At the hearings on the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN at the House of Representatives, Deputy Speaker Rodante Marcoleta had claimed that ABS-CBN prematurely reacquired its assets in 1986 prior to the completion of arbitration proceedings.
Here is an account of how Geny Lopez had to pass through the eye of a needle to reacquire ABS-CBN, even signing an onerous contract to lease his network’s own equipment, grabbed from them by cronies of a dictator.
The story of ABS-CBN’s return to broadcasting is a gripping tale of grit, determination and vision. It is the story of how the ABS-CBN Kapamilya came into being.
After the euphoria of the revolution had died down, Geny Lopez had to face some very hard facts. He had little money with which to restart and run ABS-CBN, most of the Lopez family fortune had been seized by the regime. The heirs of Don Eugenio Lopez had enough to live on comfortably, but nothing anywhere near the P40 million-P50 million a year needed to finance a broadcasting network.
Moreover, the problems were not limited to finance. The Benedicto group had stripped the Broadcast Center of virtually all its original equipment, as well as its cadre of talents, technicians and managers. All the top talents like Dolphy and Vilma Santos and the top broadcasting executives like Freddie Garcia, whom Geny had spent many years developing were already committed to working somewhere else. There were other executives who had gone to exile with Geny in the US, but their own knowledge of the Philippine market and Philippine broadcasting was a decade out of date. Given all this, reviving ABS-CBN seemed impossible, let alone making it number one again.
“How do you build something from nothing?" said Geny. "That is precisely why we had problems with ABS-CBN at the outset. When [the Broadcast Center] was offered back to us, Jake [Almeda-Lopez] came to me and said: ‘What do we do? I said, ‘Jake, if we accept it, how do we run it without any money?'"
Geny sued for time: "I went back and offered to lend [the Broadcast Center] to the government. After 30-60 days we were supposed to get it back. My idea then was to raise capital within 30 days—which I was able to do. Unfortunately after 30 days, the new government did not want to give it back. They had gotten used to using it for PTV-4. It was a good lesson; you should not make deals like that. If it is good, keep it. We talked to so many people, but the government did not want to give it back."
But Geny needed time, and it turned out to be costly. It opened the door to a government occupation of the Broadcast Center that lasted six years, until 1992, and cost Geny his ownership of Channel 4.
On March 2, 1986, Information Minister Teddy Locsin Jr. created a task force to implement the sequestration order for Broadcast City, RPN, BBC, and IBC. He appointed Francisco “Keiku” Licuanan to head the task force. Locsin and Licuanan were very strict in dealing with ABS-CBN; they would not even concede that ABS-CBN actually owned the Broadcast Center. Locsin took the attitude that ABS-CBN was showing “unseemly” haste in wanting the Broadcast Center back.
The new GM of PTV-4, Conrado “Dodie” Limcaoco, also resisted returning the channel to ABS-CBN. Licuanan and Limcaoco managed to block any attempts by Geny to recover the Broadcast Center quickly. Limcaoco argued that, “since so many Filipinos suffered during the Marcos regime, why should the Lopezes be compensated ahead of the others?” Jake Lopez called this a “morally bankrupt” argument, likening it to a policeman who refuses to return a stolen vehicle to its rightful owner because many other stolen vehicles have not yet been recovered.
Jimmy Navarro said: “That Bohol Avenue lot is a Lopez property. But this Dodie Limcaoco didn't want to give it to us. Jake was so angry. Sometimes it would make Jake angry enough to want to punch a wall.”
So not only did Geny have no money; for the moment, at least, he had no Broadcast Center. But he was going to press ahead anyway: “I was dying to get back into business—and I always had the conviction that one day I was going to come home. I was still young, I still had a lot to contribute. I think I had a lot of faith that we were good people, we were doing a good job for the country, and our interests and objectives remained the same. So I said: ‘How can you be faulted for something like this?’ So we felt it was an obligation, a responsibility that we should continue doing what we were doing before martial law. There were many problems involved, but I had no doubt about the validity of our thinking, that we were simply going back to a profession we knew best, that we loved and enjoyed doing.”
Geny took strength from having beaten impossible odds before.
By mid-March 1986, Geny had reassembled a management team around some of his old stalwarts: Jake as GM, Ben Aniceto as station manager, and Jimmy Navarro as head of programming for TV. He couldn't get back all of his old senior management team: Fil Delfino had passed away in the intervening years, Ben Pambuan was past retirement age, and Nitoy Escano, Jun Jison and Rino Basilio had other commitments.
But Geny got back enough of his old crew, including Cady Carandang as his consultant for engineering and Lito Balquiedra Jr. to run radio operations. Millie Logarta came back to handle her old bailiwick, program acquisition. In fact, Millie had suffered a heart attack in February 1986, but, as soon as she was up and about, she reported for work, overjoyed to be back.
Many of his former employees came back to Geny in droves, until he had an initial crew of 200. These were well-regarded professionals who already had comfortable positions in other stations and were taking a risk with the good old ABS-CBN. Norma Calubaquib, perhaps the premier TV makeup artist of her generation, was already head of makeup and wardrobe for Benedicto's three TV stations—2, 9 and 13—but quit to go back.
IBC-13’s top news anchor, Frankie Evangelista, said: “I was at that Mass at the Benpres Building [then known as the Chronicle Building] when Geny came back and announced he would start [ABS-CBN] all over again. So everybody was looking at each other and said, ‘0, ano? Sama ka?’ I said: ‘Of course.’ So immediately I resigned from IBC-13 and I joined them—the prodigal son.”
Nanding Morales, ABS-CBN’s fourth most senior technical man after Slim Chaney, Cady Carandang, and Romy Carballo, was then the head of engineering of Channel 4. He also quickly resigned when Jake Lopez asked him to come back.
In March 1986, Ariel Ureta turned down an offer from Freddie Garcia to host a noontime show on GMA-7 to go back to ABS-CBN. He said: “I hope you understand, Freddie. We’re both ABS boys and I really want to go back. Sorry, pare.”
Freddie understood. He said: “The veterans really felt loyal to ABS-CBN. Even if they already had high-paying jobs, they would rather work for ABS.”
