By now, we have read enough about the highly-divisive ABS-CBN franchise issue. Let’s not add to the “fire” but rather offer an alternative and hopefully more positive (and less divisive) perspective.

This will not dwell on the core legalities as they are better left with the governing institutions so my recommendations will focus on:

  • A more forward-looking guiding principle as to why broadcast media entities must operate only within or not beyond 50 years (this not only refers to ABS-CBN but to all broadcasting networks such as GMA Network and TV5); and
  • A more empowering approach to the conundrum, thinking of how the affected artists, talents, and employees may see the ‘silver lining’ and come out as winners.

What is history telling us?

Before we tackle these two points, it might help to appreciate the history of ABS-CBN. Many discourses (considering both sides) have already surfaced. Nevertheless, the most concise I have read so far is the piece written by former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile. [With all due respect, I do not always agree with Senator Enrile, but his piece is sharp, legally sound, and raises the necessary questions—those that will help our authorities and even our citizens to look at the issues with more objectivity.]

Second, this is not simply another pro- or anti-government post. My support to the government (no matter who leads it) is not blind. Therefore, I trust you, dear readers, to remember that we are all One (no matter what our political affiliation is).

Bias should be toward the sanctity of the ballot. There should always be fair elections, where citizens can freely campaign for their choices. However, when votes had already been counted, as good citizens, there is an expectation to support those who already won. For example, I did not vote for President Noynoy Aquino but when he won already, I continued supporting the government as a good Filipino citizen.

After all, presidents come and go but we only have one country, right? There’s a moral obligation to help ensure the success of leaderships and the rule of law—without giving up our civil rights—because there will be no authentic progress amid mindless squabbling and disunity.

This has been clearly expounded on by James Fallows in his 2017 article titled, “A damaged culture” (Atlantic) and to quote,

“Nationalism can of course be divisive, when it sets people of one country against another. But its absence can be even worse, if that leaves people in the grip of loyalties that are even narrower and more fragmented. When a country with extreme geographic, tribal, and social-class differences, like the Philippines, has only a weak offsetting sense of national unity, its public life does become the war of every man against every man…And because of this fragmentation—this lack of nationalism—people treat each other worse in the Philippines than in any other Asian country I have seen.”

Therefore, as we tackle the two themes of this post, the article of Fallows is a perfect reference and take-off point.

Nationalism and sovereignty: The Constitution and the 50-year limit

Fallows’ article is a good backdrop in this discussion because it allows for deeper analysis of our culture and psyche–which shape our ability (or inability) to address our predicaments, not just the current franchise ‘pandemonium’ but also almost everything that we are confronted with (including, sadly, COVID-19).

Again, this will not be an exhaustive legal analysis but at the core of this piece is the Philippine Constitution that embodies the basic tenets on nationalism and sovereignty, which are ultimately assumed to be the essence and rationale of the term limit in public utility franchises. Section 11 (Article XII) says that (emphasis mine),

“No franchise, certificate, or any other form of authorization for the operation of a public utility shall be granted except to citizens of the Philippines or to corporations or associations organized under the laws of the Philippines, at least sixty per centum of whose capital is owned by such citizens; nor shall such franchise, certificate, or authorization be exclusive in character or for a longer period than fifty years…The State shall encourage equity participation in public utilities by the general public. The participation of foreign investors in the governing body of any public utility enterprise shall be limited to their proportionate share in its capital, and all the executive and managing officers of such corporation or association must be citizens of the Philippines.”

The Constitution is therefore clear on three principles: (i) non-exclusivity (meaning, the State shall not favor anyone or any entity); (ii) equity participation (I interpret this as the State providing enough mechanisms to allow the general public enough mechanisms and not be disadvantaged in co-owning public utilities by way of participation/investment options); and (iii) fixed term limit.

