With its news programs, soap operas, and nationalist TV dramas, network TV reigns supreme in Turkey. Yet with the expansion of Netflix into the Turkish market, more and more local viewers are supplementing their television habit with streaming. To date, there are 1.5 million Netflix subscribers in Turkey. While only 10% of households with internet access have Netflix accounts, streaming remains serious business. Realising that there is money to be made in online content, a number of Turkish companies have attempted to woo local viewers with original shows in Turkish. The most successful of these sites is BluTV, which has created a number of original shows that offer a view of life that tends to be more critical, gritty, and risque than the standard fare available on Show TV or TV8.
Now in 2021, there is a third generation of streaming platforms in Turkey. After Netflix and local competitors like Blu TV, the streaming applications GAİN and Exxen are tailoring the streaming experience for those who like to watch content on their smartphones. Both apps were launched for iPhone and Android devices on January 1st. Despite this coincidence, they offer two very different visions of Turkey and its media world.
GAİN stands out as the better platform, not least because it is free. You simply download it from the App Store or Google Play and begin streaming. One of the most interesting things about GAİN is the length of its programs. It offers everything from original series to documentaries, but few of them clock over 15 minutes in length. The content is perfect for today’s distracted viewers who consume media while waiting in line at home or taking a quick break on the couch at home. The content is perfectly tailored to the platform.
10 Thousand Steps (10 Bin Adım) is the series that has made the most waves for GAİN. It features Engin Günaydin and Devin Özgür Çinar as the show’s charismatic leads. They play an ex-couple, now friends, who meet up weekly to walk the 10,000 steps that doctors recommend people take. As they walk around, these two old lovers support each other, make jokes, bicker, and interact with the strange characters who populate the upper-middle-class neighbourhoods around Kadıköy on the Asian side of Istanbul. With all of the melodramatic fare available on network TV —where lovers are always ready to die or, worse, kill for their love — it is a breath of fresh air to see representation of a couple who remains friends after a break-up. The duo manages to be both dysfunctional and sweet.
Therapist (Terapist) is a little less ambitious. It features Muhammet Uzuner as a group therapist who begins to suspect his patients for the murder of his wife. The series both stigmatizes mental illness (and seems to present BDSM and sex work as mental disorders) and falls into the typical melodramatic mode of cable TV while sensationalizing the therapeutic process.
More interesting is the various “programs” on GAİN. Famous actor Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan hosts the show İstanbul Hesabı, which features him visiting a different Istanbul neighborhood each week and showing how one can eat, drink, and enjoy themselves on a budget of 50 TL. Veteran gastronomist Vedat Milor also has a program structured like a sports competition that pits Turkish pide against pizza, or pastırma made in Central Anatolia versus pastırma made on the Black Sea. Less inspiring for GAİN is the presence of not just one but two shows by pop historian İlber Ortaylı. Notorious for denying the Armenian Genocide, Ortaylı’s first episode focuses on Hitler.
It’s unclear exactly how GAİN gets its funding (the app is owned by an Istanbul game company called Beyn), but they have enough money to develop programs with well-known actors and TV personalities. More exciting, however, is their poaching of young talent to produce original shows. The platform features a pop culture program hosted by the team behind the great website Dadanizm. It also features a stand-up series led by the great independent troupe Tuz Biber. YouTube legends Şokopop, a modern tabloid show that features gossip and history about Turkey’s pop music world, have also migrated to GAİN. The app also has rich documentary content focusing on everything from artists, Istanbul apartment buildings, the classic rock band MFÖ, delivery workers, motorcycle racers, and sculptors.
Finally, the site hosts a music section that shows original recordings of songs by darkwave band Jakuzi, indie diva Ceylan Ertem, actual diva Nükhet Duru, sad-boy songwriter Can Güngör, and Turkish rock legends Teoman and mor ve ötesi. All in all, GAİN offers a variety of content combining household names with up-and-coming talent that can all be consumed in short bursts.
If GAİN is the tasteful hipster boutique of streaming platforms, Exxen is a high-rise shopping mall. Rather than offering an alternative to network TV, Exxen is TV’s extension into the digital world. It is a project by Acun Ilıcalı, the media mogul responsible for TV8’s most popular programs like MasterChef, Survivor, and O Ses Türkiye. While GAİN is free, a membership to Exxen costs 9.90 TL with commercials and 19.90 TL without ads.
Despite these expensive prices, the app brought in 500,000 subscribers in its first 3 days. Many of these were attracted by the offer of a free 7-day trial period. Yet social media simmered with rage when the app did not allow many subscribers to cancel before the trial period was up and charged their credit cards anyway. Tech savvy folks who perused the fine print in Exxen’s terms and conditions agreement found that much of the language was copied and pasted from BluTV’s terms and conditions—with many of the links still initially leading to the BluTV website!
Instead of creating content designed specifically for the smartphone like GAİN, Exxen simply carries the same content to the small screen. This is not to say that there is nothing new on the app. It features a 2021 reboot of the classic show Sihirli Anne, a new series featuring Emmy award-winning actor Haluk Bilginer, and a drama series by the creator of high-grossing films Ayla and Müslüm. The platform also features spin-off series, like MasterChef Junior and the soon-to-arrive rap star version of O Ses Türkiye (the local version of The Voice). If you needed another sign that rap in Turkey has gone mainstream (and become big business), look no further. Fortunately, Exxen features more interesting content such as the documentary on 17-year-old rapper Ohash who migrated from Iran to Ankara as a child before becoming one of the more interesting young names in Turkish rap. The platform also has a music show hosted by Zeynep Bastık, the YouTube cover singer turned mainstream pop phenomenon.
One of the biggest attractions on Exxen is the series İşte Bu Benim Masalım. It features 20-year-old pop queen Aleyna Tilki in her first acting role alongside Cemal Can Canseven. The series is about a high school music club and shy Aleyna’s dreams of stardom. It’s full of teen cliches but worth it for the strange acting, musical interludes, and the bright 80s decor.
As a whole, comparing GAİN and Exxen shows two different visions for entertainment and media in Turkey. One is ambitious, well-designed, and forward-looking and the other safe, exploitative, and based on familiar formulas.