Monday, November 20, 2006

A network's saga

The following is my column today, November 20, 2006 at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

I just finished reading Kapitan, Geny Lopez and the making of ABS-CBN by Raul Rodrigo. I am not sure if the book is already available in bookstores, but I had the good fortune of having been given a copy when I spoke at the Human Resource Summit of the Lopez Group of Companies last Wednesday, Nov. 15.

Kapitan is a fascinating book mainly because it tells a really good story. Reading the book is like watching an ABS-CBN television extravaganza—it brims with big names, drama, spectacular effects, and of course, the trademark chest thumping. Expectedly, the book does tend to venerate Geny Lopez and fortify the institutional value of ABS-CBN within the country’s contemporary history. It is nevertheless a book that deserves to be read for several important reasons.

I will go on record to say that the book is very well written. I tip my hat off to Raul Rodrigo for the wonderful manner in which he was able to weave history, politics, business, and human pathos into one seamless tapestry. It is writing that does not call attention to itself and therefore reads naturally. More importantly in this case, it is one that brims with honesty despite the fact that it is a book intended as a monument to a man and an institution.

Kapitan is a story that fills in a lot of gaps and sheds light on a lot of unanswered questions about what really happened during the early years of the dictatorship. I was only in grade school when Martial Law was declared and many people my age were—and still are —not really aware of the real extent of the machinations involved in the takeover of various private business empires. All we know was that the dictator and his cronies took over many private companies under very sinister circumstances. This book succeeds in reminding us that Martial Law and the dictatorship screwed up a lot of things in this country, particularly since the Marcos heirs seem bent on rewriting history once again.

It is also a book that chronicles the history of Philippine radio and television in an engaging way. The book is a testament that history need not simply be a recitation of facts, dates and personages. History can be made interesting and delightful. I think I learned a lot more about the history of Philippine radio and television from this book than from all my previous readings on the subject.

And yes, the book succeeds in honoring the memory of Geny Lopez as a patriot, visionary, and astute businessman. I think that the book establishes Geny Lopez’ stature as a great Filipino.
Having said that, let me share what struck me the most about this book: The continuing saga of ABS-CBN not only as a media empire but as an organization that has always found itself at the maelstrom of Philippine history—not as an objective chronicler of the country’s history, but as an active participant in it.

Being a media network, it is expected that ABS-CBN would always be in the thick of national events. However, what makes ABS-CBN unique is that unlike other media organizations, ABS-CBN seems to have this institutional predisposition to become part of the “issue” rather to simply be a vehicle to ventilate, clarify, and crystallize issues.

Thus, rightly or wrongly, ABS-CBN has always been perceived as political and partisan—a network that always takes a position on an issue. Everyone knows the state of ABS-CBN’s relationship with the current government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Even during Edsa-3 and during the wake of presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr., ABS-CBN was perceived as decidedly unfair and partial in its coverage. I remember Susan Roces castigating ABS-CBN publicly prompting newscaster Karen Davila to break down in tears.

Because of this, GMA-7’s claim as a network that doesn’t take sides, as a network that is not out to protect any business or political interest (“walang pinapanigan, walang pinoproteksiyonan, serbisyo totoo lamang”) rankles as a comparative mission statement. The common perception is that ABS-CBN is a network one either loves or hates with a passion. In contrast, GMA-7 is a station one either likes or is apathetic to. As a friend puts it, one does not dislike GMA-7, one simply is uninterested in it.

As a result, ABS-CBN often finds itself justifying or defending itself from vociferous criticism about the way the network defines and performs its role of being “in the service of the Filipino.” It can be recalled that in many critical and defining moments in recent history, ABS-CBN had to come up with TV spots that left no doubt as to where the network stood in the din and dynamics of the controversial debates.

Although there is no concrete indication that such is the case, the fact that the Lopezes produced one Vice President (Fernando Lopez, Marcos’ first Vice President) and propelled the election of another (current Vice President and ABS-CBN talent Noli de Castro) in addition to having political figures in its stable of talents contributes to the gnawing perception that ABS-CBN has political interests. That the Lopezes also controls major industries (power, water, and the North Luzon Expressway are some) also contribute to the perception that the network is out to protect the family’s business interests.

The book offers some justification by making bold claims about how the history of ABS-CBN is closely intertwined with the history of the country. In certain parts, it seems to hold itself up as a metaphor for the nation. But why ABS-CBN would put itself in a situation where its fortunes is hostage to political drama is an interesting story.

Kapitan offers some insights on how this institutional preoccupation to be part of history and how its brand of political vigilance took roots within the institution. What seems very pronounced is the almost palpable drive within the network not to be at the receiving end of political persecution ever again. The book makes a big case about how the network built and rebuilt itself from the ashes of political oppression and one gets a pervading message from the various testimonials within the book that the network will never ever allow such a situation to happen again. This collective passion and organizational will permeate everything the institution stands for and does. It also translates into pride, or its counterpart, conceit, and the many other intangibles that provide meaning and spirit to an organization’s existence.

Organizational theory calls it institutional ideology. It remains to be seen if ABS-CBN’s brand of institutional ideology, assuming the organization is cognizant of it, is compatible with the role it wants to carve for itself in Philippine history or with its business interests to begin with. Let’s see.

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