FINAL DEATH KNELL: Ex-Senate President Villar, Pastor Quiboloy awarded ABS-CBN frequencies

By Jeanne Michael Penaranda

QUEZON CITY – The government has dealt the final death blow on the ABS-CBN Network as it awarded several frequencies it once had under its franchise to known allies of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The biggest beneficiary is business tycoon Manuel B. Villar Jr. whose Advanced Media Broadcasting System Inc. was awarded by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) provisional authorities (PA) to to install, operate, and maintain digital TV channel 16 and temporary simulcast on analog TV channel 2.

Other beneficiaries of two separate companies to use channels 23 and 43 — both previously used by broadcast giant ABS-CBN Corp. — to operate on digital television (TV) in Mega Manila are embattled presidential spiritual adviser Pastor Apollo Quiboloy and the Aliw Broadcasting Co. of the late Ambassador Antonio Cabangon Chua.

Various groups like the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) expressed concern about the NTC move, adding it appears to be an “almost midnight deal” as the NTC orders  were dated Jan. 5 and 6, a few days before this year’s election period opened on Jan. 9 in which there is a ban on awarding of contracts.

“Parceling these frequencies leaves a bad taste in the mouth given that the Duterte administration is already in its final months, and it sure looks like an almost midnight deal with these media entities,”  Infrawatch PH convenor Terry Ridon said.

The NUJP noted a supposed lack of transparency on how the firms were able to get the frequencies.

The NTC first granted a PA (provisional authority) to the Villar-led Advanced Media Broadcasting System, Inc. for the use Channel 2 “for simulcast purposes only” until the analog TV shut-off in 2023 as part of the country’s full transition to digital TV.

NTC said the Villar group has 18 months within which to put Channel 2 back to work.

In a statement, the NTC said it also granted a provisional authority to Aliw Broadcasting Corporation (Aliw), which operates DWIZ, RPN and other stations and has a tie-up with CNN Philippines, to “install, operate, and maintain” a digital TV broadcasting system using channel 23 in an order promulgated on Jan. 5, 2022.

“Aliw was the second applicant to install, operate, and maintain a digital TV in Metro Manila as filed on 30 July 2007, under Cast No. 2007-0126. ALIW has been waiting for an available digital TV frequency since 2007 after undergoing a quasi-judicial process which includes notice to all interested/affected parties and hearing,” the NTC said.

The NTC granted the Swara Sug Media Corporation (SSMC), the legal operating name of Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI) founded and led by Davao-based Pastor Apollo Quiboloy, a provisional authority to install, operate, and maintain digital TV channel 43.

SMNI president Dr. Marlon Rosete confirmed the award to their company.

“Yes ‘yung ch43 ang binigay,” he said.

Channel 43 used to be assigned to Amcara Broadcasting Corp., whose legislative franchise expired in 2020. ABS-CBN used it for its TVPlus channels under a blocktime agreement with Amcara.

Quiboloy already owns UHF Channel 40 where he broadcasts news and religious programs of his religious group the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

The NTC said the companies were granted the provisional authorities after the determination of their “legal, technical, and financial qualification.”

“Prior to the grant of the PA, the NTC sought policy guidance from the DICT, a legal opinion from the DOJ (Department of Justice), and the concurrence of OP-OES (Office of the President – Office of the Executive Secretary),” the NTC said.

NTC Commissioner Gamaliel Cordoba and Deputy Commissioners Edgardo Cabarios and Delilah Deles signed the PA.

 Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles clarified that when the NTC sought the legal opinion and concurrence of the DOJ and OP-OES on the matter, it was a “purely legal question” and no names of individuals or companies were discussed.

“When the NTC went to the OP-OES, it was only to seek guidance on the authority to assign available and unused frequencies. Again, there was no mention of any name or entity whatsoever,” Nograles said.

The decision to grant PAs to allow the operation of channels previously used by ABS-CBN, he said, was “up to the NTC based on their rules, regulations, and existing laws.”

