It was the pioneering spirit and vision of Geny Lopez that breathed life into ABS-CBN News. It was borne out of a vision to bring the country together, to be at the forefront of events that shaped the nation and to bring this information to as many Filipinos as possible.
Here’s the first part of the story on the beginnings of ABS-CBN News and Radyo Patrol:
Geny was unhappy about his news programs. He wanted them to be big, groundbreaking and influential—not the insignificant afterthought that they were in 1965. ABS-CBN News was just a small staff unit, not the big line division that it would later become—and certainly not the great profit center it is today. In 1961, the News unit was just Hal Bowie and two other people, and they did no more than scan the wires and newspapers for stories to be read on the air. ABS-CBN News had no independent news-gathering capability; it could not scoop anyone.
In 1961, the ABS-CBN TV weeknight news was Hal Bowie reading the news on cam, with no film or video to back up the stories. On weekends, Hal would do a roundup of international news, using some film sourced from the wire services and the US networks. ABS-CBN's potential for TV news was still untapped, and that displeased Geny.
For years, he had been forced to bow to financial realities. In the Philippines, TV news always lost money and would continue to lose money for years to come. Yet this reality didn’t stop Geny from dreaming. He looked up to the gold standard of broadcast news—the US's Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), with ace journalists like Edward Murrow, William Shirer, Eric Sevareid and Walter Cronkite. Geny wanted ABS-CBN News to be the Filipino equivalent of CBS News. But the failure of Radyo Reloj in the late 1950s forced him to pull back from more heavy investment in news for the next six years.
ABS-CBN's retreat from news left the field open to another player. When ABC-5 came on the air in 1961, GM Marcos Roces decided to build its programming around news, to leverage the news-gathering abilities and contacts of its sister company, the Manila Times. Roces hired as his news director the man who brought Philippine TV news into the video age, Tony Tecson. Marcos hired “Tony Tec” from the USIS Manila, where he had been a cameraman. Tec knew how to use visuals to tell a story, not just words. He also built up a crew of first-rate writers, cameramen, writers and editors—such as Marita Manuel, Fred Espaldon, Danny Gozo, Jess Matubis, Teofilo Garcia and Romy Vitug.
Jess Matubis (later news director of MBS Channel 4) said: "Tecson knew how to interest the viewers. He began the program with a bang, with the most dramatic footage we had. For instance, a fire, a quake, a murder, a demo. He also ended the program with a bang, with a really hard-hitting editorial called ‘On the Spot,’ which also had compelling visuals. So from start to finish, the viewer was hooked."
Tony Tecson chose Bong Lapira as anchor for The Big News. Bong Was only 25 when he came in, a former MBC radio talent who had been discovered and trained by Cris de Vera, who he called "the greatest radio showman in captivity." At ABC Bong rose very quickly; the new show made him a TV star. ABC-5 didn't have much in resources—Lapira called its three studios "small, smaller and smallest." But still "The Big News" became the top TV newscast, winning several CAT awards for excellence. Like TV news, radio news was also a problem area for Geny, although here the challenge was not posed by another network, but by the confines of programming convention and audience habits. Although Ben Aniceto's "news-a-minute" concept had broken new ground in 1965, it still did not meet Geny's standards. From the beginning, Geny had wanted a radio station that would be all news and public affairs, with no music, like some US stations. But in Manila what worked in the ratings was always a mix: some music, some news, a bit of commentary from a Johnny de Leon, and so on. Geny's search for an all-news station would eventually lead to the creation of Radyo Patrol. In 1966, Geny posed this challenge to his news crew: make quantum leaps in both radio and TV news. So ABS-CBN News went on the offensive.
"The World Tonight”
For many, Henry Halasan became the face of ABS-CBN TV news. The former Cebu station manager was transferred to Manila in 1965, initially to work in Sales.
But he had not been there long before management decided he was ideal for working in front of the camera. As Henry put it, it was time for ABS-CBN to have “a real TV news department—not just reading the newspapers.”
In 1966, the senior news staffers were Vero Perfecto, Hal Bowie and Ric Tierro, who was named news director. They were all radio veterans: Hal Bowie had been in radio since the 1930s, and Vero and Ric had nearly 40 years of radio experience between them. But TV was a young man’s game; thus the load quickly shifted to younger men—men in their 20s and 30s like Henry Halasan, Rod Reyes, Orly Mercado, Boo Chanco and Tony Seva. Their assignment was to catch up and surpass ABC-5 and The Big News."
The risks were considerable, Jake Lopez said: "There were no sponsors for a news program. Well, ABC-5 had sponsors because they had the Manila Times. But ours, the Chronicle, was not too strong yet. And the Chronicle was perceived to be a very political paper. So the sponsors were a little reluctant to back our news shows. In fact, Caltex was one of our first sponsors in our newscast. For a time they wanted to pull out. Once we had (Kuwentong Kutsero' [a political satire]. When Malacañang complained about it, the sponsor had to pull out, even though he was my cousin and he really loved the show. So these types of programs—news and public affairs—were a little risky in that sense that you could not get sponsors."
