By Arjay L. Balinbin, Senior Reporter

FREE television companies GMA Network, Inc. and TV5 Network, Inc. are bullish about 2021 as they continue to benefit from the absence of ABS-CBN Corp.’s broadcast business.

“We became a beneficiary of that,” TV5 Chairman Manuel V. Pangilinan said at an online forum on Tuesday, referring to the non-renewal by the Philippine Congress of ABS-CBN’s broadcast franchise.

The forum, titled “Philippines in View,” was organized by the Asia Video Industry Association (AVIA).

TV5 used to be considered the “third” media network in the country, according to Mr. Pangilinan. “We are far number two to GMA 7 based on the latest [data], although I’m glad we are inching up,” he added.

For her part, GMA Network Chief Marketing Officer Lizelle G. Maralag said the media company, which saw its attributable net income in 2020 surge to P5.98 billion from P2.62 billion previously, is bullish about 2021.

“We’re bullish. It was very difficult last year, but since we are very resilient… we look at 2021 with optimism and hope, especially that the vaccines are coming in already so that will make protocols more relaxed in so far as producing content is concerned,” she said.

On the impact of the shutdown of ABS-CBN’s broadcast operations on GMA Network, she said: “All of the free-to-air channels have… benefited. When you look at the viewing levels of free-to-air stations, they remain stable.”

“But what was lost was the DTT (digital terrestrial television) part — the viewing part of the business — which is roughly around two percentage points, and therefore… we launched our own DTT device, both box and a plug-and-play device on mobile phones, and we’re seeing the recovery of that part of the business already since third quarter of last year,” she said.

Cignal and TV5 President and Chief Executive Officer Robert P. Galang said the Pangilinan group’s DTH (direct-to-home) satellite pay TV benefited from the shutdown of ABS-CBN group’s Sky Direct.

“There were more than a million subscribers who were disenfranchised with that shutdown. Cignal was the stronger alternative,” he said.

“Free to air for TV5 is also doing very well, and we are seeing that improvements in ratings, audience share, and revenue will continue throughout 2021,” he added.

Alexander Muller, TV5 Monde Asia-Pacific managing director, said the number of linear pay TV subscribers is expected to grow in the “next three to four years, as the middle-class population in the Philippines will be more and more numerous.”

“The great thing in the Philippines is that it is a great market in all forms: linear TV is growing, SVOD (subscription video on demand) is growing, AVOD (advertising-based video on demand) is growing, and mobile is growing. It’s really one of those great markets in Asia-Pacific,” he explained.

Mr. Galang noted that the free-to-air model is still the primary way for Filipinos to access entertainment and news.

“It will remain to be that way, as 95% of the population belong to C, D, and E markets. Most of the homes are really single TV homes, so TV is still the cheapest way to get entertainment content and information,” he said.

“The next stage is pay TV, just like what we have in Cignal. We’re seeing very good growth in our pay TV business, and that happened despite the pandemic. We are very confident and bullish that in the next five years, we will still continue to grow both businesses aggressively,” Mr. Galang added.

In his presentation, BusinessWorld Corp. Head of Research Leo Jaymar G. Uy said the Philippine TV culture has experienced disruptions in the recent years, with more Filipinos seen turning to the internet.

Pay TV market, he said, has also been challenged to thrive and remain relevant amid the disruptions brought by the pandemic, as well as the shutdown of ABS-CBN, Sky Direct, and ABS-CBN TVplus.

“TV viewership has also gone down on aggregate compared with pre-pandemic level, albeit it is showing signs of recovery a year after,” Mr. Uy noted.

Among the trends worth watching are the continuing presence of ABS-CBN on the digital space and through TV5 and Zoe Broadcasting Network’s A2Z, GMA’s recently launched digital channels, and moving of advertising spends to digital, he said.