Millie Logarta recalled: "There were about seven or eight of us who were the core group that put [ABS-CBN] back together. There was Geny, Cady Carandang, Jake Lopez, myself, Ben Aniceto, Jess de Leon, Jimmy Navarro. When we started, we didn't get any salary for about five or six months. We only had a small transportation allowance. We did not have any salary until September 1986. Nobody asked Geny when we would be paid and how much.”
Jimmy Navarro said: “We were not really concerned with how much Geny would pay us. No, we were just there working to put back the station on the air.” Jimmy was programming head, and under him were two PMs/creative directors: Ariel Ureta and Frankie Evangelista.
For the first few months, from March to June 1986, they organized and brainstormed at the Chronicle Building in Pasig, which didn't have the resources to accommodate them all. These offices were short on chairs, so some people sat on the floor. To hold meetings, the staff took some doors down off their hinges and converted them into conference tables. It was that kind of a guerrilla operation.
Meanwhile, the formal reopening of Channel 2 kept being postponed—June 1, 1986, then July 1, then August 15—as Geny's team strove to iron out operational kinks and arrange financing. Of course, getting the Broadcast Center back from the government was the key kink.
Ben Aniceto said: “The chair of the committee we had to deal with was Keiku [Francisco] Licuanan. Teddy Boy and Keiku were hard to deal with. They didn’t want to give the Broadcast Center back. They even said at one point: ‘Do not push our backs against the wall. We can always take Channel 2.’ And then there was Dodie Limcaoco. Once we had a meeting at the executive lounge of Meralco, chaired by the PCGG, by this Salazar. Limcaoco said to him: ‘Geny’—imagine this man calling Geny by his first name even though they weren’t friends—‘How come you are in a hurry to take back Channel 2?’ Geny did not answer. I was the one who answered: ‘Why? Is 14 years of waiting not enough?’ Geny just smiled. I found Limcaoco really bastos.”
By then Gabby Lopez had come home and had joined his father in ABS-CBN. Soon after the February 1986 revolution, Gabby, then 33, resigned his executive post at the Crocker National Bank in San Francisco and returned to Manila.
Gabby said: “My father [didn't want] us to come home yet. But I had already decided that I wanted to come back. I think he felt that things here were still quite chaotic. But it was always my dream to be back to the Philippines. So, basically, I told him: ‘I’m coming back and, if you don’t want me to work for you, I’ll find something else to do. But I’m coming back.’ Well, fortunately, he took me in.”
Gabby recalled: “I remember when we negotiated to get back Channel 2. I think we went through two weeks where we were sleeping only two or three hours a night because my father was driving us to accomplish this as quickly as possible. He was a taskmaster. And nobody was getting any sleep. I must have lost 10-15 pounds. It couldn’t be done soon enough for him—it had to be done right away. He would go there and talk to these people. The sheer force of his personality would have them reeling back, and just saying yes so they could go on with their lives. And he did it. We got Channel 2 and dzMM. That's how we started.”
By June 1986, the government had agreed to give ABS-CBN only a part of the Broadcast Center—and only a small, rundown part at that. Dodie Limcaoco kept the core of the building and the plush executive offices for PTV-4. He allotted to ABS-CBN only 1/6 of the area of the Broadcast Center including a warehouse for props that had to be made to serve as the new ABS-CBN office space. ABS-CBN had only three studios (1,2 and 3) out of the seven available. A small room had to serve as the news studio. That room’s roof leaked, and sometimes the ABS-CBN news crew had to make a hurried evacuation.
Jimmy Navarro said: “We were like squatters there. They gave us just a small portion of the building, just the props area. We had to clean it and fix it. But you cannot put a good group down like ABS-CBN.”
The network’s troubles with the government were not yet over. With some facilitation by the PCGG, ABS-CBN got some equipment from RPN-9 and BBC-2, including a radio tower in Caloocan, and assorted TV and radio machines. On September 4, ABS-CBN signed a lease agreement for the equipment of RPN and BBC. Licuanan and his Board of Administrators insisted that ABS-CBN sign the lease agreement even if, in fact, the equipment in question was ABS-CBN property to begin with. The agreement called for a five-year lease with an average cost of P1 million a month; the total cost would have been P51 million. Geny was forced to sign the agreement by Licuanan, because otherwise ABS-CBN would not be able to resume operations in September 1986. Also, the network was committed to cover President Aquino’s September 1986 state visit to the US and it would not be able to do so without the equipment. To pay the rent, Geny arranged for a standby line of credit with PCIBank. But Geny eventually contested the lease agreement. In the years to come, BBC and RPN would claim arrears from ABS-CBN in the amount of P54.294 million, arising from this lease agreement. Geny refused to pay. It would have been, from his point of view, akin to rewarding a thief.
For the next six years, Dodie Limcaoco stayed in Geny’s old office, while the actual owners of the Broadcast Center roughed it out in makeshift offices in a props warehouse on the ground floor. The ABS-CBN veterans fumed silently at being ordered about by the PTV-4 guards and being treated like squatters in their own home.
Angge (also known as Cornelia Lee), an ABS-CBN stalwart from the “D’Sensations” days, came back to help handle casting for the revived network. She recalled: “The Channel 4 people wouldn’t let us pass through the front of the building: ‘Doon ka sa likod.’ They were treating us like servants. Ang sama ng loob ko: ‘Hoy, hindi naman sa iyo ito ha. Sa Channel 2 ito. Darating ang araw palalayasin din kayo dito.”
For these veterans who remembered the glory days of their network, they could do nothing other than stomach the situation and have faith.
ABS-CBN's problems with the government were compounded by problems of finance. “In the beginning,” recalled Millie Logarta, “it was hard because we really didn't have any money. In fact, Geny asked me to borrow money from Columbia Pictures or from MCA. I was proposing to them: ‘Lend us some money and we will give you stock in ABS.’ None of them took the bait. In time all of them really regretted that they did not. They did not believe that from nothing we could come back. We had no cameras, nothing. Everything was rented.”
For help on the finance side, Geny couldn’t rely on his old crew: Tong Dyliaco, his AVP for finance in 1972, had passed away in the interim. He wound up tapping as CFO someone new to the company: Gabby Lopez.
Gabby said: “I started in ABS-CBN in Finance. Our finances were in a shambles. We had no money. You couldn’t help thinking sometimes, ‘I came back for this?’ And I was being paid maybe one-tenth of what I was being paid in America. But this work was what I wanted to do.”