Despite all the risks, in late 1966, ABS-CBN unveiled its answer to The Big News: Henry Halasan teamed with Hal Bowie to anchor the first ABS-CBN news show that used TV as a visual medium. On November 21, 1966, The World Tonight premiered on Channel 9. It first ran at 8:30 on weeknights, and eventually moved to 10 P.M. Henry was the one who named it, after a show in the US, The World Today. Soon Henry was doing the show solo. Hal concentrated on writing and producing because he was in his 70s and his health was not good. Today The World Tonight remains one of the oldest programs still running on Philippine TV.
This show was where ABS-CBN first learned how to use TV to tell the news visually, how to write the script to match the visuals. The network had had its own news cameramen since 1964, but it hadn't used them extensively until the advent of The World Tonight. The top ABS-CBN cameramen—Bert Salonga, Vic Garcia, Carding Ligon and Metring Borromeo—soon proved they were among the best in the business.
News cameramen didn't have the lightweight digital video cameras of today. A video camera then was like a film camera on steroids—so heavy that having camera crews roam the city to take news footage was impossible. Video cameras could only be used in the studio or in carefully planned and logistically complicated location shoots. News, therefore, was the province of film. Of 16-rrun film, to be precise, used with either Bell and Howell or Bolex cameras. The Bell and Howell was a favorite of Filipino newsmen, because it had been designed for war coverage and could take tremendous punishment. You could drop it, kick it, beat it, and it would keep on running. A news veteran said half-jokingly: "It was so sturdy, kung magkaroon ng violent dispersal ng demo, puwede siyang panangga ng batuta ng military [If there was a violent dispersal, you could use it to block the batons of the military]."
Since the Bell and Howell had no tape counter and no way of keeping track of how much footage had been shot, cameramen like Bert Salonga had to have a precise internal stopwatch. This was important, because time was money in film; rolls were short—three minutes only—and costs were high. So the best cameramen taught themselves to time their shots by simply listening to the whirring sound the film spool made. Bert Salonga, for instance, knew exactly how long, he had been shooting. He would turn to his reporter-producer and say: “O, okey na, 40 seconds na yan.”
The best cameramen of ABS-CBN could shoot a story that would be ready for airing right out of the can, with no more editing required. This kind of "shoot-edit" skill was very rare. Even Bert Salonga could not explain how he did it—it was a matter of feel developed from experience. The news crews of today, who have all sorts of technical wizardry to help them out, like nonlinear editing and digital quality sound, would do well to remember a time when the machinery was analog and much more cumbersome. This was the real test of skill.
The limitations of film meant that news film rolls were edited manually, and measuring a finished segment's running time was a matter of feel. Ace film editors like ABS-CBN's Jun Molabola measured film by hand, using the “dipa” system used to measure cloth—a length of film that ran from the tip of one’s finger to one's sternum was x seconds long. Night after night, working under time pressure, Jun somehow managed to put together segments of the right length. Henry recalled: "By 7 P.M., we had to be in with all stories and film, and with a story lineup. And then we finalized the lineup 30 minutes before airing. We had about 11 to 15 stories in 25 minutes, a minute or two per story—more than they have today."
Soon Henry had begun to make his own mark among the public. Tits Tañada recalled: "Our main newscaster was Henry Halasan. He was my favorite, because his English was not forced. His accent was so natural. He didn't overmodulate like some other anchors.”
In those days, the anchors had no teleprompter. ABS-CBN SVP for News Dong Puno would later say: "We take for granted things like the teleprompter because it's looking at the camera and reading at the same time. These people, [in the 1960s] had to develop making real talent of having the script before them, turning it page by page and not making it look like they were reading. It’s very difficult.”
Soon The World Tonight was competing hard with ABC-5 for stories and audience share. And yet back then there was a certain camaraderie between the two rivals, regarding each other as brothers in the profession. Henry said: “We were friendly—Tony Tecson and I. We used to cover things together. He respected me, I respected him. We and ABC really were friendly rivals. I think the network then was more friendly, less aggressive. Much friendlier than now.”
Despite ABS-CBN News' increasing proficiency in the news trade, the early World Tonight was not always blemish-free. Henry said: "Foul-ups in the studio did happen from time to time. For instance, you were reading one story but the wrong footage was being shown?' But the worst thing that ever happened to Henry on the air was a result of his heavy smoking. One night when he was doing a newscast, he started to cough uncontrollably. When he finally stopped coughing, he tried to read again, but no voice came out. He thought: "Oh, my God!" The director froze and did not cut to a commercial. And so the TV screens showed the hapless Henry for about a minute. Finally, commercials and plugs came on and stayed on until finally Henry recovered his voice. The next day, Henry stopped smoking completely.