We will focus on the third, which is the term limit. However, before doing that, an objective analysis begins with disabusing the propensity toward the terminology, “shut down”. By law and jurisprudence, ABS-CBN was not shut or closed down by force. Its franchise expired–pure and simple. Even the NTC’s action was not an act of “shutting down.” Therefore, even if NTC did not issue the cease and desist order (CDO), its franchise would still expire. From an objective point of view, insofar as the rules are concerned, no one is being oppressed.

The issue on why the application for renewal dragged on is probably the more correct question here. While I am also not a fan of Vice President Leni Robredo, I think what she said in a news article behooves an answer:

“Kung talagang maraming violation, halimbawa sabihin natin, hindi talaga kailangang i-renew ang lisensiya, eh, eh ‘di dapat sana—dapat sana dinisapprove. Dinisapprove para alam kung ano ang susunod na recourse,” said Robredo. [Translation: If there is indeed a violation, for example, we can say, we cannot renew the license, then we could have simply disapproved (it). We could have simply disapproved (it) so (they) know the next recourse.”]

VP Robredo’s opinion is well placed. The people need to know why the application was not acted upon in a more timely manner. Secondly, if there were indeed grave violations, the franchise could even be pre-terminated (prior to expiration), following the laws of the land. However, these are questions that must be left with the governing authorities.

Let’s then focus on the term limit or lifespan (in terms of years of operations) as this is at the core of the question on whether any broadcast company in this situation should still be allowed to renew its franchise or to continue operating as a broadcasting entity.

I believe that the term limit was placed in the Constitution as a protective clause against “over-staying” franchises, especially broadcasting firms because these “use sovereign assets of the State – such as frequencies and public easements – in their business operations” (Enrile, 2020).

While the provision could be argued as allowing repeated renewals, it is understood that the Constitution is clear about the maximum limit of 50 years (either as fixed term/s of franchise/s or accumulated years of operation). Assuming the legal and moral/ethical essence of the provision, one may renew a public utility franchise of 25 years, for example, for the 2nd time but, I believe, not if the company has been operating already for x number of years prior to the current franchise and the new total will already exceed 50 years.

The “cap” in such important and lucrative agreement protects the Filipino people and this is perceived as the intent of the framers of the Constitution. Did the framers of the Constitution carelessly craft that provision to allow a broadcast media to operate (through a franchise or otherwise) ad infinitum, or allow enough loopholes so the “cap” could be circumvented or manipulated? I don’t think so. However, again, these are legal and moral questions that must be dissected.

Could the answer be hiding in the numbers?

And so the next question is: Why was ABS-CBN then allowed to operate for 65 years—15 years beyond the 50-year constitutional limit, if indeed we will interpret the intent of the framers of the Constitution as wanting a ‘perfect’ maximum limit to allow balance between return on investment and protection of sovereignty? An article by Limos (2020) traces the roots of the company to 1946 through Bolinao Electronics. This is also reflected in another article (ABS-CBN Archives, 2009). Meanwhile, the website of the company points to 1953 as its start (ABS-CBN, n.d.).

Assuming that 1946 is correct, subtracting 1946 from 2020 gives us 74 years. If that historical note is correct, then ABS-CBN is nearing its diamond year (2021). This is different from its official count of 65 years in 2019, when it celebrated its anniversary. Nevertheless, the 65 seems based on 1953. The correct math can be done later. What is important to note here is that ABS-CBN has been airing and using public good (frequency) likely between 65 to 74 years. To be conservative, we can stick to the official count, which is 65 years.

This is still beyond 50 years, right? Moreover, how should authorities make the count? How should the count of actual years of existence be counted? Shouldn’t it be based on the number of years of airing/operating? This is critical because if you based it on this principle, then ABS-CBN (or a firm in that similar situation) must no longer be given a franchise renewal.

Secondly, even ABS-CBN itself used 65 years as its “age”. Again, we leave that to our authorities to resolve. It is hoped that this will help authorities in their decision-making (and policymaking).

