StreetTalk: Old networks never die, they get resurrected

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By Greg B. Macabenta

ABS-CBN signed off after its franchise expired on May 4, 2020.  Actually, the franchise was left to expire by a House of Representatives that preferred to second-guess President Rodrigo Duterte rather than do its job.  Duterte had made it clear that  he didn’t like the network and its owners. Too powerful for their own good.  Their source of power had to be crushed. So, the Philippines’ largest broadcasting network had to be knocked off the air.

For millions of television viewers and radio listeners all over the Philippines, that is like being deprived of their daily victuals – as much of a habit as kape and pan de sal for breakfast, and kanin,  ulam and merienda, the rest of the day.

For journalists and civl rights activists, the closure of  the network is a brass-knuckled assault on press freedom. To the marketing industry, it is a loss of a potent sales and promotional vehicle. For my colleagues in the advertising agencies, a loss of commissions. And for ABS-CBN’s thousands of employees, talents, production staffers and stars, a loss of jobs and income.

For its business rivals and political enemies, ABS-CBN’s going off the air means one pain-in-the-neck gone. For its allies, one platform for gaining prominence and visibility lost.

But not for Pinoys in America and the OFW enclaves in the Middle East, Asia and Europe. They will continue to have their daily serving of news, tear-jerkers, action serials, fantasies and showbiz tsismis that remind them of home.

For the Lopez family, owners of the network, the closure is just one more chapter in the corporate complex’s storied existence in Philippine business and politics. Just one more predictable consequence of being in and out of power.

It is deja vu. But, as in the past, ABS-CBN will go on the air again.  Indeed, old networks never die. They get resurrected.

In 1972, following the declaration of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos, the network was forced to close down, its assets taken over by business and political rivals and its executives jailed and subsequently forced into exile in the US.

This was the same Ferdinand Marcos whom the Lopezes helped in winning the presidency in 1965,  along with the vice-presidency of one of the family patriarchs, Fernando Lopez,.

The same Marcos that the family helped to depose in the 1986 People Power revolution, en route to resurrecting  the network and reclaiming its dominance

I have no doubt that ABS-CBN will outlast Rodrigo Duterte, just as it outlived Marcos. And, as sure as day follows night,  Duterte’s current allies will become Lopez allies when the Davao cartel’s time has come.  In Philippine politics, there are no permanent enemies or friends. Just ongoing interests.

Don’t be surprised if even ABS-CBN’s arch tormentor, Solicitor General Jose Calida will become a member of the Lopez cheering squad at the network’s resurrection.

I have a unique affinity to ABS-CBN. For me, the network is like an old rich neighbor, whose family members I have known most of my life, whose kids I practically grew up with, befriended, even fought and competed with (can one ever avoid fighting with the neighbor’s kids?)

As a boy in Manila, fresh off the boat from Leyte, I performed in soap operas aired on the network’s DZAQ Radio, broadcasting from the Republic Supermarket Building on Avenida Rizal. I was also among the earliest on-camera talents when television was introduced in the Philippines by Alto Broadcasting System, the ABS part of ABS-CBN. This was in 1954.

As an ad agency producer in 1960, I wrote and co-directed a weekly radio show on DZXL Radio. Located in the Chronicle building on Aduana, it was owned by Chronicle Broadcasting Network, the CBN part of what would become the Philippines’ largest broadcasting network.

And then in late 1965, the merged ABS-CBN, housed in a huge broadcast complex on Roxas Boulevard, hired me as manager for program evaluation and development. I also became head of script quality control and executive producer of the network’s prime TV property,  Buhay Artista (which starred the comic duo, Dolphy and Panchito).

It was presidential election season. On the instruction of network chairman Geny Lopez, Jr. I produced a daily satire that helped defeat reelectionist President Diosdado Macapagal and helped catapult Ferdinand Marcos to Malacanang. The title of the daily satire was Alis Diyan!

I had a great admiration for Geny Lopez, whom everyone reverently referred to as Capitan, although I only worked for ABS-CBN for less than a year. In the early 1990s, I was retained by the network, this time, under Geny’s son, Gabby or Eugenio Lopez III, who had begun laying the groundwork for ABS-CBN’s expansion to the  United States.

However, as luck would have it, it was ABS-CBN’s rival, GMA Network, that I  eventually helped to break into the US market.

Did I say that I fought and competed with ABS-CBN, just like fighting with the neighbor’s kids? I did. The Lopezes are fierce competitors, and dislike business rivals with a passion. Because I was associated with rival GMA, I was also disliked. ABS-CBN top management even had me “dis-invited” to a special event despite receiving a formal invitation from the network’s middle managers in my capacity as National Chairman of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA).

Of course, being an equally fierce competitor myself, I also had ABS-CBN expelled from a FilAm community festival that I had cornered exclusively for GMA.

Those were just two of the many instances when ABS-CBN and GMA, which I used to represent, pre-empted each other, in dealings with the FilAm community.  But these things I have never taken personally against the network and its people. I have a lot of respect for them as industry colleagues. Besides many of them are friends.

However, I take personal offense over the closure of ABS-CBN in the Philippines.  I consider it an assault against things I hold dear. Press freedom, particularly. And the freedom to speak out for or against a country’s leaders, as well as the freedom to compete in business with a passion.

I do not grieve for the fortunes of the Lopez family and their business empire. The family has enough wealth to last many generations and the corporate complex can outlast several presidential tenures and political enemies.

Will the network lose money with the closure of its Philippine operations? For sure. But it will continue to make money from its worldwide operations. The owners of the network are savvy entrepreneurs and it will take more than a Duterte and a Calida to sink them.

I do not grieve the loss of the tear-jerkers, action serials and fantasies of the network. They can always be revived when friendlier times come. Show business, like the Phoenix, will always manage to rise from the ashes.

But I grieve for the staffers of the network, especially the journalists and production people who have lost their jobs and their means of livelihood. Many of them are isang kahig isang tuka.

Most of all, I grieve for the loss of the freedom to criticize and hold accountable the leaders of my beloved Philippines. And I resent the raw use of power and the way the law has been bent and used as a weapon of oppression.

In this regard, I am glad that the network’s US and overseas staffers are still in harness and I hope that those who have lost their jobs in the Philippines will be employed again. They are professionals who have nothing to do with corporate and political power struggles.

I regard them like good neighbors. And, to paraphrase the slogan of an insurance company, like a good neighbor, they can count on me to have their backs.

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