The NTC decision was criticized by various groups, including Carlo Katigbak, ABS-CBN president and CEO.

“ABS-CBN is not our franchise. It’s not our transmitter, not oiur studios. ABS-CBN is found in your heart of e very kapamilya that chooses to serve the Filipino, ABS-CBN is you. For so long as the passion to serve burns brightly in you, ABS-CBN will continue to be alive and well,” Katigbak said in a statement.

“You will never be ABS-CBN!,” said former ANC head Jing Magsaysay, referring to Villar.

 “A frequency is just a frequency. Content creation is a whole different ball game. Plus, I hope they realize that the audience does not come with the frequency. You’re going to have to work blood, sweat and tears to build what ABS-CBN accomplished over 34 years plus the years before Marcos stole the channel.You can get the franchise but you will never be ABS-CBN,” Magsaysay added.

ABMS, which operates the FM station K-Lite, is owned by Planet Cable, a firm owned and operated by billionaire Manny Villar, one of the biggest supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The board of directors of Planet Cable is chaired by Cynthia J. Javarez, who sits as Treasurer and Chief Risk Officer of the Villar family’s listed real estate developer Vista Land and Lifescapes and retail mall operator VistaMalls.

Villar-linked Advanced Media Broadcasting System Inc., got its 25-year franchise extension in 2019.  It is taking over the television broadcast frequencies previously held by Lopez-led ABS-CBN Corp.

ANC reported the award of frequencies to allies of President Rodrigo Duterte has provoked outrage.

ABS-CBN also reported Planet Cable’s controlling shareholders are Prime Asset Ventures, and Streamtech Systems Technologies, both controlled by the Villar group.

The company builds, operates and maintains cable, television and other related systems and services, covering the Villar group’s many real estate developments across Luzon and Visayas.

The NTC said AMBS had applied for a permit to build and operate a digital TV broadcasting system in Metro Manila as early as October 2006.

In 2019, ABMS was granted a 25-year congressional franchise and sought government approval to sell itself to the Villar group.

At the end of 2020, AMBS had suffered a net loss of over P3 million, based on its latest SEC filings.

Planet Cable on the other hand lodged total revenues of P712.8 million in 2020, up substantially from 2019’s total sales of P445 million. Planet Cable’s SEC filings show its net profit in 2020 was P164.2 million, more than double 2019’s P69.3 million. Its total assets amounted to P3.6 billion.

On Sept. 6, 2021, the House of Representatives approved the sale of AMBS to Planet Cable, according to ABS-CBN’s report.

Planet Cable has substantial financial muscle compared to AMBS. It can also raise more capital through its principal, former Senator Manny Villar, who is listed as the richest man in the Philippines and valued at $7.3 billion by Forbes.

The Villar group has yet to respond to requests for comment.

AMBS has 18 months, or until 2023 to prove it can put up and run a digital television broadcasting system, or risk losing its provisional authority to use the frequencies previously held by ABS-CBN.

According to Bilyonaryo website and reported by ABS-CBN, the NTC sought the Justice Department’s opinion on opening up digital TV service to new players like Advanced Media.

“The DOJ declared that the digital TV service could be opened to new players like Advanced Media because… the applicability of Memorandum Circular No. 07-12-2014 (which limits digital TV licenses only to those with analog TV operations) has been “altered by the change in factual circumstances,” according to Bilyonaryo.

Bilyonaryo noted that Villar’s daughter-in-law, Emmeline Aglipay, was appointed Justice Undersecretary in 2018.

Villar’s daughter, Las Piñas Rep. Camille Villar, meanwhile voted in 2020 against granting ABS-CBN a new franchise.

The billionaire is a major supporter of President Rodrigo Duterte, and his son Mark was head of the Department of Public Works and Highways before resigning last year to run for a Senate seat in this year’s elections.