many Turkish people and many Latin Americans share similar physical characteristics. The two regions also confront similar problems such as the migration of populations from rural to urban areas and the related challenges of urbanization, according to Didem Tali's 2016 piece for BBC News. And numerous cultural commentators and media industry experts have pointed out that many Latin American audiences turned off by the sexual nature of some telenovelas from the region, as well as the heavy focus on narcodramas, have welcomed the more conservative style of Turkish novelas and see it as a return to more traditional styles of storytelling than much of the fare being produced in their own region.
Certainly, tracking the transnational media flows—not just of particular series but of media formats—underlines the complicated ways in which cultural texts travel back and forth across borders. In the 2013 book I co-authored with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, entitled Spreadable Media (available in Spanish as Cultura Transmedia), we discuss the popularity of the telenovela format and the various ways it has developed as it travels across national borders. As we point out below, you could see the radio/telenovela format’s relation to the U.S. soap opera itself as an indication of that trend, as “impure genres” that are continuously influenced by media texts from other cultures as they cross permeable borders.
A U.S. format imported to Latin America takes its own localized and nique shapes which eventually become exportable programming circulated around the world. Those local cultures eventually begin adapting the programs and format to their own local productions. Meanwhile, the Latin American diaspora in the U.S. seeks official and unofficial ways to bring that content into the country, and the telenovela’s influence eventually starts to be felt on the U.S. prime-time drama. These processes of adaptation and localization and this flow which sees reciprocal paths of influence as formats and content cross cultural borders demonstrate how impure culture is inevitable as content is continuously relocated and localized. (pp. 283-284)
Read as part of our ongoing transnational conversation across cultures through popular culture, the Filipino version of Marimar or the reversal of import-export that brings Turkish dramas into the Latin American market is part of a long and ongoing process of cultural exchange through popular culture formats and stories.
Thinking back on my first encounters with these two series via unauthorized sharing on YouTube almost 10 years later, I realize that moment captured within it many of the themes of the last few decades of global media flows, and a contemporary environment where the circulation of media content from one cultural context to the other is no longer as restrictively shaped by the dominance of only a handful of major national media markets exporting globally.
We should expect to see a continued proliferation of examples in which series produced in one cultural context unexpectedly resonate in a market far from “home.” Perhaps, as Patricia Carolina Saucedo Añez wrote in her Global Voices piece, such cultural exchanges might “open up what was once a privileged space, creating new possibilities for a more horizontal kind of globalization through the flow of cultural products, even when the products in question are mass-produced, conservative, highly commercial, and from countries involved in widespread censorship.”
And we should understand these phenomena as partially driven by media audiences increasingly comfortable with and interested in what my mentor and colleague Henry Jenkins calls “pop cosmopolitanism,” or the experiencing of an external culture or subculture through their popular culture.
As we think about the various potential ways in which popular culture will travel across national and cultural boundaries in the decade to come, we may remain well served to look at the patterns perhaps best unearthed through an examination of what audiences are choosing to share via unauthorized routes, like those clips of Marimar and Binbir Gece on YouTube. After all, markets and distribution deals are always chasing to keep up as best as they can with the pace of the culture.
Sam Ford is a media consultant, a research affiliate with MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies Program. He is co-author of the 2013 book Spreadable Media and co-editor of the 2011 book The Survival of Soap Opera. In 2015-2016, he created and led an innovation team at Univision. Currently, he works as a consultant and is co-creating initiatives focused on the fate of journalism across political and urban/rural divides, the future of work in rural U.S. economies, and the rise of artisanal economies.
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