Commentary/Rant: Philippine TV – Back to Where We Started

I feel like a good rambling rant today.

I’m of the opinion that when it comes to television, the Philippines deserves more options. Not less. For almost two decades, the country’s entertainment and news options have been dominated by what has essentially been a duopoly between ABS-CBN and GMA Network. ABC-turned-TV5 has been a distant 3rd, despite multiple stop and start efforts to bolster their position in the industry.

When ABS-CBN’s franchise debacle knocked the company off most Filipino televisions, it was a huge step back for the ideal multi-option scenario. Though the company continued to produce content, it did not have the mainstream platform that was a free, over-the-air channel that was accessible by most Filipinos.

A few months after the so-called “shutdown,” TV5 engaged in a renewed effort to produce original local entertainment content (after having essentially given up – again) to try and fill the void. But after two decades of conditioning by the duopoly, Filipino audiences were not too willing to give them a chance. That’s not to say most Filipinos even have over-the-air access to TV5 in the first place. But that’s a whole other topic.

Now, Filipino audiences were a bit more responsive after TV5’s initial post-ABC rebranding. Those early years showed that it was certainly possible for a 3rd or even 4th and 5th player to gain traction with the Filipino people. The more options, the better.

Unfortunately for TV5, the return on investment didn’t come fast enough. (It still hasn’t, for the most part.) And the network would stop and start its efforts to really try and chip away at the ABS-CBN/GMA hold on Philippine media.

ABS-CBN’s “shutdown” (which I still think is the wrong term to use considering the lights were never turned off and the company is still up and running) offered a new opportunity for TV5 and potential other players to make inroads.

(Though a separate case can be made for ABS-CBN’s flimsy business model when they are apparently crippled by not having Channel 2 beaming their content despite having a huge portfolio of platforms and extracurricular business ventures.)

But a combination of different factors seems to have led us all back to where we started: Filipinos having just two options for their media consumption.

First of all, I’m not taking into account the continually increasing number of streaming options for fresh, original content. And not only international behemoths like Netflix or regional leaders like Viu and the like. Local streaming platforms have popped up left and right, led by none other than ABS-CBN’s own iWantTFC service.

And as internet-saavy as the Philippines is, television is still the dominant medium for entertainment and news consumption by everyday Filipinos.

So, even as TV5’s maze-like parent company has put a greater emphasis on its pay television services and related subdivisions (which all bring in much more revenue than its linear TV network), the opportunity to once again try and grab a share of the television audience presented itself.

Sadly, it seems as if TV5 is in a constant loop. They gain a renewed vigor in producing and offering original content before quickly and almost abruptly throwing in the towel and giving up once again.

That’s exactly what seems to be happening as media and tsismis reports of TV5 and ABS-CBN forging what essentially looks to be a merger of sorts. Or at least, whatever a merger means in the Philippines’ corporatelandia.

Since the ABS-CBN “shutdown,” TV5 and its labyrinthian parent company were clear in saying that they were open to working with anyone. And that included ABS-CBN and the possibility of them leasing time on TV5’s schedule. That would end up being the case as ABS-CBN would first pay rent to occupy TV5’s primetime block before then securing a Sunday noontime slot and now a Monday-Saturday noontime slot as well.

After TV5 had programmed these slots with their own original (and co-produced) programs, it really felt as if they had given up once more. It’s a business, after all. And leasing out their airwaves certainly looks to be more financially beneficial for TV5 rather than having to fill the slots with their own content.

Allowing the blocktime agreements also helped TV5 gain (a little) goodwill from ABS-CBN’s fans. While of course allowing more Kapamilyas to enjoy the shows they otherwise would have no access to. But you can be sure as hell that once ABS-CBN somehow finds their way back to their own network, those same people will easily abandon TV5.

The crumbling of the #NetworkWar walls, however, is definitely a good development. The ideal scenario is a world where artists and creatives from ABS-CBN, GMA, TV5 and other independent producers/companies can freely cross over and work with each other. But while there have been some, small, moves toward that, recent developments seem to signal a return to the status quo.

To be clear, TV5 opening up its schedule to ABS-CBN programs is nice and all. But the news of a more intensive and wide-ranging “partnership” (read: merger) between the two coupled with comments from TV5 big boss Manny V. Pangilinan seem to point more toward TV5 essentially turning into ABS-CBN5 instead.

That’s far from the “more options” ideal I mentioned right at the beginning. With the initial tsismis, part of the deal was (for example) TV Patrol taking over the primetime news slot from Frontline Pilipinas.

