What's the secret behind the success of Tanglin, Singapore's longest-running TV drama?

What's the secret behind the success of Tanglin, Singapore's longest-running TV drama?

Channel NewsAsia’s Genevieve Loh finds out why Tanglin works - in both popularity and longevity.

Prime Minster Lee Hsien Loong with the cast of Tanglin
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with the cast of Tanglin. (Photo: Mediacorp Channel 5)

SINGAPORE: In a television landscape littered with a smorgasbord of options and competitive content, Singapore’s very own Tanglin has proven to be a bona fide survivor - one that has managed to weather the high demands of viewer loyalty, fickle attention spans and creative atrophy.

Two months ago, Mediacorp Channel 5’s long form English drama made Singapore television history when it aired its 500th episode on Jun 19, becoming the longest-running local drama across all languages.

With 551 episodes (to date) in the bag and counting, Tanglin continues to faithfully pull in the punters night after night.

So what is the secret of its success?

Tanglin’s managing executive producer Tan Wei-Lyn told Channel NewsAsia that it boils down to the alignment of core values between viewer and show.

“I think the secret is our core values are reflective of many Singaporeans,” she said. “Life can sometimes really suck and we find strength and take heart in our families, loved ones, friends and neighbours. Tanglin is ultimately comfort food, something to relax with at the end of an emotionally or mentally-draining day.”

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Eswari plays Shruti (far left) who mixes into the popular girls gang (Photo: Mediacorp Channel 5)

Actress Eswari Gunasagar agreed.

“Tanglin is a feel-good drama and is very much relatable to the mass audience. Viewers see bits and pieces of themselves in the show’s characters, be it their personality or the issues they face,” said the 27-year-old who plays the pretty and popular influencer Shruti Bhaskar.

She added: “Tanglin reflects the issues happening among couples, friends, family and it's very present. It also makes the audience feel good, assuring them that there is always a solution to any turmoil.”

Tan, who is also vice president of Mediacorp’s English Drama Productions, was candid about the longevity of the drama series which was launched two years ago.

“At the beginning, when we first went into it in 2015, we were going to do only 199 episodes. I say ‘only’ now but back then we were frankly quite daunted,” she admitted. “We never imagined that we'd make it this far and be doing more than triple and maybe even quadruple that figure.

“We're looking at possibly going into 800 plus episodes as of now,” she revealed.

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It's wrap for the cast of Tanglin, Singapore's longest running TV drama. (Photo: Mediacorp Channel 5)

Tanglin’s popularity is indeed a feat all on its own, especially in a crowded entertainment market where viewers are spoilt for choice - which is why the specificity of the show’s strategy to ensure it stands out from other local programming is very important.

“Because we hope to be our viewers' living rooms or on their tablets five nights a week, our strategy was to build long-standing relationships between the viewers and our characters,” explained Tan. “We make sure our characters are multi-layered, believably capable of good, evil and all the shades of grey in between and put them in compelling everyday Singapore-related stories.”

“We're fortunate to have a very passionate team - cast, crew, writers, directors - who are very committed to bringing those emotional truths onscreen,” she continued.

With six production teams that roughly make up a camera crew of 40, a cast of 42 and 20 writers over the last two years, this is certainly one dedicated  team with a rigorous shoot schedule.

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Wee Soon Hui plays matriarch Tong Li Yan and Charlie Goh plays her son Eddie (Photo: Mediacorp Channel 5)

For actress Wee Soon Hui, being part of Tanglin since the very beginning has been a “great” experience, one that she is very grateful for.

The actress who plays Tanglin Coffee House owner and resilient widow Tong Li Yan knows a thing or two about successful long-running popular television dramas. She played the beloved mother of the Tay family in Growing Up - the iconic 1990s Channel 5 drama.

Wee said the recipes for both shows are not very different, which explains the similar popularity, loyal fan base and overall success.

“Fashion, lifestyle and technology may have changed over the years but human relationships and their problems have remained the same,” she told Channel NewsAsia.

“Both programmes are about family ties and friendship … are a reflection of what happens in real life. Growing Up was about life in the 1960s to 1970s. Tanglin is about our present life. They both show that challenges and obstacles constantly creep up in our lives," she added. 

"But both programmes go on to give us hope because they show that no matter how bad our problems may seem at the time, with the help and support from our family members and friends, we will always find a way to overcome them.

"The common ingredient between both shows? Family unity."

So looking forward, how does the show plan to keep its audience locked in?

“Because Singaporeans are incredibly cosmopolitan, we steadfastly kept away from stories or characters that would be a copy of anything else out there,” said Tan. “Our stories come from a mishmash of personal experiences, the news, everything we've seen, heard, experienced in Singapore. We've actually received responses from Singaporeans overseas, who tell us how much we remind them of home yet we've also got tweets and emails from non-Singaporeans who can relate to the universal themes.”

Another proven approach is giving their audiences the unexpected.

“We've dared to go to places that we might not be expected to at our time slot. We've even touched on stories like sexually transmitted diseases and social escorting. Some of the biggest responses we got from viewers came from our menopause story and the mental illness story - we received really touching testimonies from people with the same experience,” Tan recounted.

“It's a balance of stories that could be simple and straightforward, or suspenseful and titillating yet moving and touching, but always real and tangible. You always get a sense that it could happen to someone you know. That's the principle we live by.”

Source: CNA/gl