Source your own Christmas spirit
People lament the loss of ABS-CBN, with its 25-year franchise expiring last May 4 and its bid for franchise renewal denied. As the sentimentally significant “ber” months arrive, thousands of employees are laid off. The sense of hemorrhage continues as local radio and television stations close and broadcasters and staff say goodbye one last time.
On the supply side, the loss amounts to 11,000 jobs and the silencing of ABS-CBN’s 42 television stations and 10 digital broadcast channels across the nation. It took all of 66 years, including the vagaries of the martial law years, to build such a network. But it seems to me that what the nation lost was not only a network. We lost a national audience that had been shaped by decades of radio and television programming. In competition with the other major networks, especially GMA, ABS-CBN delivered a carefully curated information and entertainment package that had kept its national audience intact and coming back for more, day in and day out.
That audience is not some nondescript amorphous mass. It has a contour and shape. From the point of view of a minimally functioning democracy, it is a living organism, mostly located at the base of the socioeconomic pyramid, that has suddenly been shorn of its primary political, economic, and social orienting device. The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines expressed the sense that what has befallen the people in the countryside was an avoidable national tragedy: “Millions of Filipinos outside Metro Manila will lose a fast and credible source of news today as they struggle through a life-threatening crisis,” it said.
It is ironic that government itself, diffracted into thousands of agencies and local government units, is perhaps the greatest victim of the shutdown. The country is mired in poverty, pummeled by 20 typhoons especially destructive at this time of the year, and desolated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The government has lost not only its voice but also the ear of the people. According to Kantar Media Philippines (in a Rappler report), when ABS-CBN went off the air, 30 percent of the viewers of ABS-CBN’s “TV Patrol” shifted to GMA’s “24 Oras,” but 36 percent simply shut off their television. It is not as if GMA can take up all the slack, not to mention the anemic and cameo nature of the government broadcast system.
It seems the government shot itself more than just in the foot. Many developing countries like Mexico are being praised for using television to continue education by other means without the need for internet. With 52 percent of the population using ABS-CBN (“TV Patrol,” “Bandila,” ANC) at least three days a week, the Philippine government has lost a large chunk of the broadcast capability to do the same thing.
Worse, we now force poor families to choose between food on the table and cybereducation. Many poor families do not realize that buying a tablet is not enough. The hardware is nothing if the software and peopleware are not adequate or interoperable. Parents, many of them unschooled, do not realize they are part of the “peopleware” that must provide guidance and coaching to their kids. Students are equally confused. Some are reported to camp out in mountaintops huddled together to get a whiff of the internet, disregarding the COVID-19 precautions that made the internet such a critical commodity in the first place.
The loss of an attentive public is worsened by the loss of a trusting public. Trust in news overall in the Philippines is only 27 percent, ranking 35th out of 40 countries surveyed. Trust in news on social media, the increasingly default source, is only 22 percent. These statistics reflect the vilification that President Duterte and his supporters have waged not only against ABS-CBN but also against Rappler, the Inquirer, and individual broadcasters and journalists over the past four years, many of whom have lost their lives.
The media fallout apparently is wider. The Philippine Daily Inquirer, the country’s largest newspaper, is reducing staff and rightsizing its operations to survive the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic has exacerbated the decline of the print newspaper industry as digital and online news platforms flourish.
Meantime, prepare to transition to the season of joy. But the ubiquitous Christmas carols wafting from the neighbor’s radio and television may not happen. Go get earphones and pay for your own Christmas spirit.
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