EXCLUSIVE: When BluTV CEO Deniz Şaşmaz Oflaz recently travelled to Miami for a conference, she was spoken to by border security. Not because the guard at passport control had any issues, but because his mother was watching a Turkish TV show and he was thrilled to be meeting one of the main players behind the country’s content boom.
Turkey has long been a hotbed of production and regional tastemaker in the Middle East and North Africa region, and it still ranks as one of the world’s top TV program exporters. Warner Bros Discovery’s (WBD) recent acquisition of Oflaz’s BluTV therefore serves as a marker of how importantly the major U.S. studios view the country and its content.
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In fact, WBD is using BluTV as a testbed for further streaming initiatives in the MENA region, according to Jamie Cooke, the studio’s General Manager for Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltics, Middle East, Mediterranean and Turkey.
“When it comes to streaming expansion, you can do it in a couple of ways,” he told Deadline in an exclusive interview alongside Oflaz. “One is to build and go alone — and that’s what we’ve done in a lot countries and what other competitors have done. The other way is to do what we’ve done here: To invest and acquire. Both work depending on the context, but my theory is you have to do it in partnership. I don’t know if it’s the right strategy and we’ll find out in a couple of years.”
He noted that in Turkey and MENA, the plethora of existing streamers means consumers likely “did not need another service,” and added: “It’s harder to go fully on your own in some markets.”
In December, WBD acquired the 65% of BluTV it didn’t already own, soon after CEO David Zaslav had announced the company would be investing in “growth initiatives” around the world. Discovery had initially taken a 35% stake in 2021.
Cooke said the rationale was investing in an “established business” and having a “great content pipeline from day one,” crediting Oflaz and her team for having “the really strong relationships in the market” and knowledge of the local industry.
Oflaz, who has been with BluTV since its inception and rose to CEO in January 2023, called streaming a “challenging business” — not least in light of economic headwinds global and local players have been dealing with over the past 18 months. She said that having the investment of “a big global media company behind the team will facilitate growth.”
“Turkish content makes a killing worldwide,” added Oflaz. “The WBD team behind us gives us more opportunity to make more quality content that we can then monetize across the world, and the WBD ecosystem will be more available for us. Whether that’s HBO, Warner movies, kids content, classic movies or linear programs, it enriches our offer in Turkey.”
“Less conservative, more edgy”
BluTV’s story is an intriguing one. Launched independently in 2016 (the same year Netflix entered the market), it quickly amassed millions of subscribers, mainly in Turkey and the Middle East, where an Arabic version is available. More than 10 million people have subscribed to BluTV at least once a month since launch, its reps tell us.
In the early days, the service couldn’t land first-run U.S. content and had to rely on second windows and local fare. Originals therefore became the big seller: eschewing the telenovela-style melodrama of Turkish free-to-air TV, BluTV focused on what Oflaz described as “less conservative, more edgy” content for subscribers who wanted a different fix. “That was our primary group target, those who were already watching foreign content,” she added.
The shows, such as 2017’s Innocent, gave BluTV the chance to compete against Netflix, which began ordering similarly non-traditional originals, and added to a library now comprising more than 10,000 hours. Other players, such as BeIN, Disney+ and Prime Video, have provided further competition, along with Turkish networks such as TRT, Kanal D and Fox Turkey.
BluTV’s titles have included themes of prostitution, gangs and heresy, all of which are bold choices considering the increasingly conservative direction of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government. It was one of six streamers alongside Netflix, Prime Video, Disney+, Mubi and BeIN that were fined by local regulators for content that challenges “family values.” Singled out was Discovery+ original The Book of Queer. BluTV doesn’t comment on government or regulatory matters and reps declined to comment about the regulatory environment for this article.
However that situation and Turkish politics evolve more broadly, BluTV’s originals strategy worked in a business sense, and now integration with its new U.S. owner is essential.
Commissions remain a huge driver, but the service has grown to include more exclusive American scripted and unscripted originals, with Discovery+ added in 2021 and content from HBO, Cartoon Network and other WBD verticals in February 2023.
The content mix has been working, and the service’s top five shows from last year read HBO’s The Last of Us and Game of Thrones, and Turkish originals Çekiç ve Gül: Bir Behzat Ç. Hikayesi, Kiyma and Dogu. “This list proves the importance of curating strong local content with HBO’s super-powered content,” added a BluTV rep.
For WBD, the acquisition has also allowed it to return to original production in Turkey. Nascent development in the country was halted in July 2022, as HBO Max stopped production across most of Europe amid serious cost-saving initiatives demanded out of Burbank.
A major launch for 2024 will be Göktürk, which we hear combines epic conflict with a “mythological peppering of Turkish and nomadic history.” Oflaz revealed the streamer’s first period drama was in production “right now,” with London-based production designer Sonya Klaus, who has collaborated with Ridley Scott, working on the sets.
BluTV is also exploring “commercial thrillers,” which Oflaz described as being tonally somewhere between HBO shows Industry and Succession — “a family drama while seeing a wider business,” for example. “We’re developing in this area as this is something we’re not seeing on Turkish TV.”
Moving forwards, integration will be key. “When it comes to how we select new projects, we will try to find content that would not only make a killing for BluTV but also for other Warner Bros Discovery services around the world,” said Oflaz.
Cooke did scotch the notion that BluTV is “on the road map” to being rebranded to the Max streamer, which is rolling out in European territories this year.
So for WBD, 2024’s objectives are quite clear. “The priority for this year is to integrate BluTV into the Warner world,” said Cooke. “One of the reasons we’ve acquired Blu is we believe in the strategy. The combination of content is a winning formula.”
That’s a green light for BluTV to push even harder than before, and now it has the might of the WBD machine behind it.
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