And that would seem to be a scenario that could get duplicated across TV5’s schedule.

I can’t find the comment anymore, but I had posted a comment under one of the stories on Facebook. I talked about how this potential partnership would basically push out TV5 and News5 employees. If you’re merging/consolidating your operations, you are obviously going to trim out any overlapping positions, responsibilities, etc.

While some were excitedly heralding that “Kapamilyas will get their jobs back!”, the fact that many may actually lose their jobs because of a potential consolidation seems to have been lost on the madlang people.

It was certainly not lost on actual TV5/News5 employees, a few of which had liked my comment and other comments that expressed the same sentiment. I’m sure there’s many within the walls of TV5 at Mandaluyong who feel the same way, albeit more quietly.

How would ABS-CBN News and News5 co-exist as separate “brands”? Both have distinct branding and style, yet “both will have an equal say on business and editorial decision.” That would be like if NBC News entered a 50/50 partnership with CBS News. Or The Today Show replacing CBS Mornings and CBS Evening News replacing NBC Nightly News.

And what about ABS-CBN and TV5/Cignal’s respective cable news channels (ANC, OneNews/OnePH)? Will one absorb the other? If not, then exactly what resources will be shared and how will they maintain their independence from each other, if so.

With more and more ABS-CBN programming blocks on TV5 with the arrival of It’s Showtime and potentially more, this “partnership” seems more like some weird reverse takeover by ABS-CBN of TV5 by way of Manny Pangilinan essentially allowing ABS-CBN to make themselves at home on one of his properties that already has a family living in it. But it is fine for him to give the house away because he’s got other houses in his portfolio.

It really just feels like TV5 has once again given up with any random original, non-ABS-CBN programs merely serving as a way for the network to say “Look here, see! We’re making an effort.” When really, they’re just content with being rolled over.

TV5’s new “Mas masaya pag sama-sama” branding is feel-good and all. But it also feels like a way to mask and justify their having waved the white flag once again.

Now I haven’t even mentioned the impending launch of the Manny Villar/Willie Revillame brainchild AMBS. Launching a network from the ground up seems like an even taller order and even less potential for success than whatever TV5 has attempted to do. And TV5 actually has all the necessary resources. (Name recognition, facilities, intellectual property, corporate siblings that produce content and existing partnerships with producers.) Yet, again, they don’t seem interested in maintaining their identity nor establishing itself as an equal rather than merely as lunch for the big boys.

I go back to the ideal scenario: The collapse of the #NetworkWar walls and fostering more collaboration between the networks in terms of content production, talent sharing, etc.

GMA Network is certainly not blameless in this situation as well. It was supposedly a big moment when GMA purchased the broadcast rights to Star Cinema films. Even though TV5, before ABS-CBN shows began infiltrating their air, had already been airing said films. Likely via rights deals with Cignal.

Not only that, GMA Network has been on a non-stop talent hoarding spree. Especially since ABS-CBN was yanked off free airwaves. But not just stranded Kapamilya talents. GMA, with the rebranding of their talent management arm to Sparkle, has also signed up dozens of new talents. It is obviously impossible to give all those talents work on GMA Network or their GMA News TV-turned-GTV 2nd channel. Most remain in the Kamuning basement until their contracts run out.

So why not allow your talents to work on projects from other companies. Like, for example, a Cignal-produced series for TV5. There is really no good excuse against allowing such a thing. It’s actually a win-win for everyone involved. Cignal gets talents for their productions. Sparkle artists get work. And that work obviously will come with pesoses for both the talent AND GMA Network. So what’s the problem?

There’s all this talk of the “new normal.” How about a new normal in Philippine TV. That is, breaking free from the chains of this 20 year duopoly and finally allowing a potentially vibrant and world class Philippine media thrive. That means a strong ABS-CBN and a strong GMA Network and a strong TV5. And yes, how about a strong AMBS and a strong CNN Philippines and a strong whatever else is on lower end of the dial.

The world is heading toward a streaming future. But for a country like the Philippines, that does not mean abandoning television and leaving it to rot until everyone eventually migrates to the internets for their content. And especially for a country like the Philippines, such a migration is not going to come any time soon when their major television networks cannot even broadcast over digital signals let alone have HD feeds.

Instead of consolidation, there needs to be an expansion. Media conglomerates in other countries like the United States have consolidated, yet made the landscape even more fractured. But the Philippines does not have that problem with such a limited set of options. And when there’s already limited options, paring down those options even more doesn’t help or benefit anyone except the already-rich who wheel and deal behind closed doors.

Filipinos deserve more and better than that.

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