As CFO, Gabby Lopez got a close look at the pernicious effect of the Marcos years on the values of the broadcast industry. “Most of these broadcast companies during the Martial Law years were run as really corrupt institutions—which meant traffic operations were a very significant part of my job as CFO,” he said. “If your traffic operator is driving around in a Mercedes Benz, there is a good chance that, with all the revenue that should be going to the company, there’s leakage to the traffic operator. During the Martial Law years, businessmen who wanted to advertise knew that, if they wanted to save money, rather than go to sales, they just had to talk to the traffic operator and get him to run their 30-second spot. If you didn’t have the proper checks and balances, you were not aware that these spots were running but not being paid for. So we had to put in a system of checks and balances in our traffic operations to ensure that running on the air were spots paid for by our clients. Something really basic."
To address the financing gap, Geny and Gabby managed to get a loan from Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation (RCBC), as well as some funds from Fernando Lopez, who owned 45% of the network. As of June 18, 1986, ABS-CBN had P27,831,800 in capital. It was not a lot by the cash-hungry standards of network TV, but it was enough to start with. A little later, Gabby Lopez was able to arrange for a supplier’s credit worth several million pesos from Sony and Elena Lim’s Solid Corporation so that ABS-CBN could buy new video cameras and VTRs. Some Lopez family real estate was used as collateral for the supplier’s credit. Gabby was able to buy one OB van—for several years this would be the only OB van owned by ABS-CBN.
Ben Aniceto and Jimmy Navarro took some of the borrowed funds and started to build a full slate of programming. They didn’t have the kind of cash to fund a slate produced entirely in-house. So with their limited production capability and funds, Ben and Jimmy had to tap block-timers to fill the airtime. Some old friends stepped up: Jun Jison’s Broadcast Marketing put up two shows for the new ABS-CBN: “Ina,” directed by Lino Brocka, and “Parak,” by Lamberto Avellana and starring Anthony Alonzo and a young Robin Padilla.
Some of these shows were well-made. But others were not up to par. The bigger production outfits like Regal and Viva already had ties with other stations. Some of those left were block-timers whose production skills were—to put it politely—rather raw. Millie said: “Sometimes we would pay for a one-hour program and get a 30-minute show in return. Something was wrong; we should not have been paying that kind of money.”
While the entertainment side had its problems, the news side was also trying to find its way. Larry Ng, another veteran, was the first news director, but, by and large, a new crew had to be hired from scratch. Among the people that Ben Aniceto and Larry hired for news were Loren Legarda, Mel Tiangco, Korina Sanchez, Cheche Lazaro (who became head of public affairs), Doris Bigornia, Angelique Lazo, and Tony Velasquez. At that point, ABS-CBN’s top news and public affairs shows included “Probe” (with Cheche, Maria Ressa and Luchi Cruz), “Balita Ngayon” at 6 P.M. on weeknights, and “The World Tonight” at 10 P.M. on weeknights (anchored by Angelo Castro Jr.).
Initially, there was a bit of controversy about the revived ABS-CBN hiring staffers from networks once identified with the regime. Frankie had been the top anchor of IBC-13; Noli de Castro came from Benedicto’s radio station dwWW; Mel Tiangco, Ces Drilon, Doris Bigornia, and Korina Sanchez all came from MBS-4. But Geny paid no mind. He cared more about their competence and their fundamental values than any considerations of political correctness.
He said: “Their having worked for Benedicto [or the government] for me was immaterial. The important thing was that they were very good workers and they had the right values. Vindictiveness doesn’t solve anything; it just prolongs the conflict. And that doesn’t help the company. We don’t hold grudges, and, in that sense, that is where we are different from my father. My father’s memory was like an elephant. If you crossed him, just beware, he’ll get back to you one day—as many of his opponents found out. We did not have that. Our memories are short. And I’m glad.”
GM Ben Aniceto spent a lot of his time developing the public affairs programming. He had decided to put an unprecedented stress on news in a nation where news got only 20% or even only 10% of all airtime. Ben said: “When ABS-CBN public affairs started to organize in 1986, I said to Geny that, in terms of programming, we should have a mix of about 60% entertainment and 40% public affairs. I thought that this was what the Philippines needed. I believed in the educational power of TV and radio. But the production people would have to do it really well so it would not be boring. It would have to appeal to the culture, to the taste of the Filipino people. I thought that, if we got out these key messages, if we brought out the truth, we would have a better society.”
Finally on September 15, 1986, ABS-CBN Channel 2 was back on the air. But the audience’s response to the relaunched station was lukewarm. In the intervening 14 years, an entire generation of Filipinos had grown up without any memory of the old ABS-CBN, of “Buhay Artists” and “Nida-Nestor,” and “Your Evening with Pilita.”
The new ABS-CBN shows of September 1986, such as “After Lunch,” “Wanbol High; “Dempsey and Makepeace,” “Paper Dolls; “Ina,” “Angkan,” and “InTUXicating,” simply didn’t make much of a dent. Of the initial ABS-CBN prime-time slate, perhaps the only show that local viewers would still remember 20 years later was “Moonlighting,” an ABC show starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. All the rest had faded into oblivion.
To observers who knew the old network during its golden age, it seemed that the new ABS-CBN shows were still stuck in 1972, and the executives had lost their magic touch. The network’s slogan, “ABS-CBN: Watch us do it again,” rankled many advertisers and industry watchers. Rolly Cruz said: “That slogan seemed mayabang. The audience was different now and the advertisers were different and you couldn’t take that approach with them.”
Freddie Garcia added: “I saw that, when they started, there was nothing there. Their veterans kept on talking about the old ABS. Maybe half of the people watching didn’t know what they were talking about. They were going down the old Memory Lane—just recalling the past. We said to ourselves: ‘This approach won’t work.’”
ABS-CBN TV struggled, ranking fifth among the five networks. It made only P16.5 million in ad sales, far below its operating expenses. Its losses amounted to nearly P20 million. It couldn’t compete with the top networks like IBC-13, which was well-entrenched in comedy with hits like “Iskul Bukol,” “Eh Kasi Babae,” “Chicks to Chicks" and “Going Bananas.” It also had big variety shows like “The Sharon Cuneta Show.”