There are several sources for reflections on the history of ABS-CBN but I leave it up to you, dear readers, to discern what to use and what to discard. I would just mention here the reflections of F. Sionil Jose, national artist for literature, and RJ Nieto, who have offered thoughtful and extensive reflections. (The Jose piece is more anecdotal while the Nieto piece included references for further fact-checking.)

Freedom of the press vs. sovereignty of citizens

Freedom of the press should be guaranteed but not at the expense of sovereign rights.

Fifty years is a long time; beyond this, a media entity becomes “too close for comfort” with its audience. Long-term presence of public utilities may become breeding ground for abuses and ineptness and quite possibly, a culture of superiority or infallibility—especially in an industry that is quite powerful (read: having the inherent ability to shape public opinion and ‘control’ elections, alas, for the detriment of the society if unabashedly abused).

I believe the framers of the constitution were serious about the 50-year limit because there is a need to protect the State and the general public from “long-staying” broadcasting networks. As we all know, such giant broadcasting networks will naturally, over time, develop strong influence on the public.

While such influence is definitely good if used with fairness, accountability, and transparency, it could be disastrous, unfair, and divisive if used as a weapon for partisan politics and worse, for emotional blackmail/ hostage [following the messaging in what could be a massive campaign: it is the “obligation” of the State to renew their franchise because (i) “they have 11,000 employees” or (ii) “it is the only network capable in reaching the poor people in far-flung areas” or (iii) “not renewing their franchise is tantamount to oppression of press freedom”–all of which stand on weak grounds] (Ledesma, 2020; CNC, 2020).

The book, Journalistic Fraud, How The New York Times Distorts the News and Why It Can no Longer be Trusted (Kahn, 2018), has succinctly expressed a painful impression (or truth?) on the growth of media giants such as the NYT:

“As referees of the truth, these people affect our understanding of our institutions, our leaders, and ourselves. They mislead our thoughts, our actions, and our votes. As a result, many of us hold opinions colored with falsehood without knowing how we even arrived at them.” (emphasis mine)

These words reverberate along with our country’s quest for unity. Why are we disunited, as profoundly expounded on by Fallows? A probable reason is that our spaces for discourses (especially traditional media) mostly cater to partisan politics, negativity, and sensationalism. And here, ABS-CBN is not the only culprit. Our society and the dynamics of laissez faire or free market economy have allowed such a culture to thrive.

Bad news indeed sells more (Blanchard, 2007). Nevertheless, nowhere has it been demonstrated more ruthlessly in the 2016 elections (and up to these days). There are writings on the wall and they point to significantly biased reporting, poor programming, and possibly tons of violations. (Again, it is not up to us to decide on such matters but Filipinos are smart enough to discern the truth with sincere objectivity). As Lanto (2020) had asked (referring to ABS-CBN),

“Can the network reporters, anchors and commentators say honestly that they have strictly observed the elementary journalistic rule of fairness, objectivity and equity?

Thankfully, the advent of social media has somehow levelled up the playing field. Sinpeng (2016) reported that “a social media comparative analysis of the five candidates from January 9 until May 9 shows Duterte to have outperformed his rivals in the most important category: he has the most engaged and supportive fan base.” 

Indeed, many may agree that if not for social media, the result of the 2016 elections could have been different.

The constitutional limit resides deeply in the social conscience and ensures that no one—not even a powerful media entity—would turn into a giant monster that may easily (tacitly or otherwise) manipulate and dictate the direction of the people’s political life and choices. That, to many people (and the framers of the Constitution?), is the bigger reason why any media broadcasting entity should not be allowed a longer existence than 50 years. This principle, again, should be applied to all broadcasting networks, not just ABS-CBN.

For example, a quick visit to the website of GMA Network will reveal that it began in 1950 through its radio station DZBB. Therefore, it has been in the broadcasting business for 70 years already, close to the operational years of ABS-CBN (granted that our assumptions are correct).

