(Bloomberg) -- Nobody surfs the murky waters between politics and the media in Turkey better than Acun Ilicali, a self-described risk junkie who’s quickly emerged as a global force in reality television.
Known simply as Acun, the former sports journalist once phoned in his “live” TV report on a World Cup match in Paris from a party in Istanbul. But the string of hits he’s produced on three continents—from tailored versions of “Survivor” and “The Voice” to his own competition show called “Exathlon”—is as real as the private jet he flies to visit the Miami mansion he owns near Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.
The boyish 48-year-old’s transformation from quirky host of the wildly popular “Acun on the Run” travel odyssey to TV tycoon amid a crackdown on Turkish media reveals how profitable escapism can be in times of turmoil. The thrice-married father of four has replicated his success in so many other markets that his main worry now is how to simplify a financial model that’s still based on factoring, or selling accounts receivable to a third party at a discount.
“I’m an adrenaline addict,” Ilicali said in his office in Istanbul, dressed in a designer T-shirt and jeans like the English showman he’s often compared to: Simon Cowell. “I’m doing business with a high-risk coefficient.”
Ilicali’s calling card abroad is his ability to make money back home. Turkey has been under emergency rule since 2016, when a failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan triggered a purge of perceived opponents that’s decimated the media industry and spooked advertisers. Erdogan, in power 15 years, is seeking to cement his one-man hold on the country in June elections.
The latest media group to succumb to state pressure was also Turkey’s largest: Dogan Holding, which agreed last month to sell its flagship newspaper Hurriyet along with its TV channels, publisher and other media holdings to the Demiroren family, staunch allies of the president.
“Ninety percent of Turkish media is now controlled by pro-Erdogan businesses,” Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, said in an op-ed for the New York Times.
Neither Ilicali nor his production company, Acun Medya, would divulge sales or profit, but a person familiar with his books said revenue rose to about 800 million liras ($200 million) last year, roughly half from his Turkish cable channel, TV8, and half from overseas. Ilicali said he expects foreign contracts to generate five times domestic sales this year and 10 times next year.
After the Greek version of “Survivor” he produces rocketed to No. 1, Athens-based Skai TV ceded all of its prime-time slots to Acun Medya. His Romanian shows have helped make Kanal D that country’s biggest channel and his Mexican programs have broken records for Asteca. In July, he’ll enter the U.S. market in partnership with Spanish-language giant Telemundo.
“Channels that we used to try to get meetings with are now coming to us, asking us if we can work with them,” Ilicali said.
Ilicali declined to talk politics, but he clearly knows how to please the powerful and he’s not shy about posting photos of himself playing soccer with Erdogan. The first thing he did when he acquired TV8 from an Erdogan ally back in 2013 was scrap its hard-hitting news division to make room for “happier” programming just after anti-government protests raged in Istanbul.
News reports over the years have speculated about Ilicali’s ties to people close to the president and the sources of Acun Medya’s funding. Online portal OdaTV, for example, alleged in March that he was the subject of a U.S. probe into possible weapons smuggling. Acun Medya said Wednesday it won a court ruling blocking access to the story and filed a libel claim against OdaTV for 1 million liras. OdaTV confirmed the ruling but said it stands by the story and wasn’t aware of the libel suit.
‘Deal or No Deal’
What’s not disputed is that Ilicali needed less than two years to turn TV8 into a ratings dynamo that continues to be coveted by major advertisers in a country where “no politics means no headaches,” according to Ceren Sozeri, a communications specialist at Galatasaray University in Istanbul.
“Acun is probably the only mogul in Turkey who can make money in media,” Sozeri said. “Although this proves his talent and vision, there’s no doubt Erdogan’s support played a key role in his success.”
In 2015, two years after Ilicali bought all of TV8 for what Sozeri called a sweetheart price of $70 million, another Erdogan ally paid him $110 million for a 30 percent stake. Ilicali said his funding came from previous hits, mainly a version of “Deal or No Deal,” the game show he hosted that featured foreign guest stars such as Bruce Willis and Christina Aguilera.
Despite the windfall, Acun Medya carried on with factoring. Though almost always more expensive than traditional bank borrowing, it’s a common practice in Turkey’s entertainment industry, which offers fat profit margins but lengthy payment terms.
The tireless entrepreneur said his popularity has come so fast and the potential upside is so huge that he canceled a bond sale and shelved IPO plans so he can focus on riding the boom as long as possible—and that means securing cheaper funding and cutting currency risks by switching contracts to dollars.
“Money is gas for me and I need gas to grow,” he said. “We’re going to be the biggest TV production company in the world if we continue at this pace.”
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