But ABS-CBN’s deadliest competitor was its alumnus Freddie Garcia, over at GMA-7. He recalled: “We never gave them a chance to succeed. When they launched the new Channel 2, [GMA-7] launched a lot of new programs which were very successful. The new ABS-CBN was a threat to GMA. We knew the persistence and the vision of Geny. It was just a matter of money, and, when people believe in you, the banks will lend you the money. It was a threat. So inunahan na namin. Before they could get off to a good start, we preempted them.”
On the canned ode, Freddie relied on shows like “The Golden Girls" and “The Cosby Show.” But the real ratings battleground now was local shows. Freddie launched the very successful “FPJ sa GMA” movie series. GMA paid Fernando Poe Jr. a record price of P10 million for the first-run TV rights to his movies; this move created a solid Saturday evening hit. In addition, Freddie pirated the gossip show “See-True” and its host Inday Badiday (or Lourdes Jimenez Carvajal) from IBC-13.
Freddie added: “I told the GMA management: ‘Let’s build our new tower up to 800 ft. and get the best transmitter and let’s compete with them.’ Normally I would launch the shows of Channel 7 in February or March. Instead, I launched the shows in October and November 1986. I talked to Unilever and all the big guys out there: ‘I’m launching the new shows in November. The trouble, of course, was that, by November, the advertisers’ ad budgets for the year already have been used up. I didn’t care. I gave them 90 days to pay; the important thing was for GMA to preempt the competition. Finally, they agreed and they found the money somehow. So for one year, our airtime was fully sold."
Ariel Ureta recalled: “Our sales guys couldn't sell our airtime. During Martial Law, the top ABS executives had gone to exile in the US. By 1986, they didn’t know the agencies and the advertisers any more. Meanwhile, Freddie Garcia had been here all along, and he was established. We couldn’t sell spots and ABS was sinking fast.”
Of the P881 million in TV airtime sold in 1986, ABS-CBN accounted for less than 2%. It was on the edge of doom. By December, it was clear to Geny that, unless he made drastic changes, his network would be extinct in a few months. The first year of operation was a debacle,” Geny admitted. “I was trying to run ABS-CBN with my former employees, who had been out of the industry for a while, so our knowledge of broadcasting and the market was more than 10 years old. We had been out of touch since 1972.”
There was only one thing to do, Geny said: “I realized I had to go to Freddie.”
Freddie Garcia had been the resident programming wizard of Philippine TV for the past 10 years, and the most successful alumnus of ABS-CBN. And in retrospect, it seems odd that Geny did not ask him to rejoin ABS-CBN immediately after he came back to the Philippines. Freddie had fully expected to be asked to return. He remembered that conversation back in 1972 when Geny made him promise to work together again when the time came. But the offer did not come. Apparently, Geny had already made commitments to more senior executives and there was no slot left for Freddie in the new ABS-CBN. Things had changed by December 1986, when ABS-CBN was staring death in the face.
In December 1986, Freddie recalled, the call finally came: “Geny called me up for a meeting. We met at the Mandarin Hotel, and he asked me to join him. I said: “I thought you’d never ask. What took you so long? I’ve been waiting.’ It was like being reunited with your parents.”
Freddie added: “When Geny finally offered it to me, I was scared and yet I was excited because I’d always wanted to prove that I could do it again. If I was able to do it for Channel 7, I said: I can do it again for ABS-CBN. So it was more of an emotional decision. I never considered the financials. I even had to mortgage my house to fund the Channel 2 marketing operations. When you’re emotional, you don't think of many things. Nothing logical would explain why I transferred. It’s just my sense of fulfillment that I was back with my ABS-CBN family, and that’s the only thing that really mattered.”
Freddie's decision was not an easy one: “When I resigned from Channel 7, the management could not believe I would really leave, because I was going from a sure thing into something unsure. We were making a lot more money in GMA. But being reunited with ABS-CBN was really my burning desire.”
Freddie had to contend with the trepidation of his crew in Network Marketing. This was the separate company from which Freddie ran the marketing and programming of GMA-7 since 1979. It also produced successful shows for GMA-7, such as “Penthouse Live” (starring Martin Nievera and Pops Fernandez), “Anna Liza” and a soap entitled “Maynila.”
His crew included people like Rolly Cruz, Ruben “Bonbon” Jimenez, Leng Raymundo, Leo Katigbak, and Mariol Alberto. It was clear that transferring to ABS-CBN meant taking a lot of risk.
Freddie said: “Rolly Cruz was telling me: '’Freddie, they have no money. Nasa kama na tayo, bakit pa tayo lilipat sa banig [We’re on the bed already, why do you want to transfer to the mat]?' I said: ‘If you don't want to join me, you could stay with Channel 7, I’ll go with them.’ He chose to go with me—he and all my sales people.”
Leng Raymundo was then a production assistant: “Mr. Garcia met with us and said, ‘You can choose to stay with GMA or come with me.’ We went with him. No second thoughts. Why would he want to come back? Why would he risk so much? But we believed in our boss. There was no turning back. Overall, the feeling was gung-ho—we were going to succeed. Employees of the old ABS-CBN told us that, as long as it was Geny Lopez who asked, they would do anything. So we could feel the spirit of the owners, how much they wanted to regain the glory of the old ABS.”
Freddie notified GMA-7 management that, in early 1987, Network Marketing would let go of the GMA account, and transfer its operations to ABS-CSN. Other ABS-CBN veterans in GMA also moved back, such as Mako Elizan, the chief engineer of GMA. He replaced Handing Morales. Tony Barreiro, another ABS-CBN veteran, took over Freddie's slot as GM of GMA. Emil Solidum, another former ABS-CBN man, took over as head of engineering of GMA-7.
As a result of Freddie's hiring, Ben Aniceto resigned, although Geny wanted to retain him in another post. Of Aniceto’s original creative team, Jimmy Navarro was retained as programming head, Ariel Ureta left and began to work for Viva Films, and Frankie Evangelista let go of his PM duties to focus on news.
Freddie wanted to start from a clean slate: “I told Geny: ‘For me to start, give me a blanket authority to run the station, and I want to report only to you.’ So he gave me that authority. I canceled all the shows. You cannot program a station with a lot of block-timers because they have to look after their own interests. It wasn’t because I wanted them out. I needed a free hand to program the station the way I felt it should be programmed.”
