By CARLOS BANAAG
We?ve had a rude awakening,” said Gabby Lopez, ABS-CBN Chairman and CEO.
After several months in what a therapist might call the denial stage, ABS-CBN now admits openly that it is no longer No. 1 in the ratings in Mega Manila. Of course, the Lopez network still claims to be ahead nationwide or more accurately in Cebu, Dagupan and Davao; but everyone knows that it?s the Manila numbers that really count. And the Manila numbers leave no room for doubt. For the first quarter of 2005, ABS-CBN had an audience share of only 34%, while GMA-7 had 46%.
Since as far back as August 1987, ABS-CBN had lorded it over the competition with programs such as “TV Patrol” “Home Along Da Riles” and “Maalaala Mo Kaya.” Cracks began to show up on the ABS walls of fortress in the late 1990?s, but until recently the network continued to dominate the television landscape with hits like “Meteor Garden” and “Marina.”
Late last year, the Kapamilya station could still say that it controlled the all-important primetime TV viewing block. Then, in what seemed like a matter of weeks, ABS-CBN?s ratings collapsed. GMA-7 literally swept the field, took over the top position in every time slot throughout the day and night, and became the first new overall ratings champ in a generation.
WHERE DID IT GO WRONG?
Retiring Freddie Garcia was one big mistake. But that?s the easy answer. It?s true that the decline in ABS-CBN?s viewership that followed closely after his retirement couldn?t be purely coincidence. The idea, however, that the loss of Garcia alone caused the fall of ABS-CBN is as ridiculous as the notion that Felipe Gozon single-handedly drove GMA-7 to the top. The “Great Man” approach to management is facile at best and flies in the face of well-documented studies of many great companies.
That ABS-CBN was brought down by an unfortunate confluence of personalities, policies and events is probably closest to the truth. For the full story, wait for the book. For our purposes here, however, if we can encapsulate what went right for 17 years, we may see what ultimately went wrong.
In broadcast and advertising circles, there is a general agreement that ABS-CBN did three things extremely well over the years: First, they copied other people?s ideas, but made them better. Second, they pirated the best shows and the best people. Third, they crushed everybody else.
Let?s say, for example, that a competitor had produced a variety show that was beginning to attract viewers. ABS-CBN would immediately launch a bigger variety show with glitzier sets, grander production numbers and more hosts. If the competition had a singer who was getting praise, ABS-CBN would offer to triple her talent fee. Finally, it would never be enough to just edge out the competing show in the ratings.
ABS-CBN made sure that its lead was overwhelming. Never give an inch! Take no prisoners! Total victory! These were the battlecries that you imagined ABS-CBN employees heard from their leaders every day. It didn?t matter what types of shows were involved?dramas, sitcoms, children?s shows, news and public affairs. The same three ploys worked over and over again. What could be copied was improved upon. What couldn?t be copied was pirated. Whatever was left of the enemy was destroyed by any and all means.
The tactics of ABS-CBN employed one basic weapon: Money. More money than other networks were able or willing to spend. Money for production, money for programming, money for equipment and facilities, money for executive salaries, money for talent fees, even money for game show prizes. If Christopher de Leon gave away a million on his show, Kris Aquino gave two million on hers.
The deep pockets and Ilonggo generosity of the Lopezes were legendary. The dream of young talents and industry executives alike was to be noticed and hired by ABS-CBN so that they too could enjoy the fantastic salaries and benefits that only the Lopezes were paying.
About five years ago, everything changed. The listing of ABS-CBN shares on the stock exchange had been brilliant in that it gave the network access to a huge hoard of other people?s money, but it also seemed to have a more profound and insidious effect on the mind-set of the network?s policy makers.
Like many other companies ruled by fluctuating share prices, ABS-CBN become more conscious of short-term financial results and embarked on cost-cutting campaigns. At first, the cuts were facetious?sorry no more fresh flowers in the executive offices and reuse your plastic cups please?but later, they began to cut, not just fat, but meat and bone.
The older, more established and more expensive artistas were let go or alienated. Those who were retained had package deals that ensured that viewers would see them over and over again to the point of satiety. The number of shooting days per episode was reduced. Promo spots that would have looked great on film were done on video.
At the same time, Channel 2 strayed from its traditional three-part formula. Take the case of “Extra Challenge” which GMA-7 used to establish a beachhead in primetime. ABS-CBN never deigned to produce a clone of the show even when it had become clear that the celebrity Fear Factor format was going to be a monster hit. Nor did ABS pursue Paolo Bediones or Miriam Quiambao or Ethel Booba in the way that it went after, say, Kris Aquino and Boy Abunda a decade earlier.
Finally, ABS-CBN hesitated to pit its strongest programs against the upstart reality show. Instead, “Extra Challenge” became the programming tentpole that pulled up the ratings of “24 Oras” and “Mulawin.”
Speaking of “24 Oras,” the continued success of Mike Enriquez represents another example of the failure to properly implement the standard ABS-CBN strategy. The Lopez network successfully enticed Karen Davila to move over; but she was never the top anchor of GMA-7. That honor belonged to Mike Enriquez, whose unique appearance and style is not clone-able.
ABS-CBN?s next option was to pirate him; but although meetings reportedly took place, ABS-CBN apparently balked at offering him an amount of money that would make him jump ship. The last recourse is to attack Enriquez; thus far, however, complaints filed against him have not prospered.
Yet another example involves Michael V. and “Bitoy?s Funniest Videos.” ABS-CBN?s “Vid-Joking” was a copy but not an improvement. Mark Logan is no Michael V. And though the latter was available, ABS-CBN did not get him. The list goes on.
Certainly, a host of other problems contributed to pulling ABS-CBN down to number 2, among them, the internal politics, favoritism and intrigues; the loss of credibility in news and current affairs; the drain on resources represented by Studio 23 and other ventures; and the lack of broadcast experience of its president.
Nevertheless, one factor stands out as the proximate cause of ABS-CBN?s collapse in primetime: The failure to aggressively protect its market share using the methods that had succeeded so spectacularly in the past.
Gabby Lopez says ABS-CBN is awake now. The question is: Will we see a ponderous giant roused from slumber but weakened by cost-cutting OR will we be treated to the adventures of a lean, mean, show-no-mercy pirate? As every other TV reporter says when he doesn?t know the answer, “Only time will tell.”
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