Text by Selena Alzate and Julienne Maxine Espinosa
Once, the greatest ship with thousands of lives on-board sank by a seemingly inevitable force — leaving such lives drowning and lost at sea, with their families struggling to comprehend the loss. This is an account that fits not only the sinking of Titanic, but also the closure of the leading media network of the country — this is the story of ABS-CBN and the lives that it used to keep afloat.
Among those who were left in the sea of uncertainty and instability were Nick Villavecer and Karlo Mabalot. Nick has been with the network for over 4 years, working as a writer and segment producer for News and Current Affairs, while Karlo has worked as a researcher, segment producer and floor director of various shows in ABS-CBN for the past 5 years.
Bracing for impact
The topic of franchise renewal didn’t come as a surprise to those within the network. ABS-CBN has sought Congress deliberations regarding the renewal since 2015, but their requests have been consistently disregarded after being singled-out due to their issue with Rodrigo Duterte.
However, the issue remained an elephant in the room as none of them could imagine that the largest media company and the longest running TV broadcaster in Southeast Asia would actually be shut down.
“Matunog na iyong issue last year, but I personally disregarded it kasi I thought impossible mapasara ang ABS-CBN given its influence. Our bosses were reassuring us that they were dealing with the matter, gusto nilang mag-focus at magpatuloy lang kami sa work at sa pagbabalita,” Nick shared.
It was a Telegram message from a friend that broke the news to Nick on the 5th of May 2020. Their entire office was petrified when the National Telecommunication Commission (NTC) finalized the cease and desist order.
“Ang saya-saya pa namin eh, pero noong gabing ‘yon, bigla kaming natahimik agad. Papasok pa ba kami the next day?” he recalled.
Anxiety has filled the office air since July. As their next step remained a mystery, workers worried if there would be companies that would accommodate them, considering their significant number.
“Imagine kung hahanap kami ng ibang trabaho, sino ‘yung ipa-prioritize ng ibang company? ‘Yung may mas experience, ‘di ba? ‘Eh ako, bago pa lang ako sa industry,” he lamented.
Karlo was preparing for TV Patrol the minute NTC issued the order. “Unang pumasok sa isip ko noon ay papasok pa ba ako mamaya? Pero I was informed by my executive producer na may balita pa raw na kailangan i-ere.”
TV Patrol was the last program aired by the network on free television, and Karlo experienced the whole ordeal firsthand. He recalled that there wasn’t a clear line-up for the program that night because everyone in the newsroom was distraught, yet they couldn’t comfort each other due to social distancing measures.
While the company CEO Carlo Katigbak aired his final statement, Karlo could only think about how the government disregarded workers like him and the freedom of the press and speech.
“After TV Patrol, maraming nag-reach out. Naka-recieve ako ng text hindi lang from friends and family pero from all around the country nandon yung suporta, doon ko nakita na yung trabaho ko may essence para sa mga tao,” Karlo recalled.
Losing one’s job is a personal struggle that most prefer to deal with silently — but those who worked in ABS-CBN had to share such experience in the limelight, with the eyes of millions of Filipinos watching their fate as congressional hearings were broadcast on national television.
Karlo recalled his feelings while he watched the hearings.
“Para akong isinalang sa circus. Ang mga pulitiko, enjoy sa exposure at kanya-kanyang pabibo pero kami ang mawawalan ng trabaho. Ang mga Lopez ay old rich na, marami pa silang negosyo. Kami, saan na kami pupunta?”
Meanwhile Nick chose not to watch the live broadcast. He shared that it wasn’t healthy for him mentally and emotionally knowing that the consequence was their work and fate.
Nick also called out the Congress’s allegations of the network’s reports being biased.
“Never naman kami sinabihan na ibahin mo ang anggulo mo o kaya ay ‘tirahin mo’ si ganiyan. Mayroon kaming rigid verification sa news content. Nakakalungkot pakinggan coming from officials dahil ‘di nila alam ang trabaho ng isang journalist. They vilified us dahil lang na-offend sila,” he added.
Both carried on to work for ABS-CBN until August 31, the day the network’s final cut of retrenchment took effect.
Recalling the Zoom meeting where his notice of separation was read, Nick struggled to hold back his tears.
“Akala ko okay na ko pero ‘nung nakita ko yung boss ko, hindi ko kinaya. Siya yung nakakita ng growth ko and how I’ve progressed through the years. Hindi lang sila katrabaho, they were family,” he said.
Lost at sea
Used to sailing smoothly, the network’s workers were shocked by the frigid waters with the abrupt need to abandon ship. Both Nick and Karlo needed time to cope with the sudden closure of their company; life went on nonetheless and so did the bills they needed to pay and their families’ needs.
Now, Karlo’s main concern is the lack of job opportunities in their line of work, especially with the shutdown of the biggest media network in the country. The distress is worsened by the current pandemic, which makes scouting for a new job generally more difficult.
“Back when I was still with ABS, kapag nanghihingi ang parents ko ay naibibigay ko agad. Ngayon pag nanghihingi sila, kailangan ko na humingi ng pasensya kasi maliit pa ang sweldo ko,” Karlo shared.
While the network’s oligarchic roots were put on the spotlight during congressional hearings, ABS-CBN meant much more than a workplace for both Nick and Karlo.
Nick first applied to the media company’s site in Bacolod. This attempt was unsuccessful, so he worked in a call center to finance himself to transfer in Manila, with wishes to work in the headquarters.
“ABS-CBN was the dream. Sabi ko dito na ko tatanda, dito na ko magreretire, tapos ganun ganun na lang,” he said.
Now, Nick produces news content for another online news organization, while Karlo juggles various directing and production jobs. Both admit that they can’t help but look back and compare to a place that they once called home.
When asked if he hopes to come back with the network if ever it secures a franchise in the future, Karlo answered with certainty. “Babalik at babalik ako sa ABS-CBN dahil sa kanila ako nakahanap ng comfort, ng pamilya.”
Nick and Karlo are only two of thousands of ABS-CBN workers who lost their livelihood along with the denial of ABS-CBN franchise. The legislators have called the shutdown as an act of service for the country against oligarchy, but it was much less of a lesson towards oligarchs and more of a life sentence to the likes of Nick and Karlo – and more. And if the oligarchs were really the problem, why look further when there are families whose interests are protected by the government and even lead it themselves?
Once the media company with the widest reach in the country, the onslaught brought by Typhoon Rolly across the Bicol Region exposed the gap in news dissemination that the network shutdown caused.
ABS-CBN regional networks were vital for provinces far from Metro Manila where other network’s signals fell short of reaching. In a tweet by Journalism Associate Professor Danilo Arao, he expressed that the network is ‘sorely missed’ for being ‘all hands on deck’ during coverages.
“Without taking anything away from the coverage of other news media organizations, ABS-CBN Regional Network Group is needed at this time,” Arao said.
The network wasn’t only a ship that kept its workers afloat. It was also a vessel for freight of information. And its sinking left several people in drought for news as the government forced their sole provider of information off the air.
When a huge ship that keeps thousands of lives afloat has holes in it, it is just right to repair the issues to save those on-board. But if the ship is headed for a route that displeases someone in power, they’ll forge more than just an iceberg just to sink it down.
ERRATUM: An earlier version of this article stated that the ABS-CBN franchise renewal was discussed during Senate hearings. We have since corrected it to congressional hearings. Deliberations on the franchise renewal died at the committee level in the House of Representatives.