Above all, he needed to be given that free hand by Geny himself, who was famously compulsive as a manager. Freddie said: “When we were starting out, Geny would meet with us on programming and he would always have his own ideas on how to run the station, on what to program. These ideas would always be related to the old ABS-CBN. He would say: ‘We used to have this kind of show’—shows like “Radyo Reloj” and all that. He would say: ‘Freddie, gawin mo 'yan.’ I would reply: ‘Maganda ho, sir, pero mukhang hindi bagay ngayon, kasi ito ang uso [That’s a good idea sir, but it may not be appropriate now because this other thing is what the audience is looking for].’ After several meetings like that in front of everybody, he said: ‘Can’t I say anything here in this meeting without you telling me that I am wrong?’ I said: ‘I’m sorry, sir.’ The next meeting, I didn’t say anything. The next three or four meetings, nothing. At the fourth meeting, he said: ‘Okay, Freddie, tell me I'm wrong.’ After that he didn’t join us anymore. He did not intervene in these decisions. He gave the complete reins of the company to me.”
Geny handed over the reins even though Freddie transferred to ABS-CBN with less in his programming arsenal than he had initially counted on having. Freddie said: “When I transferred to Channel 2, Tina Palma, Inday, Badiday, German Moreno were supposed to have joined me. These were the pillars of the industry. Only to say later on that they were not joining me. They had so many reasons. So I went to Geny and said: ‘Did you want to get me, or did you offer me the job because you thought I could bring these people?’ And he said: ‘No, I want you back, Freddie, because I believe in you.’ That was really touching.”
Nonetheless, Freddie, like Geny, had to deal with cold hard facts: “When I was in, I found out that they didn’t have money, there were no cameras, and we had just empty studios, without lights; we had to rent the lights and the cameras. No Chroma key. But the landscape changes as you go in. You have to make do with what you have.”
Virtually the only shows Freddie brought in with him were a soap called “Maynila” and the variety show “Twogether,” starring Martin Nievera and Pops Fernandez. Neither one really made a big dent in the ratings. More painful for Freddie, “Twogether” had to be canceled within a year.
With his back to the wall, Freddie decided to focus on three strategies. First, to use a groundbreaking tabloid news show as the 6-7 P.M. weekday anchor for prime time in order to create momentum for the rest of the evening shows; second, to create an alliance with the leading film studio of the day in order to access its stars, production capability and working capital; and third, to persuade the stars of hit shows from other channels to jump to ABS-CBN. In short, the strategies were: “TV Patrol,” Regal Films and pirating.
Freddie sensed that, after 14 years of deception by the rigidly controlled media of the Martial Law era, the Filipino people were starved for news, and for a station that would tell it like it is. Freddie sought to fill this need.
As for his second strategy: in 1987, there was one movie studio and one person for Freddie to turn to. Regal Films was the dominant movie studio in the country, owned and run by Lily Monteverde—known to everyone as “Mother Lily.” By the 1980s, Lily’s eye for talent and her idiosyncratic management style made the Regal stable of stars the largest and most successful, with stars like Maricel Soriano, Snooky Serna, and Richard Gomez. If he created a tie-up with Regal, Freddie could have access to most of the country’s top stars and an impressive film library. He proposed to Mother Lily that Regal Films co-produce eight one-hour primetime shows for ABS-CBN. But getting Mother Lily to say yes was not easy.
Freddie said: “Many TV stations had tried to court [Mother Lily] and she refused. I had to talk to many people who were close to her to find out what kind of a person she was. I would go and meet with her every night at Casa Marcos. The meetings would start at 7 P.M. and end at 5 A.M. because she would talk to a million and one people. I would stay with her every night. At one point, Rolly said to me: ‘Freddie, I can’t take this anymore! I said: ‘We’ve got nowhere else to go, so we’d better just wait for her.’ And she would go back to us and say: ‘O, Freddie, you’re still here.’ ‘Yes, Mother.’ That would be at something like three in the morning.”
Freddie needed a break and he got it: “[Top talent manager] Douglas Quijano took pity on me. He said: ‘Freddie, she likes you. She has to like someone before she does business with him. Jimmy Navarro tried several times, but she said no. She likes you. But you have to know how to get her to sign a contract: I asked: ‘What do I do?’ He said: ‘Time it for Chinese New Year. On Chinese New Year, she gives a party. Go there, bring a contract, and a video camera.’ I did what he said. At midnight he gave me a sign. He said: ‘Mother, pirmahan mo na ‘yung kay Freddie, suwerte iyan. [Mother, you should sign the contract of Freddie, it will be good luck].’ She signed it, with the camera rolling. That was the start. She really backed me up. I’ve always made it a point to thank Mother Lily for that; she was the one who bankrolled us.”
The ABS-CBN alliance with Mother Lily soon resulted in hit shows like “Palibhasa Lalake” (starring Richard Gomez, Joey Marquez, Gloria Romero, and Cynthia Patag), “Maricel Drama Special” (starring Maricel Soriano), and “Regal Presents,” a show featuring the studio’s biggest hit movies. Maricel became the network’s top drama talent—the post-1986 equivalent of Marlene Dauden and her “Panagimpan.” It seemed only fitting. After all, Maricel had an ABS-CBN lineage; she began her career on an episode of “Buhay Artista” and trained under ABS-CBN stars Ading Fernando, Dolphy and Nida Blanca in “John en Marsha.”
Freddie’s third strategy, pirating top-rating programs from other channels found its first success in Johnny Manahan and his “Chicks to Chicks,” a mainstay on IBC-13. It starred Nova Villa, Freddie Webb, Carmi Martin, Maria Teresa Carlson, and Sammy Lagmay. It was created in 1980 by Ading Fernando and written by Ipe Pelino. Johnny took over the show after Ading died of a heart attack in 1983.
