ABS-CBN’s ordeal and its ‘chilling effect’ on media
MANILA, Philippines—On May 5, 2020, the unprecedented shutdown of broadcasting giant ABS-CBN in the middle of a public health crisis sent shockwaves across Philippine media, which even then were already under immense pressure to deliver the news amid declining revenues, increasing attacks and threats and the risks brought by the pandemic.
The year 2020 continued to be a “source of grief” for the Lopez-owned broadcast firm which was first shut down by the Marcos dictatorship, according to ABS-CBN news chief Gina Reyes.
In the past 12 months, the network had to lay off a third of its news and current affairs workforce, lost billions of pesos in ad revenue and shut down many of its legacy services, all the while trying to keep COVID-19 at bay.
This year “continues to be tough” on the network, Reyes said at a recent forum on press freedom. “But despite the challenges and despite the risks, many of us still believe we must continue to fulfill our duty to the public,” she said.
“I have always believed that if we remain true to our institutional and individual values, we will always muster the courage to keep going, with or without a franchise,” Reyes said.
At 7:52 p.m. on May 5, 2020, ABS-CBN was forced off the air by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) after its 25-year franchise lapsed and its renewal was shackled in Congress.
There were brief reprieves. A week later, the House of Representatives proposed to grant ABS-CBN a provisional franchise while it held marathon hearings on the network’s franchise renewal and alleged violations of laws.
Even as they fought for franchise life in Congress, the network’s leadership—led by ABS-CBN president Carlo Katigbak—also began marshaling resources for its digital transformation and preparing its workforce of thousands should it fail to secure franchise renewal from a Congress dominated by allies of President Rodrigo Duterte, who made no qualms about wanting to bring the network down.
Slowly, the network began to shift its news programs to digital platforms, compressing many radio and TV programs while also bringing in new, fresh content.
But even as the hearings unwrapped findings that pointed to ABS-CBN deserving franchise renewal, the House committee on legislative franchises eventually voted 70-11 to shut the door to the network just last July.
Looking at silver linings, Reyes said the shutdown at least “fast-tracked ABS-CBN’s reinvention of ways to gather and deliver the news.” “We owe our digital success to the long relationships we have with our legacy audience as they discovered these digital platforms,” she said.
“Going digital meant limitless possibilities which gave our people space to experiment, fail and try again,” she added. “Producing digital is cheaper than TV, but of course TV rakes in much, much bigger ad revenue. The reality is that to this day the bulk of our digital initiatives and products is supported by our legacy content.”
Since ABS-CBN’s closure, the rest of the industry has had to scramble to fill in the shoes of the former giant, whose outsize influence and reach, especially in far-flung rural areas, remained unmatched to this day, said University of the Philippines journalism professor Danilo Arao in an interview.
Citing research data from independent ratings organizations Nielsen and Kantar Media, Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas (KBP) chair Ruperto Nicdao said millions of Filipinos simply “tuned out of television” when ABS-CBN was forced off the air.
Even Filipinos’ average time spent viewing television (four hours every day at the start of the pandemic) has been slashed to half, showing that ABS-CBN’s absence “didn’t mean that Filipinos simply transferred to another channel.”
Shortly after its shutdown, ABS-CBN was also forced to close 12 local TV Patrol newscasts that delivered news in the regional dialects.
According to recent surveys, around 3 million people living in far-flung areas receive only ABS-CBN’s radio and TV signals and therefore have no access to the internet where the network has shifted its content.
“In terms of reach, the information gap is really wide given the lack of information of many people especially the victims of the typhoons that rocked the country last year,” Arao said, referring to three successive typhoons that slammed the country in the final quarter of 2020.
“In typhoon-stricken areas like Catanduanes, the lack of having regional networks redounded to delays in rehabilitation and aid because they don’t have information on the ground,” he said.
“That’s not to say other media organizations did not do the job,” Arao added. “But in times like this all hands should be on deck regardless of what the government thinks of ABS-CBN—it cannot deny the reach,” he said.
But the “most worrisome effect” of ABS-CBN’s closure, Reyes and Arao said, was the “chilling effect” it had on the entire media industry.
Many newsrooms, Arao said, have become less adversarial and more timid, afraid of asking the hard questions for fear of incurring the administration’s wrath.
“That would explain why certain news organizations have coverages that are skewed perhaps not toward Mr. Duterte himself, but also toward their anointed supporters,” Arao said.
“There are still some elements of critical reportage but the handling of certain issues lack contextualization, not because individual journalists are not trying, but because of this industry-level shift,” he said.
Echoing the sentiments of several KBP members, whose franchises were also “at the mercy of Congress,” Nicdao said: “The ABS-CBN experience really gave us networks plenty to think about. There’s really a chilling effect because some members are saying even if we got our renewal, it does not stop the government from coming up with issues. So we’re kind of careful about what we do.”
It’s also why the KBP is now lobbying for legislation that would remove congressional power over broadcast franchises, which Nicdao said “compromises the freedom of the press and of expression.”
Among other steps, the KBP is hoping to institutionalize franchising requirements similar to that of the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan, where permits to operate are given by independent commissions outside of the executive branch.
Such a commission, said Arao, should have industry practitioners and experts as majority members instead of government appointees to avoid the politicization of franchise applications.
Little hope in Congress
There are still pending legislative measures now seeking to revive the broadcasting giant.
But while Arao said he welcomed these, he remained cautious about their chances of success, especially considering the overwhelming majority that had voted against the renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise.
“If you have the same people voting on the same bills, what are the chances? But we are not totally pessimistic, since this is practically election year,” Arao said. “There’s also the possibility that the network would just ride out this situation and hope for the renewal under a different administration. So 2022 is crucial,” he said.
Still, the long wait could buy some time for the industry to reflect on its many weaknesses, Reyes said, including the seeming lack of solidarity in Philippine media.
She said while there was prominent coverage about ABS-CBN’s ordeal, the crisis it was facing then needed a much stronger expression of solidarity.
In the meantime, she urged people to “be a little more courageous as media…and to never lose sight of our purpose. [Let] us use the news as a way out of this dark place.”
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