The Philippines’ broadcast and entertainment industry spent the weekend counting the costs of Friday’s vote not to renew ABS-CBN’s broadcast – and the picture, while full of prayers and promises of fighting on, looks grim.
While the message out of ABS-CBN involves “other ways to achieve our mission”, thousands of jobs are expected to be cut as the 65-year-old broadcaster reshapes its media business.
Messages of support from around the world are cold comfort to a production and talent community already hard hit by Covid-19 containment measures and pay cuts.
Clearly hoping for a different outcome, ABS-CBN management has not yet confirmed what’s next.
ABS-CBN’s flagship free-TV terrestrial channel has been off air since 5 May. The Sky Direct satellite platform and ABS-CBN’s TVPlus digital platform in Metro Manila went dark on 30 June.
Without its powerful broadcast station, ABS-CBN is left with cable platform Sky Cable, broadband services, iWant streaming platform, a large library of premium IP, overseas assets including The Filipino Channel (TFC), new domestic cable service Kapamilya Channel and social media platforms such as YouTube (ABS-CBN Entertainment, 28m subs; ABS-CBN News, 9.7m subs) and Facebook (24m followers).
In a statement shortly after Friday’s vote, chairman Mark Lopez said the company remained “hopeful that better days are ahead for the network. This painful development will only make us stronger and better”.
What that looks like is anyone’s guess. And it may have to be without a broadcast network, given the prediction that the administration of president Rodrigo Duterte will move quickly to re-allocate the valuable and wide-reaching broadcast frequency.
Speculation is that frontrunners include Philippines’ religious group, Iglesia Ni Cristo (INC), a known adversary of ABS-CBN because of its news coverage. INC is believed to have lobbied fiercely against the franchise renewal. Duterte allies in the business community are also being watched closely for signs that they might step into the void.
On Friday evening, shortly after the Committee on Legislative Franchises announced its decision, ABS-CBN Corp president chief executive, Carlo Katigbak, talked about a “setback” and said the company was “deeply hurt” at being denied the application.
Katigbak had spent weeks presenting to the house committee on allegations ranging from political bias and illegal foreign ownership to tax evasion.
While denying many of the allegations, he also apologised for causing offence and committed to a series of future measures designed to improve balance and transparency.
“We believe that we have been rendering service that is meaningful and valuable to the Filipino public,” he said, thanking the Committee “for allowing us a chance to air our side on all the issues raised against us”.
The vote was described as a “sad day” by Mark Lopez, who took over as chairman from his cousin Gabby Lopez in April 2018. At the time, ABS-CBN said the leadership change was unrelated to a political environment and administration that was already swinging against a franchise renewal.
“This is not the outcome we have hoped for, but we remain grateful that we were able to participate in the process and clear the issues raised against ABS-CBN,” he said.
Domestic and international human rights groups heaped condemnation on the decision, calling it everything from a vehicle to “legitimise the expression of personal grudges and interests rather than the greater good” (The University of the Philippines’ College of Mass Communication) and “blatant and arrogant abuse of power” (Malacanang Press Corp) to “a grievous assault on press freedom” (Human Rights Watch) and “a profoundly dark day for journalists” (Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines).
Meanwhile, ABS-CBN’s licensing woes have increased scrutiny of other companies in Duterte’s firing line, including telcos Smart, owned by PLDT, and the Ayala-controlled Globe.
In an oft-quoted address in January this year, Duterte listed the tycoons he considers “crazy” and “whom we should kill… Just like Ayala and Pangilinan who own Globe and Smart. They are all thieves, those sons of b******”.
The administration has been at pains for months to distance the president from the franchise renewal hearings or the outcome. Some are buying it. Many are not, especially after one of the congressmen who voted against the renewal advised ABS-CBN to “sincerely apologise to the president”, who he described as ”merciful” and “kind hearted”.