Johnny Manahan said: “A few months after starting out, ABS was in trouble. And we could see they would be in trouble with the kind of shows they were showing. They were number five out of five stations. Then Mariol Alberto came over during one of my tapings. She was with Freddie Garcia in Network Marketing. She said: ‘Would you like to move to Channel 2?’ I said: ‘Why should I move to Channel 2?’ So that’s how I learned that Freddie would bring his group over to Channel 2. I was trying to get the best deal from Freddie Garcia and Rolly Cruz. So after a while I agreed. We brought it over. I became the producer. The cast and I shared (in owning the show]:’
He added: “This was the first major show to move to Channel 2, the first top-rater that transferred; it was very commercial. If your network had that show, it meant you were the real thing. And then people would wonder: ‘How come they moved?’ I knew that, if I brought that show here, right away that would give credibility to Channel 2. We brought in writers, some executive producers, some key people I got. That attracted other directors, other writers and the viewers."
The defection of “Chicks to Chicks” (renamed “Chika Chika Chicks”) began a hemorrhaging of hit shows from IBC. Next, it lost “Loveli-Ness” starring Alma Moreno, and then “Going Bananas,” starring Jay llagan, Christopher de Leon and Bobot Mortiz. In 1988, “The Sharon Cuneta Show” made the move from IBC. In 1989, Freddie was able to convince Television and Production Exponents (TAPE), led by Romy Jalosjos and Tony Tuviera, to transfer their shows, including the noontime juggernaut, “Eat Bulaga,” and the sitcom “Okay Ka, Fairy Ko” (starring Vic Sotto and Alice Dixson) from Channels 9 and 13 to ABS-CBN.
Freddie said: “We were able to convince people and programs to join us. Johnny Manahan was able to get a lot of programs. People were insecure at Channels 9 and 13, which were once run by the cronies of Marcos. Channel 7 was the only station that gave a semblance of neutrality, but basically it was also controlled by Marcos. What we were saying was this is the only station in town that is privately owned. So we convinced a lot of people to join because there was no stability in the other networks.”
Time would eventually show that they were right to transfer. With government at the helm and a very erratic, constantly changing management, the two sequestered networks, IBC and RPN, were eventually pummeled by ABS-CBN. Despite constant avowals by the government that the stations would be privatized, they remained in government hands.
Geny said: “I don't think they will ever be privatized. I don’t mind. Those two channels will never amount to anything as long as the government owns them.”
In March 1987, Freddie redubbed ABS-CBN the “Star Network.” He announced that the network was back through a live extravaganza titled “Pagbabalik ng Mga Bituin” on March 1, 1987 at the Luneta. The new shows that followed demonstrated that indeed the stars had returned to ABS-CBN.
Freddie relied on Rolly Cruz as his right hand in handling the operational details at Network Marketing. For the day-to-day work in production, he relied on Cory Valenzuela (later Vidanes). For programming strategy, he batted ideas around with Johnny Manahan.
The “Chika Chika Chicks” director recalled: “At that point, I got to know Freddie better. He wanted me to get involved not only in the show but also in building up the production arm. Once we met at his house in Alabang and he insisted that I help him in programming. I didn't know anything about programming. I said: ‘Yes, sure! Tutulungan kita, Freddie’ Actually, I was bluffing. But he had a feel for programming and was starting to put it into high gear. He started to use his gut feel. But I think he was also looking to me to reinforce him."
He added: “So we started making the programming strategy. Even then we had a long-term plan. We asked: ‘What would the programming be like?’ We got some shows that we pirated. The shows that came from Channel 13 were really rating. The audience shifted to us. That’s what we concentrated on first. Then Freddie also got the TAPE shows. And we had good news shows, so we had certain good shows at strategic points. And then after that it was just filling in the rest of the blanks. We wanted to be on the map. Awa ng Diyos, we got there.”
Johnny added: “We did also stunting, stunt programming. Besides our regular shows, we would do specials just to capture attention. So what we did was put in all the top artistas from different programs in one blockbuster special three hours long. So we stunted like that for two or three weeks over a six-month period. Those were a really intense six months.”
He also recalled: “Freddie was really focused: ‘O, sino’ng kalaban? What are we going to do the next day? Freddie was doing everything—from programming to selling airtime to getting people like me to putting the programs together. He would negotiate, talk to people like me to putting programs together. He would negotiate, talk to people like Tony Tuviera, talk to the artistas. Meanwhile, he was building up his production staff with Cory Valenzuela to head the production crew. Freddie knew how to weave it together. He knew the key people—whom to get, whom to pirate.”
Hard times build a family
To translate his vision of the new ABS-CBN into reality, Freddie had to put a lot of faith in the people in the new production unit, even though many of them were very junior at the time. During the day, he would hold office in Makati, which was the hub of his sales and marketing operations. In the evenings, he would go to the Broadcast Center to check things out.
The crew there consisted of many young production staffers like Cory Valenzuela, Leng Raymundo, and Mariol Alberto from Network Marketing. Joanna Gomez (the EP of Johnny Manahan’s shows), Olive Lamasan, Leo Katigbak, Deo Endrinal, and Enrico Santos. The small crew didn’t worry about pay or rank or job distinctions; everyone pitched in to do whatever had to be done. Most of them were not even regular employees, just talents.
In late 1987, Geny hired awarded actress and veteran line producer Charo Santos Concio as a production consultant to assist Freddie and Jimmy Navarro. Charo would eventually become EVP of the entertainment group of ABS-CBN. [She served as CEO from 2012-2016 - Ed] But for the first few years, Freddie made the programming calls himself. It was not until the early 1990s that Charo would get to make the calls herself—and they would be very successful ones like “Home Along Da Riles,” and “Mel and Jay.” But for now, Freddie had direct control and he relied on a bunch of twenty-somethings to get things done.
As Cory Vidanes put: “This group was mostly women. They called us mga amazona or the amazons. We spoke our minds if we felt that someone was out of line. We have minds of our own.”
Cory Vidanes recalled those early days in the makeshift offices of the production unit: “My God! There were not enough tables and chairs. Our chairs, we had to padlock to our tables, because otherwise they would disappear. Your files, you brought with you every day. Sometimes you had a table, sometimes not. Your chair sometimes had all its wheels, the next day, walang gulong. If you had visitors, you didn’t know where to let them sit. We would brainstorm standing up. I remember when we had specials, some guests would bring their own chairs.”
She added: “Then we started variety show like ‘Tonight with Dick and Carmi,’ but we had no dressing rooms. So the conference room became a dressing room. And our office on Wednesdays was transformed into a dressing room. Even a small room under the stairs became a dressing room. Even someone like Sharon Cuneta wound up using those rooms.”
