‘Is this story still gonna air?’
This piece is part of a series to mark the first anniversary of the shutdown of ABS-CBN’s broadcast on free TV and radio which happened May 5, 2020.
Nick Villavecer was a segment producer for ABS-CBN’s Current Affairs department, working on shows “Red Alert” and “Kuha Mo!”. Nick was retrenched when the department was dissolved following the junking of the network’s franchise. He now works as a multimedia producer for online news site Rappler.
Around 5 p.m. of May 5, 2020, I was in the Current Affairs editing room previewing the materials for my segment when I received a message from a friend. He asked how I was doing and what was going on. I had no idea why he was asking me these questions all of a sudden.
“There’s a cease and desist order already against ABS-CBN,” he told me.
I froze. I immediately opened Twitter for confirmation, hoping the news wasn’t true. But there it was – the news that we’ve dreaded for months finally arrived, just as we were laughing over silly conversations: “JUST IN: NTC issues cease and desist order against ABS-CBN.”
I remember the silence that ensued over the editing room after the news broke. It’s the kind of silence that springs from utter disbelief and confusion, the kind of silence that punches right to the gut, only for the pain to linger for a long time. All of us inside the editing room had to stop what we were doing. Because what else was there to do than worry about our fate as employees?
There were too many questions inside my head that day: Is the story we’re editing still going to air? Is this going to be our last day with the network? What’s going to happen to us employees? Can ABS-CBN really go off the air? Is that possible? Even after the National Telecommunications Commission order, the thought of ABS-CBN, the largest broadcasting network in the country, shutting down was still unimaginable.
I wanted to find comfort in my co-workers, but I could see through their masked faces that they were equally devastated. Some of us feigned weak smiles in an attempt to paint a little bit of hope in our situation. There was none.
One of my co-workers, who had been in the network for around 20 years, asked us, “Paano na tayo?” I wished I had the answer.
Only four of us from our program “Kuha Mo!” in Current Affairs were assigned to be on duty that day. The three of us stepped out of the editing room and went to the gazebo beside the ABS-CBN chapel so we could process the bad news together. Shortly after the announcement, ABS-CBN released a statement, which I read aloud, my voice breaking in between soft sobs, in front of my officemates.
“ABS-CBN remains committed to being in the service of the Filipino,” the statement read. “We will find ways to continue providing meaningful service to them.”
In a few minutes, we were told ABS-CBN was going to comply immediately with the NTC’s order, and so we decided to visit the newsroom to witness what would be a historic moment in Philippine television.
We knew the situation was bad because ABS-CBN executives – President and CEO Carlo Katigbak, Chairman Mark Lopez, COO Cory Vidanes – also arrived for a meeting. Reporters, cameramen, producers, researchers, and other employees huddled as we anxiously watched the final newscast of TV Patrol on free TV. Ging Reyes, the head of the Integrated News and Current Affairs, led the production of the newscast that night.
Most of us who were there filmed the scenes in the newsroom as they unfolded (We were journalists after all, only that the story had become about us) — from our bosses’ statements to the news anchors’ final spiels to the moment the TV screen finally went black.
At 7:52 p.m., ABS-CBN officially signed off the air, after 33 years.
Certainly it was a night full of emotions, like waiting for a loved one to die on her hospital bed, and all we could do as a family was helplessly watch as she took her last breath. And you know what comes right after death: grief, and oftentimes, denial.
But I remember there was a weak applause afterwards among the employees. Maybe it was to draw strength from one another. Maybe it was to sound hopeful, despite the feeling of defeat, that the fight wasn’t over. Or maybe it was just that — a round of applause for ABS-CBN’s courage in journalism and heart in public service, no matter the threats.
“Fight!” we said that night in defiance. And fight we did for the months after May 5, 2020.
I left the office that night feeling upset, my heart still overweight with sadness, rage, and anxiety. I felt like I was robbed of a home. At the time, I had been with ABS-CBN for more than 4 years already, the same number of years that I'd spent living in Metro Manila away from my family. And I felt homeless and hopeless all of a sudden. I continued to cry all night after I went home because of the uncertainty of the next few months.
By August, I was retrenched from the network, along with thousands of other employees. The pain still lingers even as I recall the night of the ABS-CBN shutdown. It is a grim reminder that press freedom in the Philippines remains to be under threat, if not dying, so much so that subservient government officials are willing to bend the law just to serve the whims of President Rodrigo Duterte, never mind that thousands of jobs are on the line and millions of Filipinos rely on critical information during a pandemic.
My experience in ABS-CBN was relatively short, but working with some of the most tireless people in the industry surely made an impact on what I am now as a storyteller, no matter where I go in my career. And that’s something that I am forever thankful for.
For now, I have come to accept the truth. While I miss my former ABS-CBN colleagues, no matter what network or news organization we work with now, I know that we will always be a Kapamilya.
The story I was editing on May 5, 2020 eventually aired, but only on our social media platforms. But there were stories that we produced in June that never saw light after the Current Affairs division stopped production in July.