Therefore, following the perceived protectionist and nationalist intent of the framers of the Constitution and especially considering the unique “powers” of a mass media company, both ABS-CBN and GMA Network are already “over-staying” in our airwaves. Therefore, the government should really revisit the rationale/intent behind the 50-year limit.*

Moving forward: Empowerment rather than oppression

There is always an empowering moment in any setback. There is a more positive approach to the conundrum.

For one, the affected artists, talents, and employees must think of this situation as an opportunity to empower themselves. Instead of being caught in the quagmire of blaming and playing the victim card, they can pool their resources together and establish a media corporation or a cooperative. They are being given an opportunity to build the future that they want; perhaps an even brighter future.

In this kind of future, whatever happens (hopefully, a fair and transparent application process can take place and a new franchise is going to be awarded to a new player), they will be ready to become either as partners or investors. At the minimum, they will already have an organization that can become a platform so the new franchise owner (assuming that Congress upholds the principle/essence behind the 50-year limit) will always honor and respect their rights and welfare (e.g., fair compensation, adequate benefits including health coverage, and legally-mandated working hours, etc.).

I can imagine Ms. Sarah Geronimo and Ms. KC Concepcion will fit the role of leaders/incubators. They are looked up to as talented actresses and entrepreneurs, are socially involved, and embody courage when they need to. If they and other committed artists will find the ‘silver lining,’ they could be a force to reckon with. A potential powerhouse. But first, they need to “wake up”. I understand the pains and the need to grieve. (I had been there, too.) But after the grief, I pray that they will realize that God-source allows these difficult experiences to help us remember our mission–and reach our highest potential.

For all media broadcasting companies, they should always think of the term of the franchise as a reality, honor it (there is no “violation of press freedom” when a franchise expires), and prepare the workforce for eventual exit. As we always say, in life, there is no forever. The exit strategy should, of course, include fair severance packages for their employees.

This kind of exit requires a culture of fairness, transparency, and accountability. In this work environment, the management, talents, artists, and staff are truly nurtured and educated as to laws and Constitution of the Republic and how they can be better prepared for the eventual end of the franchise.

I do not hate ABS-CBN. (I very much appreciate the chance to work with one of the Lopez Group’s foundation back in 2017.) However, as a business entity, it should face and answer to the many issues and cases that are being raised by citizens for years now. Nevertheless, I am confident that the family and the corporation could also find this situation as an empowering experience, which could lead them toward important lessons and milestones. For one, nothing is stopping the Lopez Group to reinvent itself, diversify, or focus on its other businesses, if indeed a new franchise is no longer viable nor legal/ethical.

For the government, valid franchise renewal applications (e.g., those that are still within the 50-year limit if renewed, for example) should be attended at least two years before their expiration. It is not fair to keep valid franchise applications hanging indefinitely, right into their expiration dates.

While this principle may no longer apply in the case of ABS-CBN (with its 65 years of operations already), the constitutional limit would have been clearer to all parties concerned at the onset. In fact, if the legal and moral/ethical essence of the limit had been deeply ingrained, ABS-CBN would likely have not applied for a renewal and instead embarked on an exit strategy in a professional manner–most likely thankful because it was already given additional 15 years.

For us citizens, I call for fairness, respect, and sobriety. As part of our civil rights, we can voice our opinions but we should not malign and disrespect others. With every right comes a responsibility. (And this applies to the press, too!).

Awakening, not disunity

Most of all, let’s look inwards and appreciate that we are all One. The real enemies are poverty, inequity, corruption, and moral degeneration. We are also in the middle of COVID-19. Imagine the extent of the requirements for rebuilding our country! We will not be effective in addressing all of these if we continue to fight against one another.

At this juncture in our history, we have tried revolutions and overthrowing of presidents repeatedly (for good reasons, I suppose) but what have come out of it? After all these revolutions, what have we truly learned and become? It is troubling, are we really that damaged culture that Fallows described in his 2017 write-up?

