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Turkey's reality dating shows see spike in complaints, ratings

Turkey’s matchmaking reality shows have come under scrutiny by the country’s media watchdog amid increasing complaints, but their unending scandals continue to raise their ratings.

Turkey’s matchmaking reality shows, which have long kept viewers glued to television screens and made celebrities out of their hosts, have led to 10,691 complaints in a year's time, spurring the Higher Board of Radio and Television (RTUK) into action. In June alone, the media watchdog slapped fines on the Star, Fox, Kanal D, ATV and Flash TV channels. It had earlier held a meeting with TV producers and managers and given them verbal warnings. The producers argued that the high number of complaints was because of the big audiences the shows attract.

The complaints have reached all the way to the offices of the presidency and the prime minister. Citizens began to lodge them not only through the RTUK’s hotline, but also with parliament’s Petition Commission. In response to an information request by the commission, the RTUK said it had issued 28 warnings and 40 fines involving seven programs.

The marriage shows, which viewers remain addicted to despite the avalanche of complaints, feature neither skimpily dressed, passionate young people like shows in Argentina nor foreign women hoping to tie the knot on 90-day visas as on TLC TV in the United States. They are still a further cry from TLC’s Undressed in Britain, in which couples jump into bed soon after being introduced. Dating shows have been creating a stir around the world. Most recently, a show on Channel 4 in Britain demonstrated how far producers’ zeal for ratings can go. Naked Attraction, which made its debut last month, has contestants pick a date from a nude lineup.

In Turkey, the shows proceed in three stages: The couples are introduced to each other, then they get to know each other and then they meet privately. This may seem like ordinary dating, but the slang words and indecent language the contestants often use on air and the controversies that unfold behind the scenes attract both viewers and reactions. The bigger the sensation, the higher the rating. The examples are numerous.

One couple was said to have met on the show, but then they were discovered to have been former lovers. The Turkish contestants may not strip off or get into bed in front of the cameras, but allegations about what goes on off the air are no less salacious. One show, for instance, has sought to beat the competition with a claim that a bride-to-be had gotten pregnant, while in another, a groom-to-be admitted to having impregnated a woman who was not his fiancee. “She stayed two weeks with me,” he said. “She is now seven months pregnant!” One attempt to boost ratings included claims of an orgy. In another, a young woman wearing the hijab made headlines after using an unlikely argument to explain why she had hidden having previously been married. “It was not a marriage in the real sense of the word,” she said. “I had vaginismus, so I don’t count that marriage as a marriage.”

In short, the ratings machine is driven mostly by sex, as in Europe and the United States, although in Turkey it is via context rather than visually. Other scandals have also contributed to fueling the machine. In one instance, a "marriage registrar" turned out to be a driver for the TV channel, and in another, a groom went into shock when the bride failed to turn up for their wedding. He later lodged a complaint with the prosecutor’s office for having been publicly humiliated.

In a scathing column, veteran columnist Emin Colasan wrote that much of what transpires on screen is a “deception” staged according to scripts. Some contestants, he said, stay on the shows for years and some have been “transferred” by rival channels. Summarizing how the shows unfold, he wrote, “A suitor comes for a contestant. The two start to converse, and then the vileness begins. People in the studio quarrel with each other, trading punches and insults. The bigger the brawl the higher the rating. … The programs’ revenues are huge. They attract a lot of advertisements. … Anything is permissible to make money. … A man who got married in one of the shows killed his wife after a couple of months and is now in prison.”

With more brawling meaning more money and higher ratings, the female hosts follow suit, accusing each other of jealousy, threats and stealing material. They are reportedly paid between 60,000 and 100,000 Turkish lira ($20,070-$33,450) per episode, which in itself indicates how important the programs are to the channels.

Colasan also wrote, “The institution of marriage, a fundamental element of society, is openly ridiculed in these programs and exploited for the material gains of producers and hosts.” He urged the RTUK to act.

RTUK member Suleyman Demirkan told Al-Monitor that the board would continue to penalize the shows if they refused to change. “The RTUK warns and fines programs deemed to be improper. The fines are really heavy. With their unscrupulous and sexist nature, the programs have become [a tool] to make money and are eroding social values,” he said.

Demirkan, who considers the matchmaking format altogether objectionable, added, “Board members [selected by] the ruling party have seen the issue only in terms of morality. But general norms of morality are ambiguous concepts interpreted in various ways according to one’s ideology. We are in favor of action based on more concrete, legal reasons,” he said.

“To see marriage as a commercial instrument and encourage lying as a basis on which the family institution is built is a problematic format that exploits people’s interests and feelings,” said Demirkan. “As board members, we favor different methods on how to confront this, but we all agree that these programs are harmful.”

The RTUK lacks the authority to terminate programs, so it issues warnings and fines to discourage producers from taking certain actions. Thus, if producers can afford to pay the fines, there isn't much cause for them to change what they are doing.

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