How Manny Villar Gained What the Lopezes Lost in ABS-CBN

A quick explainer behind the headlines.

While we were sleeping, Filipino dollar-billionaire Manny Villar earned the right to (temporarily) use the channels that once belonged to the Lopez family’s ABS-CBN.

I pieced together different media reports to come up with a timeline of how Villar added a prized media asset to his real estate and retail empire.

This is how it happened.

In 2019, Congress renewed the broadcast license of radio station 103.5 K-Lite, operated by Advance Media Broadcasting System (AMBS), which in turn was owned by the family of Jose Luis Vera. AMBS has been first-in-line (since 2006) to ask regulator National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) for rights to operate a digital media frequency.

In 2020, ABS-CBN failed to renew its expiring broadcast franchise. About 70 lawmakers in the House of Representatives were believed to have voted not to renew following President Rodrigo Duterte’s public tirades against the Lopez family for failing to air his paid campaign ads in the run up to the 2016 elections, which he won. 

Also in 2020, the Villar Group, which is mostly a real estate and retail empire, used its fixed-line broadband internet service called Streamtech (launched in 2017) to vie for rights to operate the third telco services in the country. Streamtech eventually backed out, and Dito Telecommunications, owned by Davao-based tycoon Dennis Uy, eventually won the franchise. 

Sometime in between, Streamtech acquired sister firm Planet Cable, which was operating cable services initially for homeowners in Cavite and Laguna where most of the Villar-owned real estate developments are located. Planet Cable eventually branched out to other locations in the country, mostly focusing on areas where the Villar-led Vista Land and Lifescapes has real estate developments. The cable company also started to partner with telco equipment manufacturers, an early move that Streamtech would later pick up for its telco-and-internet play—likely a precedent for its digital broadcast media ambitions. (Read this story from the Manila Bulletin).

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In September 2021, during a Senate hearing on broadcast franchises, the Vera family’s AMBS said it was struggling because of the pandemic. They laid off radio staff, they told the Senate panel. In those hearings, AMBS asked for permission (and was allowed) to sell the company—and thus its prized broadcast franchise AND its status as first-in-line for digital broadcast license—to Villar’s cable firm Planet Money. 

This approval was pivotal and seems to be what we all missed. This set off the next crucial steps.

(We also shouldn’t forget that at the Senate is Cynthia Villlar, the wife of tycoon Manny who has been named by Forbes as the single richest Filipino after the death of retail king Henry Sy of the SM Group).

Earlier this month, on January 5, the regulator National Telecommunications Commission or NTC approved these in favor of now Villar-owned Advance Media:

1| Award of the provisional license to use and operate the digital Channel 16 frequency in Metro Manila and Mega Manila

Channel 16 was previously assigned to ABS-CBN. Remember that the then Vera-owned radio broadcast firm has been in line for a digital media frequency since 2006. 

The NTC has been pushing for the adoption of digital TV and has even set 2023 as deadline (originally 2015) for the shut-off of analog TV to force the switch. The switch requires existing owners of analog or older TVs to purchase new digital TVs or digital converter boxes. Best practice during the transition includes broadcasting to viewers in both analog and digital at the same time. As digital becomes more popular, existing analogue services will be removed.

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Even Felipe Gozon, chairman of broadcast giant GMA Networ, was reported to have shared in December 2021 that this deadline will be extended anew because adoption of digital TV in the Philippines remains very low.

2| A “temporary permit” to test broadcast for 18 months on the analog Channel 2 frequency

The right to use Channel 2 for free-to-air TV was among those ABS-CBN lost in 2020. This second award allows the now Villar-owned AMBS to simultaneously broadcast on both channels. Why for 18 months only? Likely because analog channels are supposed to be shut off by 2023.

And, as has been reported, the NTC said the Department of Justice and Office of the Executive Secretary reviewed and issued a “no objection” on the 18-month provisional authority to AMBS. 

After all, the frequencies are legally and technically vacated and available.

This story originally appeared in the author's blog.

 

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