By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
I loaned “Kapitan: Geny Lopez and the Making of ABS-CBN” from the company library for research. But only when I had to return it did I start reading the coffee-table book cover to cover. It took two days, one of which took an entire afternoon.
The book’s subject matter is daunting. It squeezes 55 years of Philippine television—not just ABS-CBN—into 450 pages. Eugenio Lopez, Jr., who did not start the network but steered it to dominance, actually figures in only less than three-fourths of its pages.
The late author Raul Rodrigo begins not with the birth of Lopez, but with the conception of Bolinao Electronics Corporation (ABS-CBN’s corporate predecessor) in 1946. Likewise, Rodrigo’s flash-forward mentions go way beyond Lopez’s death on June 29, 1999.
The influence of “Kapitan” (an honorific christened him by employees) nonetheless comes up in each turn of the page, especially in anecdotes that have grown part of company lore.
In marking 60 years of television in the Philippines and the 14th anniversary of Geny Lopez’s death, here are some notes on his personal philosophy and management style:
- He got the best and allowed the promising to excel. When he started rebuilding ABS-CBN after the first EDSA Revolt, Geny Lopez came knocking to his former employees who were now making waves in other TV networks. He once said: “To be able to be number one, you have to get the number-one people.”
The lesser-told story is that many of these TV prodigies had no TV training when they first joined ABS-CBN. They came in green, curious, and for many, just looking for jobs. Some like Freddie M. Garcia rose up quickly through the ranks by succeeding in things never attempted before. Post-EDSA, emerging producers were given leeway to birth what would become TV classics.
- He personally supported his employees, who zealously returned that with loyalty. There’s an added line to Geny Lopez’s earlier quote: “…and you have to pay the number-one wages.” The Kapitan’s generosity was legendary. Old-timers remember Christmas parties where employees would proddingly chant “Bonus! Bonus!” and be granted that without hesitation. Geny called kindness “something that you can never give away [since] it keeps on coming back.”
He visited the newsroom to check on major coverages. He would marshal resources when needed, whether it be sending a private jet to pick up a crew’s footage in Mindanao back before they acquired fly-away satellites, or getting Meralco cherry-picker trucks to prop up cameramen for exclusive top shots. In turn, the men and women of ABS-CBN News fearlessly braved coups and disasters and produced the most riveting stories.
- For him, news is the heart and soul of the TV network. In the 1950s, Geny Lopez experimented with a 24-hour radio news station called Radio Reloj. It failed. Only in the 1990s did his dream become reality with DZMM and the ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC). Geny dreamed of forming a credible and influential news team the likes of CBS in the US. Thus, many of ABS-CBN’s expansions first benefited its news gathering and broadcasting efforts–from developing regional news groups to having “TV Patrol” be the first Philippine program shown overseas. It realized Geny’s vision of “Bridges On Air.”
“You watch a network because of the Entertainment programs,” he said. “But you will remember it and respect it because of its News and Current Affairs programs… That’s how you learn to trust it.”
- No celebrity is greater than the network. It was a lesson Geny had to learn the hard way with the ‘60s noontime show “Student Canteen”. Hosts Bobby Ledesma, Leila Benitez, and Eddie Ilarde walked out of an episode after an ongoing dispute with the producers. Geny was torn between letting the offense slide and replacing the hosts of the top-rater.
His father, Don Eugenio, intervened. “How much money does a man have to make for a company so that it can make what is wrong right?” he said. New hosts were hired. Nearly 50 years later, Gabby Lopez would say about another noontime show host: “Stars come and go, but the institution stays.”
- Geny honored his word. Geny once promised a dying relative he would help the man’s son Roberto. Later, when Roberto wanted a TV station, Geny moved ABS-CBN Channels 3 and 9 to 2 and 4 so Roberto could get Channel 9’s slot and old studios. But after Martial Law, Roberto Benedicto’s Kanlaon Broadcasting forcibly took over the ABS-CBN Broadcast Center.
Geny Lopez returned to a run-down Broadcast Center. Still, he decided to renew payments with international creditors who lent to ABS-CBN but could not collect for nearly two decades.
Above building the hardware and personnel, Geny Lopez made sure his company had a purpose and an identity. It was ABS-CBN’s raison d’etre: “In the service of the Filipino”.
The lessons above reflect in ABS-CBN’s core values today: Meritocracy, Excellence, Teamwork, Teaching and Learning, Honesty and Integrity.
Geny Lopez also lived out simplicity. He wore ordinary clothes to work, prompting a new security guard to stop him at the gate. The story goes, Geny was impressed that the guard was quickly made a regular employee.
Of course, there are dim episodes. Putting out all the stops for Ferdinand Marcos’ presidential bid—like producing a biopic—would ultimately prove regretful for the Lopezes.
Companies draw strength from the tales of their pioneers. The lore of “Kapitan” tells ABS-CBN employees that many of the challenges they face today are not new. For the ordinary viewer, it is instructive to revisit the frontier days before cable and satellite and how determined men and women changed all that.
The ABS-CBN story is bigger than one man, and Geny Lopez would have preferred it that way.