Dressing rooms weren’t the only shortage. ABS-CBN didn't have enough editing machines. Freddie had to outsource a lot of the editing to independent production houses. For some reason or other, the finished tapes had an unnerving habit of arriving late on the airing day itself. Production staff like Cory or Leng Raymundo would have to wait at the ABS-CBN gate for the delivery vehicle, grab the tape when it arrived, and then run all out for master control. At some points, the tape would make it to master control only a minute or two before actual airing.
Leng Raymundo said: “When we started, there weren’t enough cameras. There weren't enough studios. There was nothing. The Technical Operations Center was really rundown. (Now, of course, it is state-of-the-art.) I remember running around all the time then. The schedule was terrible. We had one service vehicle to use for location shoots and other things. The exhaust of the vehicle would go inside. Diyos ko, I tell you. But we survived. We told ourselves: ‘We will just have to survive this. Bahala na.’”
Joanna Gomez recalled: “The office space was to small, we would cram three executive producers at one table. We had only one telephone in the whole production department. So you had to make pila to use it. We had one vehicle, a Fiera; it got so rundown that at times we would use masking tape on the doors to hold them closed. During tapings, the cameras would overheat because the air conditioning was so bad. We would have to stop the shoot. If not, the colors on the tapes would change. We would stop for 30 minutes to fan the cameras and camera control units. We would look through the viewfinder and say: ‘Kulay berde na. Okay, tigil na muna.’”
Monchet Olives, then a producer with the news crew recalled: “Our parking lot was all putik. Being a boss just meant that you could park close to the gate. The car of Gabby Lopez was just this little Mitsubishi Mirage. And this place had a very different feeling at the time. You would see everyone in this small space; we were a small group then—150, 200—you knew everybody. Even the propsman, you knew. So it was was very different.”
The newsroom he reported to was just a makeshift room (a “barong-barong,” in Monchet’s words) of plywood walls and with a decrepit sofa that used to be white. Studio lights were in such short supply that, even as a variety show like “Loveli-Ness” was still live on the air, technicians would begin to transfer some of its lights to another studio for the late-evening newscast of “The World Tonight.”
If the staff thought that things could not get worse, they were wrong. In late 1987, a fire broke out on the second floor of the Broadcast Center. Joanna Gomez was helping run a taping of “Palibhasa Lalake” at the time when suddenly smoke seeped into the studio. Head makeup artist Norma Calubaquib remembered that Cory Valenzuela, dressed up for a formal party, in high heels, left her party and rushed to the network and began running in and out carrying tapes. The tapes were saved, but a large area was damaged by flames, smoke and water. The damage further hampered ABS-CBN, already inconvenienced as it was by the sharing arrangement with PTV-4.
Yet, everyone who was there at the time remembered it as a golden moment in the life of the network. If it was a time of great problems, it also meant a great deal of joy. A small crew faced with impossible odds can either break apart or bond together. At ABS-CBN, this crew—“the few, the happy few”—chose to bond together.
Johnny Manahan said: “We were working so hard. You go about your business and you wonder whether it will work. But it was great, an exhilarating time.”
Perhaps the unique chemistry and exhilaration of ABS-CBN during those difficult early years can be explained by something as simple as this: When you have nothing to lose, risking it all on a daily basis becomes a very easy thing to do. Life becomes very simple when you have only the work and each other to cling to.
For his part, Geny didn’t let the shoddy surroundings of ABS-CBN get him down. He knew that ABS-CBN had seen much worse days, in the ABS studio on top of the Republic Supermarket and then in Roxas Boulevard.
Johnny Manahan said: “I remember one incident when we were downstairs at the prop storage area. Everything was makeshift and Geny came in wearing a beautiful suit. The area was really messy. But from the way would look at the messy studio, you knew he had real plans for it. The guy had class. We really looked up to him.”
Cory Vidanes said: “Ah, Kapitan, we loved. Because of his vision and how he took care of his people. The love, the lambing. He became a father figure, and our inspiration. As he set his goals, his dreams, we all felt that we owed it to him to make his dreams come true. We all worked hard for those dreams. We saw how much he wanted to rebuild ABS-CBN again after losing it for many years. We saw his passion. And so there was that passion in all of us to make ABS succeed. It was not just a job to us.”
Under the pressure of the work, the new ABS-CBN was melding into one family, much like their predecessors did in the 1950s and 1960s. The camaraderie would show up on cam, nowhere more than on the long-running show “Palibhasa Lalake” and its signature ending.
Gloria Romero said: “ ‘Palibhasa’ was a crazy show, I tell you. My companions there were puro baliw. They would say, ‘Tita, alis ka diyan, may gagawin kami na namang misteryo.’ But one time they caught me anyway, I think it was milk. It just so happened that I could not run any more. The bigger the star, the more they would have fun with him or her. They would buy things like chocolate milk to use. For Edu Manzano, they handcuffed him to a post first.”
Back on top
For the new ABS-CBN, hard work in hard times bore fruit soon enough. By September 1987, ABS-CBN TV had gone from dead last in the ratings to number two in total audience share.
Johnny Manahan said: “After we launched [the new ABSCBN], Freddie asked me, ‘What do you think? How long is this going to take?' I said, ‘I think it’s going take a year-and-a-half.’ He said, ‘That’s what I think.’ It took six months! I couldn’t believe it.”
By early 1988, ABS-CBN had become number one. It ended 1988 with a rating of 15.2 and an audience share of 28, compared to GMA’s rating of 13.0 and share of 24. Moreover, ABS-CBN had 10 of the top 20 prime-time once-a-week programs, including “Palibhasa Lalake,” “Maricel Regal Drama,” and “The Sharon Cuneta Show.” Sixteen years after going off the air, ABS-CBN proved that there were indeed second acts in Philippine broadcasting.
Freddie clearly remembered the moment he found out that ABS-CBN had finally retaken the top slot. He said: “One day, Rolly told me that we had won the ratings battle. When I got the news, I went to ABS. Everybody was there, giving me a standing ovation. Of course, you feel like a king. It was a great feeling—the glory and everything. We had recovered what had been lost.”
