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Sotto files new bill seeking to renew ABS-CBN franchise

 By Mark Angelo Mañez

PHOTO: CNN Philippines

Senate President Vicente Sotto III on Monday filed a bill seeking to give a fresh franchise to ABS-CBN, once the Philippines' largest broadcaster until its previous license to operate expired and its application for a new one was rejected by a House panel last year.

Sotto's Senate Bill No. 1967 seeks to grant ABS-CBN a new license to operate its television and radio broadcasting stations for 25 years.

"I noticed the TV stations have been replacing their news programs with animes. It means competition is absent and mediocrity is creeping in because of the absence of a strong competitor like ABS-CBN," Sotto told reporters in a text message.

"ABS-CBN's wide reach to Filipinos, alongside with the undeniable advantages of broadcast media relative to mass communication, definitely call for the immediate renewal of the network's franchise," he said in the bill's explanatory note.

The Senate President noted that despite its absence from free TV and radio stations, ABS-CBN continued to enjoy high ratings on its A2Z Channel, cable TV and online platforms that carry some Kapamilya shows.

Sotto also cited a September 2019 data from Kantar Media showing that ABS-CBN "registered an average audience share of 45 percent or 14 points higher than GMA's 31 percent."

"Likewise, Filipinos abroad feel a little less away from home due to The Filipino Channel, commonly known as TFC, also owned and operated by ABS-CBN," he added.

Senate Committee on Public Services chair Grace Poe said her panel would give the franchise bill the "utmost priority," noting that thousands of Filipinos rely on ABS-CBN for information.

"Given the crippling effects of the ABS-CBN shutdown and the need for more news outlets with the widest reach during the raging pandemic, the issue will be given utmost priority as soon as it is referred to the Committee on Public Service," Poe told reporters in a text message.

"My support for a free and fair media in the name of public service remains. I will make sure that the Committee acts on it in due course," she said.

Poe noted though that the Constitution requires that franchise bills must originate from the House of Representatives. Thus, until a bill is passed by the lower chamber of Congress, Sotto's bill "will most likely be referred" to the Senate's Committee on Rules.

Under the law, all local bills - including franchises - must first be approved by the House of Representatives before the Senate can tackle it in plenary.

Senators Ralph Recto and Joel Villanueva also expressed support for Sotto's bill, saying ABS-CBN deserves to operate on free TV and radio again.

"I am co-authoring that bill. We all know that ABS-CBN deserves the renewal of its franchise given the service it has rendered to the Filipino people," Villanueva said.

"Yes, I support it. I filed it the last time," Recto said.

Senators Sonny Angara and Franklin Drilon also backed Sotto's proposal, but noted that a similar measure should first hurdle the House of Representatives.

"We support that. But as you know, it’s all dependent on what the House will do since it is subject to the origination clause of the Constitution," Angara said in a text message.

But as with spending bills, senators are allowed to discuss franchise bills at the Committee level while it awaits the House to pass a counterpart measure on final reading.

Sotto said the change in the House leadership may give ABS-CBN a "better chance" to get a new broadcast franchise.

"I'm still in the process of getting a consensus in both Houses, but best to be on alert," Sotto said.

Taguig-Pateros Cong. Alan Peter Cayetano was the House Speaker when lawmakers tackled the ABS-CBN franchise bills from late May until July of last year. Cayetano was ousted in October and was replaced by Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco.

When asked about Sotto's view that ABS-CBN has a better chance of securing a franchise this year, Drilon said: "Depends on President [Rodrigo] Duterte."

Duterte had repeatedly slammed the network, saying he would have it shuttered for failing to air some of his campaign advertisements in 2016 and instead accommodated one that was critical of him and was paid for by his critic, former Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV.

Duterte had also urged the network's executives to just sell ABS-CBN's assets to other businessmen.

Even before the 70 House members voted last July 10, 2020 to deny ABS-CBN's fresh franchise bid, the network had already reduced substantially its operations on orders by the National Telecommunications Commission following the expiration of its previous license two months earlier, or on May 5, 2020.

Government regulators and other officials have cleared ABS-CBN over allegations of tax fraud, violations of foreign ownership restrictions in mass media, among other legal issues.

The non-renewal of its franchise forced ABS-CBN to lay off thousands of workers at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and left households in rural areas without a stable source of information amid several calamities that hit the country.

Despite the loss of its franchise, ABS-CBN has been focusing on its "core capabilities" to continue delivering information and entertainment during the pandemic, its president and CEO Carlo Katigbak said in a stockholders' meeting last year.

"Now more than ever, we can focus on our core capabilities, creating programs to entertain, inspire and give joy for Filipino families and delivering news that informs, educates and helps our Kababayan especially in their time of need," Katigbak said.

"It will be a difficult journey until that time but our history has shown that ABS-CBN's burning passion for service to the Filipino cannot be extinguished," he said.

"We hope to share this passion with us and count on your continued presence on the road to rebuilding our beloved company," he added.


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