Senate President Tito Sotto filed a bill seeking to renew ABS-CBN Corp's franchise, saying he wanted to save millions who watch free TV from "mediocrity" and anime that sometimes take the place of news programs.
Batangas Rep. Vilma Santos-Recto said she would file a similar measure in the House of Representatives, where in July last year, the chamber's franchise committee killed ABS-CBN's application for a fresh 25-year-license.
What happens next?
The law requires that franchise bills must originate from the House, thus Sotto's bill will likely be referred to the Senate Committee on Rules, said Sen. Grace Poe, who chairs the Committee on Public Services that has authority over franchise bills.
"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," she told reporters in a text message.
Last year, even before the House started hearings on the ill-fated franchise bill, Poe's committee held hearings on allegations of wrongdoing against ABS-CBN in preparation for the transmission of the measure from House, which of course, never happened.
What is different now?
There's a new leadership at the House, under Speaker Lord Allan Velasco, who replaced Taguig Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano. It was under Cayetano's watch that House members voted against the ABS-CBN franchise renewal though he repeatedly assued the network that it would be given a fair shake.
Under this context, Sotto said ABS-CBN could get a "better chance" at reclaiming its license. "I'm still in the process of getting a consensus in both Houses, but best to be on alert," he said.
Is there support in the Senate?
Poe said her "support for a free and fair media in the name of public service remains," adding, "I will make sure that the Committee acts on it in due course."
"We all know that ABS-CBN deserves the renewal of its franchise given the service it has rendered to the Filipino people," said Sen. Joel Villanueva, whose family owns free TV Channel 11 where ABS-CBN entertainment shows air for the time being.
Sen. Ralph Recto, Rep. Santos-Recto's husband, said: "Yes, I support it. I filed it the last time."
Sen. Sonny Angara said rules that require franchise bills to originate from the House must be observed. "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."
What has it been like without ABS-CBN?
When Super Typhoon Rolly (Goni) struck in early November, ABS-CBN trended on Twitter as the public noted the absence of its disaster coverage. The shutdown affected its regional network group, the largest in the country.
ABS-CBN has been off free TV since May when its last franchise expired. Even if the country was in the middle of a COVID-19 lockdown at that time, authorities refused to allow the network to continue airing provisionally while its franchise application was being heard.
"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," read the explanatory note on Sotto's bill.
The broadcast shutdown forced ABS-CBN to lay off some of its workers in the middle of the pandemic.
At present, ABS-CBN's only free TV challenge to longtime rival GMA Network are entertainment shows that air on A2Z, the rebranded Zoe TV Channel 11.
What are the chances?
For one journalism educator, the chances of ABS-CBN's franchise renewal are slim.
"I doubt if ABS-CBN's franchise will be granted under this administration," said University of the Philippines professor Danilo Arao.
Sotto's decision to file the bill, Arao said, begs a fundamental question: "Where was he when the lights went out, literally and figuratively?" The Senate President was among those who abstained from voting when the network appealed NTC's cease and desist order before them last year.
But in the event that Sotto's new bill is approved and enacted into law, Arao said it would be to the people's credit, not to him or other legislators.
"It would be a testament to the people's fight for our basic freedoms, including press freedom," he said.