Johnny Manahan said: “When you get to number one, you wonder how long it’s going to last. My prediction then was it would last only about two or three years. And then those other networks were going to go up again. But Freddie stayed on top for so many years, 15 or 16. Freddie’s got magic."
Geny always gave Freddie his due as the architect of the network's comeback: “To Freddie belongs the credit of bringing ABS-CBN back to where it is today. Freddie is a fantastic programming man. He has such a good feel of the audience. He knows the public pulse, and that’s so important.”
While he left the decisions on programming, marketing, and sales to Freddie Garcia, Geny himself made two risky moves that helped cement the success and the special character of the network.
First, beginning in December 1988, Geny had ABS-CBN broadcast its prime-time shows nationwide via satellite. The satellite broadcasts cost around P7 million a month, at a time when ABS-CBN was still suffering a small loss; it wasn’t until 1989 that it began to show a profit.
Gabby Lopez said that, from the financial viewpoint, going to satellite didn’t make sense. He said: “I was totally against it. I looked at the numbers and I said that it was going to cost us an unheard of amount to go on satellite, to lease transponder space. At Harvard, the typical approach is: here is your incremental cost. What are your incremental revenues? Are the incremental revenues greater than the incremental cost? Looking at it that way, the decision would have been you don't go on satellite. Because you have an incremental cost, which is the cost of satellite; there were no incremental revenues.
In the short term, Gabby pointed out, there was even a loss of revenue, since in the provinces, the pre-satellite ABS-CBN was able to air 25 minutes of commercials per hour of programming, while in the monitored Manila market, it only aired 18 minutes per hour. The loss of the extra ad minutes on top of the transponder leasing costs meant a double financial drain for the company.
No one, least of all Geny, knew for sure if satellite transmission would be financially viable. But he took the risk. For all its dangers, it was too tempting for him to deny. It fulfilled his old dream of linking the entire country by broadcast (a new kind of “Bridges on the Air” using satellites, instead of microwave stations), which he formulated back in the 1960s. Nearly 20 years later, he followed his instincts and rolled the dice on these new “Bridges.”
Gabby said: “While my father could not articulate it, he instinctively knew that over time you would be able to generate incremental revenues. But his view came from an overriding value which drove the business—bringing the news to the people around the country at the same time that they get it in Metro Manila—Bridges on the Air.”
He added: “My father had that dream and he believed in it. He said: ‘We must bring programming live to everybody in the country.’ And it worked. It allowed us to raise rates and thereby gain incremental revenues. It brought the country together. It probably was the single most important reason why Tagalog became much more prevalent around the country.... So, since then, we have not been afraid of taking risks, and of breaking paradigms. I have learned through that experience that big businesses are driven by values, not by profits—the profits are an output of doing the right things. It’s the way you keep score, but it doesn’t drive the business. The values are what drive the business.”
The simultaneous satellite broadcasts were a resounding success and strengthened ABS-CBN’s hold on the top spot in the ratings. The nationwide market response to the satellite feeds was so strong that the network was able to raise airtime rates by 40% in 1989. By 1989, the network that had marked a P19.8-million loss in 1986 earned a profit of P70.3 million. Once again, Geny’s instincts had been proven right.
By December 1989, ABS-CBN nearly doubled its lead over GMA, with ratings of 19.8 and an audience share of 42, compared to GMA’s ratings of 10.5 and share of 22. Its total dominance is even better demonstrated by the fact that of the top 20 primetime once-a-week programs, 18 were from ABS-CBN. These included “Okay Ka, Fairy Ko,” “Palibhasa Lalake,” “Mel And Jay,” “The Sharon Cuneta Show,” “Magandang Gabi, Bayan,” and “The Maricel Soriano Drama Special.” On primetime TV, ABS-CBN had just about obliterated the competition.
Geny’s second big decision in the late 1980s was not about business strategy, but about keeping his word of honor. Geny had long been bothered by the ABS-CBN debts left stranded in 1972 when the Marcos regime seized the network. On September 22, 1972, it had owed P48.1 million in principal to various lenders, including Citibank (P19.3 million), PCIBank (P9.2 million), Fidelity Bank of Philadelphia (P3.5 million) and Crocker National Bank (P2.5 million). Over the years, Citibank, in particular, pressed Marcos and Benedicto to repay these debts since they controlled the Broadcast Center. But the two had always turned a deaf ear, even to a direct appeal from the bank’s chairman, John Reed, himself. In time, the banks gave up, and wrote off the debts as casualties of political turmoil.
But Geny did not forget. Although ABS-CBN no longer had a legal obligation to repay the loans, since they had been proscribed by the lenders, he still felt a keen moral obligation. So in 1987, Geny arranged to repay the network's outstanding debts in several installments over the next few year, Certainly, CFO Gabby Lopez could have used the funds paid to Citibank to retire some more recent debt, such as the supplier's credit arrangement with Sony or the loan from RCBC, more quickly. Or chief engineer Mako Elizan could have used that money to buy some more new equipment badly needed at the Broadcast Center. Certainly, the production crew down at the props area suffering from a shortage of simple things like chairs would have had some suggestions on how best to use the money.
But Geny wanted the new ABS-CBN to begin its second life with a clean slate.
Gabby recalled: “That was the way my father was—he felt he owed them money and it was a moral obligation, if not a legal obligation, and he paid them.”
For their part, the lenders were very pleased to recover tens of millions in funds that they had long ago written off. They met with Geny and Gabby and agreed to a comfortable restructured repayment scheme spread out over several years. Geny's move greatly boosted the standing and credibility of ABS-CBN in the local and international financial markets. The Kapitan demonstrated that ABS-CBN was not only a company that knew how to play and win the game, but that it would play the game by gentlemen’s rules.
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Freddie said: “Geny had a mystique and he knew how to play that to the hilt. He was a shrewd businessman. He knew how to handle people, and he had unquestioned integrity in the business community. Right and wrong were black and white to him. He was a wonderful boss and a very good friend, a man with charisma and mystique. When he started ABS-CBN again, he came back and made it ten times bigger than before.”
Only three years after he flew to Manila in 1986—only two years after he brought Freddie Garcia home to run the network—Geny Lopez had another impossible dream come true: ABS-CBN was back on top of the local broadcasting industry.
Excerpt from Kapitan, authored by Raul Rodrigo, published in 2006.