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Rumors of ABS-CBN’s franchise ‘renewal’ weaponized in Romualdez-SMNI feud

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com
Rumors of ABS-CBN�s franchise �renewal� weaponized in Romualdez-SMNI feud
Graphics by Philstar.com / Anjilica Andaya
Photo credits: PNA and Liberal International
This report forms part of Philstar.com's coverage of influence operations, which involve the spread of false information and propaganda that can mislead, cause confusion and prevent informed understanding and discourse. Read our explainer on influence operations.


MANILA, Philippines — Almost immediately after Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI) was accused of committing franchise violations last year, several accounts that either repurpose viral entertainment content or appear to be hyperpartisan latched onto the false claim that ABS-CBN will return to free television by 2024, despite the network making no official announcement.

At least 12 social media accounts on different platforms and two news websites — all of which are not affiliated with ABS-CBN — posted similar narratives that said “reliable” sources have hinted at the former broadcasting giant’s “franchise renewal” by 2024. 

Meanwhile, three channels with hyperpartisan content accused House Speaker Martin Romualdez of orchestrating ABS-CBN’s comeback days after the House summoned SMNI representatives to a committee hearing on their alleged franchise violations.

While the majority of posts about ABS-CBN’s supposed comeback did not have a political angle, a few known hyperpartisan vloggers seized upon the rumor of ABS-CBN’s franchise “renewal” to either accuse Romualdez of having a hidden agenda or claim that SMNI played a hand in the non-renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise.

Posts promoting the claim mostly lacked corroborating details, failed to cite sources, and placed out-of-context recent statements of ABS-CBN executives who vowed to make 2024 the “best year” for the network.

These narratives have some of the markings of an influence operation that Philstar.com is tracking across all social media platforms, groups and spaces on the internet. 

ABS-CBN execs’ words taken out of context

A speech delivered by Carlo Katigbak, ABS-CBN's chief executive officer, during a Christmas event with employees in December 2023 was used to exacerbate the claims about the network’s return to free television.  

Several videos said that Katigbak hinted at ABS-CBN’s possible new franchise when he said during a corporate party that “next year will be the best year for ABS-CBN since 2020.”

Most videos echoing this claim were uploaded on TikTok, YouTube and Facebook from mid-December to mid-January.

One of the YouTube videos hyping up ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal that gained high traction was uploaded by “ShowbizAllIn.” The video’s narrator said that based on “reliable sources,” ABS-CBN was set to return to free television before the 2025 midterm elections.

The video did not mention President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. but featured him in the thumbnail alongside Katigbak. 

 

Screengrab taken Feb. 6, 2024, 10:56 p.m.

The video earned over 21,000 views and more than 50 comments.

Meanwhile, three days after the House started its probe into SMNI for its anchors’ remarks about Romualdez’ alleged exorbitant travel funds, YouTube channel "Vlogcaster Armand Dean (VAD)" uploaded a video alleging that the House speaker had ordered the removal of SMNI’s franchise to “give” it to either ABS-CBN or Prime Media Group, which he owns.

The video carried the following ticker: "PRANGKISA NG SMNI GAGAMITIN NI ROMUALDEZ SA PRESIDENTIAL PLANS NYA (SMNI’S FRANCHISE WILL BE USED BY ROMUALDEZ FOR HIS PRESIDENTIAL PLANS)?!”

Screengrab taken Feb. 6, 2024, 10:56 p.m.

 

The man in the video said, in Filipino, that he had “questions in mind” on whether ABS-CBN will “allow themselves to be used” by the House leader. 

The channel of “Vlogcaster Armand Dean” — which has more than 110,000 subscribers — posts mostly hyperpartisan videos but is not overtly in favor of a single politician. His video gained more than 22,000 views and 200 comments.

Days after, on Dec. 8, 2023, another YouTube channel “SPENCER LACALLE” then accused Romualdez of having ulterior motives in holding House hearings on SMNI’s alleged franchise violations, calling it in the title of his video as “OPLAN FRANCHISE.”

Screengrab taken Feb. 6, 2024, 10:59 p.m.

The video accused ABS-CBN executives of “using” their allies in Congress to give them back their franchise, saying: 

“Kaya siguro nagtatampo na may ari ng ABS-CBN. ‘Ang tagal… bakit hindi nyo pa binibira ang SMNI? Paano ko makukuha frequency nito?’ Siguro kaya binabakbak na kasi prinepressure na si tambaloslos nitong ABS-CBN.”

(This is probably why the owner of ABS-CBN is sulking. ‘It’s taking a long time… Why haven’t you attacked SMNI? How can I get their franchise?’ That’s probably why they’re attacking SMNI because tambaloslos is now being pressured by ABS-CBN.)

Tambaloslos among Visayans refers to a mythical creature with a large mouth that leads people astray but was used in the video to refer to Romualdez.

His video gained over 2,700 views and 15 comments.

Two news websites — tabloid Abante Tonite and entertainment website LionhearTV — also published articles on ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal in 2024. 

Abante led with the headline “ABS-CBN prangkisa babalik ngayong 2024 (ABS-CBN franchise returning in 2024)” while LionhearTV opted for more speculative wording with the headline, “ABS-CBN Franchise may possibly be restored in 2024”.

Some Facebook and TikTok users also presented graphics showing ABS-CBN’s lower stock prices, implying that the drop was indicative of a franchise renewal by 2024. 

In the first week of January, several X users posted with the hashtag #YesToSMNIShutDown while voicing support for the return of ABS-CBN.  

This included X user @DemRepPinas, who posted, among other claims against the network, that SMNI was partly responsible for the denial of ABS-CBN’s franchise in 2020.

 

Screengrab taken Feb. 6, 2024, 11:23 p.m.

Fact check: These claims seemingly benefit ABS-CBN by igniting anticipation for their new franchise. But according to a copy of an internal memorandum shown to Philstar.com dated January 31 and signed by two ABS-CBN executives, the network has “no plans to apply for another broadcast franchise” this year.

“We want to make this clear. There are no plans to apply for another broadcast franchise. Moreover, there is no simple solution or quick fix that will miraculously result in a banner year for ABS-CBN,” the memorandum read.

In 2020, there was widespread and genuine clamor for ABS-CBN's franchise renewal after the House’s decision to deny them their franchise, with several groups even attempting to acquire it through people’s initiative.  

RELATED: List of lawmakers who voted for and against ABS-CBN franchise renewal  

— with reports by Rosette Adel and Ralph Villanueva

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This alert/analysis/series was produced with support from an Internews initiative aiming to build the capacity of news organizations to understand and monitor disinformation and influence operations in the Philippines.

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