Turkey was just one more stop on the march of American and European reality television toward global domination, with stations importing formats -- "Big Brother," "Survivor," "Pop Idol" -- and audiences watching in numbers that ensured the shows kept coming. Then Pelin Akat had her revelation.
It came while the TV producer was casting a show in which young men and women share a house with several dozen surveillance cameras. Akat noticed that, at the auditions in suburban Istanbul, the female candidates usually showed up alone.
The male candidates, however, brought along their mothers.
"They were saying, 'My mother should have a say,' " Akat recalled.
That's exactly what the mothers got in "Will You Be My Bride?" The hit series moved the matrons from backstage to the set, which they promptly took over.
Going from girl-meets-boy to girl-meets-boy-and-boy's-mother took reality TV to another level in Turkey, albeit one more than a little familiar in a country where parents still play a role, often the decisive one, in almost all unions.
The season finale drew 74 percent of the television audience. Turkey was utterly enthralled, even before the body of one of the show's favorites was discovered last month in a cheap hotel near the Mediterranean coast.
The tragic death of Ata Turk, 24, apparently from a drug overdose, finally made the skinny young man more compelling than his mother. Semra Yucel, a sturdy bottle blonde with all the self-assurance her son appeared to lack, had dominated not only him but also the entire 13-week series, displaying a shrewishness so arresting that she found work as an on-air commentator after the series ended last December.
By then all of Turkey knew Yucel as the woman who had swept aside her son's choice of a bride with the words: "I'll tell you when you're in love."
Turk's funeral was carried live on news channels, capturing Yucel's collapse on his flag-draped coffin and street fights between mourners and news photographers. The spectacle set off a rare period of reflection over the qualities that drive Turkey's nascent celebrity culture, which jumbles private lives and electronic media with heavy helpings of humiliation.
"What did this person become famous for?" asked Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, angered both by the funeral coverage and the rise of reality series. "We have programs at the moment that follow a trend that contradicts the traditions and family structure of Turkey, which is a country with a 98 percent Muslim population. I am worried about this."
After Ata Turk's death, the country's High Board of Radio and Television announced it was investigating reality TV as a genre.
Yet ordinary people and experts say the popularity of "Will You Be My Bride?" and its successor, "Dreams Will Come True," is grounded in their glossy adaptations of traditions deeply embedded in Turkey -- indeed, in a wide swath of the world where for centuries parents have arranged marriages for their children.
"Take India. Take the whole of the Arabic world. Take the whole of Central Asia," said Nukhet Sirman, an anthropologist at Istanbul's Bosporus University.
Akat, the producer, said the show's success has reversed the normal order of business in Turkish television, which suddenly had a format to export. The formula has been sold in Argentina, Ukraine, India and neighboring Greece, where the Turkish producers are also suing a company for promoting a knockoff called "Big Mother."
Still, it was no accident that the format emerged first in Turkey, where a son's choice of wife is so profoundly wrapped up with his parents that the language denotes no distinction. The Turkish word for "bride" is also the word for "daughter-in-law."
So it was that on privately owned Channel D last month, a middle-aged woman gazed forthrightly into the camera and announced: "I want a tall, green-eyed, beautiful bride." Her son said: "I want someone who can make me happy."
The new cast was introducing itself: five young men, their mothers and 12 young women. In the promotions and on the series' Web site, the men stand behind their mothers, unmistakably a package deal. But the key to the show, broadcast for several hours six days a week, is separating the groups by gender.
The men stay in one "house," cook pasta and talk, often about what might be happening in the house where their mothers are bunking with the "bride candidates."
"You know," said Askin, a manly fellow with moussed hair and a goatee, "your mother would never want anything bad for you."
The action was in the bigger house. Sirman, who has spent her career studying the Turkish family, noted that traditional power in families resides with the father. But rather than risk diminishing his authority by involving him in minor matters, the mother wields authority as his "envoy."
The little spats were coming fast and furious recently on "Dreams Will Come True." One mother collapsed in tears after being told she bought too much cauliflower. In the brides' bedroom, the problem was too little chocolate spread.
Other confrontations challenged the contract that has traditionally underpinned familial relations in this part of the world: The old protect, and the young respect.
"I wouldn't look at your son, anyway," Nagihan, 21, told a mother named Yildiz, who then decreed: "You cannot look at my son!"
"You cannot decide on that," the bride candidate shot back. "It will be up to me and your son!"
Young Ata Turk and his girlfriend, a striking blonde named Sinem Umas, had shared that view, telling each other that they would be in charge. Then Turk's mother weighed in -- with a ferocity that Sirman said may have been rooted in her status as a single parent pushing to compensate for the lack of a male authority behind her. The courtship ended, but Umas got a record contract.
In the nine months between the finale and his death, Turk bobbed along in the wake of brief fame. He was still on the fringe of celebrity, hanging out with a second-rung singer in the southern city of Adana, when he swallowed at least 10 ecstasy pills on Sept. 18.
"He was carrying the girl's letters in his suitcase," said Aysel Donmez, 44, a woman encountered on a park bench near the Istanbul apartment that Turk shared with his mother, who went into seclusion after the funeral. The neighborhood is a lower-middle-class enclave where most women wear the head scarves and long coats that signal roots in Turkey's heartland.
"Mothers are selective here," said Muzeyyen Geridonmez, 46, whose marriage was arranged and who expects her son to at least consult her before choosing a bride.
"But our type of marriage is being left behind now," she added. "More and more they're deciding for themselves. After all, they have to live together. It's their decision.
"But it would also be nice if we help them."