The day the ABS-CBN newsroom dreaded
MANILA, Philippines — May 5 started like any other Tuesday in ABS-CBN’s cluttered newsroom, but Ging Reyes seemed to feel electricity in the air and something ominous in the pit of her stomach.
But the network’s news chief went through her normal routine, or what passed for normal in the new coronavirus era: a story conference for “TV Patrol,” lunchtime meetings on Zoom, and a laundry list of instructions to her staff.
Still, “I had this sense of dread,” Reyes told the Inquirer in an interview. “You know that newsman’s instinct that something is about to happen?”
Others might have assumed that the worst was over for the Philippines’ biggest media conglomerate. The pandemic occupied the collective mind. May 4, the expiration date of ABS-CBN’s 25-year franchise, came and went without incident, with nary a peep from the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC).
But anxiety nagged at Reyes. At about 1 p.m. things began to happen.
Managing editor Gerry Lirio sent word to her office that “a source was advising him to tell me there was something unfavorable,” Reyes said. She relayed the information to Corporate, then called Lirio, a former city editor of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. He said the news was “not good.”
Hours passed with no official word, only rumors. At 3:29 p.m. ABS-CBN’s House reporter RG Cruz received an alert from a source about the NTC move. A second person called him soon afterward.
At 4:18 p.m. Cruz sent Reyes a message: “Boss, I don’t know how to say this. I wish I have better news. I wish 2 sources I trust with my life are wrong.” When she phoned him, the reporter told her a cease-and-desist order was “on the way.”
Seconds later a file was posted on one of their Viber threads—the NTC’s statement on ABS-CBN’s imminent closure.
“The newsroom turned into organized chaos,” Reyes recalled. “Everybody was scrambling to call someone, from the NTC, House, Senate…”
Then she was told that the guards at the gates had received the NTC order. “Everything happened so fast,” she said.
Piece of paper
Reyes, who joined ABS-CBN after the Edsa People Power Revolution in February 1986, was struck by the extraordinariness of it. “During martial law, you just had soldiers take over and inform you you should not be broadcasting anymore. This time, it’s just a piece of paper that tells you you don’t have the right to go on air anymore.”
Veteran reporter Jorge Cariño had gone home after filing his report, but felt compelled to turn back.
Seeing Reyes at the newsroom, he quipped: “Boss, I saw the breaking news. I returned because I was afraid my story might get scrapped.”
Reyes laughed, retorting: “Gago (idiot)! You’re not in the lineup.”
On the advice of lawyers, ABS-CBN bosses soon ordered the broadcast stopped “on that same day.”
Reyes tried to buy time. “I said, ‘Aren’t we supposed to stay on air for as long as we can? I mean, this is breaking news. I want to sustain this up to this evening,’” But management didn’t budge.
“I was just stunned,” Reyes said. “You know the feeling when you prepare for something you know is bad, yet when it happens it still shocks you? To the point you’re almost immobilized but you can’t sit still?”
Reyes, who assumed leadership of the news division in 2010 after Maria Ressa left the network to establish Rappler, said the producer in her “took over.” She rattled off orders. She began drafting the final spiels of the newscast.
“One of the [TV Patrol] anchors was still [in the shower]. I shouted, ‘Tell him to hurry up!’” she said, laughing.
Meanwhile, ABS-CBN staff and reporters were trickling into the newsroom, deeply worried but drawn to the historic moment.
Edwin Sevidal, head of dzMM radio’s news gathering team, had intended to work from home that day. “I needed to be here, even without knowing advance information,” he said.
When the order came down, “I didn’t want to believe it,” he said. “When I saw the press release, I still didn’t believe it.”
Just before 7 p.m. Cariño took a group selfie with network bigwigs, and the result was less than cheery. CEO Carlo Katigbak said: “Jorge, I’m gonna make you a promise. There’s gonna be a happy picture after that.”
“I believe you, Boss,” Cariño replied.
For Reyes, the gravity of the day’s events sank in as the last words were being said on TV. “Noli [de Castro] was reading the script, and I saw him choke up. I’d reviewed that spiel maybe three times, and when I heard him say the words, I couldn’t help but be overcome with emotion,” she said.
At 7:52 p.m. ABS-CBN signed off, its fate and future unknown. Congress is now going through the motions of renewing its franchise.
Looking back, Reyes said there was no room for regret. What she laments is not having the words to comfort her team, especially those with less means to survive, she said.
ABS-CBN’s Integrated News and Current Affairs is the country’s largest news organization with about 1,000 people—a fraction of the network’s 11,000-strong workforce.
“I could see them. Their faces were covered with masks but their eyes and demeanor told me they were afraid,” Reyes said. She told them: “We will do this, we prepared for this. We still have to work tomorrow.”
“But the truth is, no one knows really if everything would be all right,” she said.
“TV Patrol” migrated to digital platforms on May 7. Touted as a grand comeback, it drew 8 million hits in one day alone. But it offered scant comfort to Reyes, knowing their bread and butter was gone.
“We haven’t pulled back on deployment yet… Right now, we’re looking at possible cuts in expenses like investigative reporting and documentary production,” Reyes said, adding:
“This is what losing free-to-air means. Our lifeline to ad revenue has been cut. ‘TV Patrol’ was the only show that gave us financial capacity to pursue other aspects of journalism.”
By August, layoffs may begin.
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