To gather the news, Henry Halasan and Hal Bowie relied on a crew of young and aggressive reporters that included Tony Seva (later VP of GMA-7), Elmo Valera, Danny Hernandez, Tony Lozano, Jun Bautista, Val Mallari, Veronica Espiritu, Felipe Pigao and Edgar Malay. Ric Tierro handled sports, and his crew included Krip Yuson (later a prize-winning poet and novelist), Lito Tacujan, EG Hizon and Monet Serrano.
The most famous ABS-CBN reporter of that era was Orly Mercado. Orly would later become known as the host of "Kapwa Ko, Mahal Ko," then as senator and defense secretary. But he first made his name as a fledgling reporter for ABS-CBN from 1968-71. In April of 1968, at age 22, he joined ABS-CBN as a working student from UP who had just come from a two-year stint as a radio announcer in dzBB. He was also an activist, a member of the Kabataang Makabayan (KM). Orly pressed forward with broadcasting work despite a hectic schedule. In 1968, he finished his political science course in UP and then gone on to first year law, also in UP. Working and studying at the same time wore him down.
Orly took the night shift, which meant focusing on all the violent crimes committed in the metropolis between ten in the evening and six in the morning. He would cover the city carrying his textbooks. At 8 A.M., he would take a shower, go to UP Diliman for classes, but sometimes ended up dozing on a bench inside the bathroom. He used to tell his professors: "If you catch me sleeping sometimes, it’s not that I am not interested in the subject matter. It’s just that I work at night.”
The work in ABS-CBN made Orly realize that the media would be his vocation, so he shifted from law to a masters in journalism. But despite occasional detours into politics later in life, Orly defined himself as a media man first. He said: "As a result of working in ABS-CBN, I began to see that it was possible that I’d be a broadcaster for the rest of my life, be in radio and television.”
Orly said that, more than news experience, energy and persistence are what TV reporting requires: “I was really the type of fellow whom you had to restrain, kailangan awatin, during those days. We wanted to be where things were happening. I didn’t want to be left out. I had that kind of an aggressive stance."
That aggressive stance, of course, had its own dangers, Orly conceded: "l covered the police beat for a year-and-a-half. I had so many stories. This was the time Banjo Laurel was involved in a shootout in a nightclub in Roxas Boulevard. Once someone pointed a gun to my face. I was covering a police story in Pasay, a family quarrel where they fired at each other. A rich mestizo family in Park Avenue, Pasay. They didn't want to talk to reporters. So I had no story. I kept trying to get more details. One of the brothers got angry. He pointed a gun at me: ‘I told you to leave. This is a family matter.’ The gun was already cocked. I've never said so many 'opo' in my life."
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During that time, Orly had a friendly rivalry with reporter Danny Gozo of ABC-5's The Big News. Danny recalled: "Once, the police shot and killed this notorious criminal very early one morning—I forget the name, Boy Diablo or something like that. Since we were monitoring the police frequencies, we arrived on the scene right away and took our shots of the body lying on the street. We wanted a scoop, so we said to the police: ‘O, sige, pwede nang dalhin iyan sa punerarya: [Okay, take the body to the funeral parlor.] The body was taken away before the ABS-CBN crew could arrive, and we were sure that no one else could get footage like ours. We were pleased with ourselves.”
But the next night, Danny was amazed. On The World Tonight, Orly actually showed footage of the slain hoodlum lying on the street. But it was purely close-ups of the body, no long shot. It took Danny a while to figure out what happened. Orly had caught up with the body at the morgue. But he knew from the police that The Big News had already shot the scene. He knew the ABS-CBN footage would be weak in comparison if the backdrop of his footage was the morgue. So he told the people at the morgue to take the body to the street outside, and then he took shots of it. Only close-ups, because a long shot would have revealed a different street.
By the elections of 1967, it was clear how far ABS CBN News had come. For the elections of 1961, 1963 and 1965, ABS-CBN aired a single early evening newscast on the results. The network could not do more, because during the cash-strapped years of the early 1960s, ABS-CBN could not afford to forgo airtime income-plus its TV news skills were still rudimentary.
The year 1967 was a different story. Geny Lopez had grown so confident in his news crew that he chose to cover the elections in the way that US networks covered them. On November 14-15, 1967, ABS-CBN held the Philippines' first marathon TV election coverage, Halalan '67—36 hours straight of poll results and updates. Halalan '67 began the ABS-CBN tradition of marathon election coverage that it continues to this day.
It took a while, but after a standing start ABS-CBN News was competing head-to-head with ABC-5. The learning curve was steep and it took a little time to get everything and everyone in place, but by 1967, much of the Filipino audience was tuning in to hear these words, still familiar today: "...These and other stories on ‘The World Tonight.’”
Excerpt from Kapitan, authored by Raul Rodrigo, published in 2006.