Biggest Political Party

ABS-CBN is the biggest political party in the country because it can make and unmake a candidate. Fair because ABS-CBN has played the game of politics well. The heat radar in this network is so high that during campaigns or any political event, they are always the trump card for some groups out to sow intrigues, chaos and the like.

Note: This column originally appeared in The Manila Times on January 7, 2020.

To be quoted as saying it is the biggest political party in the country and be banned by its senior vice president for news and current affairs, Ging Reyes, is truly freedom of expression. It is not hyperbole. ABS-CBN is the biggest political party in the country because it can make and unmake a candidate. But I am going ahead of my personal story with a network whose franchise is set to end in March 2020.

That media should take a stand is the defense made by some. Media is not neutral as others would insist. Bad news sells and the rest is history, as some would put it. Nothing to do with ownership or writing off humongous loans by a government bank. Even the plan to go digital if the franchise is not extended shows how ABS-CBN plays its cards. It has been on overdrive when it comes to corporate social responsibility (CSR) and some people have decided to move their donations to more neutral entities than ABS-CBN. Fair because ABS-CBN has played the game of politics well. The heat radar in this network is so high that during campaigns or any political event, they are always the trump card for some groups out to sow intrigues, chaos and the like. In the same vein they know which lever to use when it comes to sporting, beauty and religious events. ABS-CBN has always been there, in the service of the Filipino, as they say. And that is why it is the number one TV station in the country, while GMA 7 is strong in Metro Manila and some key markets.

After the 2004 elections, ABS-CBN would often invite me to talk about almost anything under the sun. Even though sometimes I resist, the better part of those years were essentially accepting the invites in order to educate in interpreting events, policies and programs. Connecting dots and ensuring that the right interpretations are made was the driving force to accept being interviewed in a TV channel that wants sound bites all the way. The exposure trained me to think in terms of seven seconds and to break complex ideas and references to basic, understandable pieces. It is not easy because there are hosts who do not understand the topic, do not know how to ask questions and are not prepared to engage in a discussion. But those are few and far between. There are hosts that are really good, very professional, and you will see from the flow of the interview who these are.

After a while, you learn to prepare based on the background and track record of the host. Others just wing it saying it’s a waste of time to study and be edited out. I took the other road: prepare and engage. In the end, the people watching or listening gets educated. That has been the way it was. The same person once intimated to a colleague that “we made her,” in reference to my interviews with them. I would always say it takes two to tango and if a guest made no preparation and just winged it, I doubt very much if they would bother inviting a subject matter expert again.

In one of the interviews during election, I stated, on record, the power of media in determining the outcome of a national election. I was laying down the facts. And I concluded that ABS-CBN could prime a candidate, positive or negative, by the frequency of exposures, length of exposures, mentions whether name, tagline, jingle or even just banters. Imagine loading up TVCs or television commercials on prime time in both TV and radio? Imagine giving out discounts to preferred candidates? Imagine negotiating for combo packages? And imagine a situation where you raise money to pay as you go? In ABS-CBN, it’s pay before airing and sometimes you have paid but your materials are not airing since it turns out they have bundled certain spots for certain candidates. So, you wait for your materials to break after a long queue of opponents and party mates. If you are not well connected, you don’t get immediate action on your buys. If your agency is a small, boutique one, you again wait until the big players have chosen the prime spots; they even get to reserve spots and pay ahead even if the materials are still being produced. Money plays in big leagues. Money opens doors. Money ensures political viability of a candidate. TV is big money.

If Iglesia ni Cristo is the swing vote, ABS-CBN is the gatekeeper of sorts. The 90-day campaign period is defined by ABS-CBN. The other networks came into the picture with the first presidential, vice presidential formal debates. But the load of TVCs went to ABS-CBN by sheer power of viewership. In a presidential election year, the slip of ABS-CBN is for everyone to see, from coverage to news to lifestyle interviews and replays in all their platforms.

When a candidate is at the end, from ranks 10 to 15, or when three candidates are fighting it out for the top slot, without a national organization, play will be for loaded TVCs and that will be the kicker to close and hotly contested race. There are several proofs of the “power” of ABS-CBN being the biggest political party in the country but the latest proof is Sen. Manuel “Lito” Lapid. He was in “Ang Probinsyano,” the longest running telenovela of the network. He was in the show two years prior to the filing of certificates of candidacy in October 2018. “Ang Probinsyano” is the most watched television show in the country, fetching an all-time highest rating of 47.2 percent on Oct. 4, 2018, according to Kantar Media. Lapid even broke into the Top 3 in pre-election surveys. Never speaking during the campaign, Lapid just went around waving in key vote-rich areas. And then the “Ang Probinsyano” party-list had two groups with one getting the public nod.

So, we go back to the requirement of a franchise before a TV network can operate. The franchise is a privilege and not a right. Spectrum, after all, is owned by the people and the public should derive a clear worth from a patrimonial asset. When a TV network dumbs the public, is that wise use of the very asset they own? Is there nothing wrong in using the people’s asset and writing off the loans of the organization using people’s money? But ABS-CBN is number 1 and is trusted by Filipinos still, how would regulators change how it is being used? If Congress renews its franchise, will we see any change in how the network is being used? ABS-CBN is said to have three options: One, for the network to transfer to another channel. ZOE TV-Channel 11 has already ended its collaboration with GMA 7, which had used its former UHF frequency Channel 27 for its GMA News TV; second, go fully digital, do live streaming and produce program materials which they could sell to other networks; and third, an angel investor comes into the scene and secures the broadcast franchise from Congress. The wonders of a joint venture of a content provider and a franchisee.

Though the clock is ticking, legislative measures have been filed in both houses of the 18th Congress to extend ABS-CBN’s franchise. Republic Act 7966, signed in 1995, granted the broadcasting company the 25-year franchise to operate in the country. In fairness to President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, the previous administration did not entertain an early renewal. And Duterte has not signed any renewal of franchises for GMA, TV 5 and other media organizations. PRRD allowed the measures to renew the franchises of a number of media groups to lapse into law. The 10 other media outfits whose renewal of franchise measures lapsed into law are the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines Inc., PBN Broadcasting Network Inc., Andres Bonifacio College Broadcasting System Inc. and Insular Broadcasting System Inc. The bill on their renewal lapsed on April 22, 2019. The bills for the franchise renewal of RMC Broadcasting Corp. and Advanced Media Broadcasting System Inc. lapsed on March 30, 2019. Bills renewing the franchise of Cebu Broadcasting Co., Radio Marine Network, First Love Broadcasting Network Inc. and Tirad Pass Radio TV Broadcasting Network Inc. all lapsed on April 27, 2019.

Will the biggest party wilt? Will it form a coalition? Will it reform to be truly for flag and country? The sad state would be if the network falls into the hands of politicians. Some have been friends, allies while others remain adamant on the way it performs. A Philippines without ABS-CBN is nothing new. A Philippines with a TV network with the size and reach of an ABS-CBN, reinvigorated and its purpose redefined, is most definitely welcome in an era of unfiltered news and open governance.

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About the Author
Malou Tiqiua is the Founder/General Manager of PUBLiCUS Asia Inc. A noted political management expert in the Philippines and Asia, she brings over 20 years of professional experience in public, private and the academe combined. Author of the comprehensive book on electoral campaigns in the Philippines, "Campaign Politics", Malou is a graduate of the University of the Philippines with a Political Science degree and a Master of Public Administration. She completed her second master's degree (MA in Political Management) from the Graduate School of Political Management, George Washington University.
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