Calling for and working toward unity is easier said than done. In fact, someone even said (online) that the call of unity is “fake” and simply the effort of the government to consolidate its forces. It’s really sad. It has come to that place where even the call for unity is seen as an attempt to politicize.

I am sure many people are really guilty of that. But many of us, nameless citizens, ordinary Filipinos, are truly praying for a united country once and for all. Yes, there are online “trolls” (on both sides) but like you and me, there are many more, much much more, whose loyalty are for the flag, and are truly praying for unity and healing.

We no longer want another EDSA revolution. We simply want to evolve from within. To be agents of transformation by creating ripples of hope. To help our government (whoever the President is)–especially at this time! It matters less whose political party is the majority. It matters more that there is accountability. That the leaders voted by the people will do what they promised to do and if they don’t, there is a day for reckoning. In the meantime, we like to give them a chance.

I hope we can give this country a chance. But we cannot do that unless we ourselves will truly transform. If we truly want to change our society, that change should start from within.

Presidents will come and go and no matter how strong we curse them, the cycle will keep on repeating itself. There will be no end to it because no one will qualify to that idea of a “perfect president.” Not even Dalai Lama or the Pope. Even the two of them combined will fail us. Because all of us, the people who vote for leaders, have failed to use our voice in a way that will genuinely transform our society. We use our voice to complain, to fight against one another, to ridicule, to hate. To shout what is wrong with the world. No one has ever shouted, “What is wrong with me?” And so, the next time we have the urge to complain, let’s think first. Let’s think 100 times.

What is our contribution in the society that we are now experiencing? As above, so below. Wake up, my beloved.

*Once the current franchise of GMA Network expires, then the same principle should apply. There may be a legal complexity here–as the latest franchise was just recently awarded–but over all, the same principle should apply. After all, ABS-CBN and GMA Network were practically duopolies, especially before the ‘revitalization’ of TV5 in 2009 (Unified Communications, 2011). The situation may still have to be addressed so that the playing field will be more even, to the benefit of the viewing public. This can be done through better programming and reporting, which can be made possible through stronger policies and positively engaged citizenry.


NOTE: Thank you for visiting my blog! There is no request for donation but I hope that you will plant trees on your birthdays! Namaste!

Full transparency: I am an independent consultant and sometimes serve as part-time (sometimes, pro bono) technical specialist/advisor for elected officials. I attest further that this is written in my private time and capacity as a Filipino citizen and does not reflect the views of my client/s.

References, further reading:

A damaged culture (James Follows)

Philippine Constitution

2014 pa nagparenew, ‘di inaksyunan! Even Robredo thinks Aquino-Belmonte Congress to blame for sitting on ABS-CBN franchise (Politiko)

The ABS-CBN Puzzle (Juan Ponce Enrile)

Farewell to the Father of Philippine Television (ABS-CBN Archives)

ABS-CBN Corporate (Who We Are)

ABS-CBN’s historic milestones through 70 years of service to the Filipino (Mario A. Limos)

Of motives and options of ABS CBN (Jun Ledesma via Philippines News Agency)

ABS-CBN: A Requiem (F. Sionil Jose)

ABS-CBN: A Requiemby F. Sionil JoseWay back when the Manila Chronicle was a major daily, its Sunday column, Inside…

Posted by F Sionil Jose on Thursday, 7 May 2020

In the service of the Filipino? How ABS-CBN’s Lopezes used media since World War II (RJ Nieto)

Bad News Sells Better Than Good News (Dave Blanchard)

How Duterte won the election on Facebook (Aim Sinpeng)

About GMA 7 (“Our Business”)

Angel Locsin calls attention of ABS-CBN news to “misleading headline”

CA deals another blow to ABS-CBN’s labor practices

Labor group calls on ABS-CBN to regularize 5,000 non-regular workers (Leslie Ann Aquino)

TV5 aims to break ‘duopoly’

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