By Felipe F. Salvosa II

ABS-CBN Corp. quietly disposed of a 49-percent stake in the provincial television network that aired its Sports+Action channel, as it girded for battle with President Rodrigo Duterte over the renewal of its congressional franchise.

Like ABS-CBN, the franchise of the provincial network, Amcara Broadcasting Network, Inc., which has 32 TV and two radio stations, will expire in 2020. The sale indicated that both networks would lobby for new franchises from Congress under separate ownership structures.

Documents submitted to corporate regulators showed that ABS-CBN sold the Amcara stake on Jan. 24, 2019 to one of the majority shareholders, Rodrigo V. Carandang. The book value of the sale was P40.6 million.

ABS-CBN has also stopped paying blocktime fees to Amcara, based on its third-quarter 2019 financial report. ABS-CBN paid P36.5 million to Amcara in 2018, P27.6 million in 2017 and nearly P35 million in 2016, financial disclosures showed.

Amcara, which broadcasts the clearer ultra high frequency (UHF) television signals (as opposed to very high frequency or VHF), had aired ABS-CBN Sports+Action through 23 stations: Cebu, Davao, Dagupan, Naga, Batangas, Laoag, Bacolod, Zamboanga, General Santos, Cagayan de Oro, Dumaguete, Botolan, Isabela, Koronadal, Olongapo, Iligan, Palawan, Roxas, Baler, Camarines Norte, Kalibo, Dipolog and Lucena. It had also aired ABS-CBN content in Iloilo through a VHF station.

The corporation is 51-percent owned by the heirs of Arcadio M. Carandang, one of the pioneers of Philippine television who had worked for ABS-CBN since the time of its original owners, James Lindenberg and Judge Antonio Quirino. Rodrigo Carandang now owns 49 percent.

As a result of the sale, ABS-CBN officials, led by Eugenio “Gabby” Lopez III and veteran network executive Federico Garcia, stepped down as president and managing director, respectively. Rodrigo Carandang became chairman and Jose Antonio Veloso, a former vice president at GMA Network, Inc., was named president, documents showed.

Amcara was formed on April 11, 1994 and secured a 25-year franchise, under Republic Act (RA) 8135, the following year. President Fidel Ramos did not sign the franchise but allowed it to lapse into law. It will expire in July 2020.

The representative of the lone district of Camiguin, Xavier Jesus Romualdo, filed House Bill 3279 on July 31, 2019 to renew Amcara’s franchise, arguing that it was a “pioneer in the digital broadcast service” and had made “appropriate use of its franchise, complied with the provisions thereof, invested significantly in its stations and equipment, and intends to continue and expand its operations[.]”

Ten lawmakers, including Batangas Rep. Vilma Santos-Recto, a former movie and television star, have filed separate bills to renew the franchise of ABS-CBN, RA 7966, which expires in March 2020.

Sought for comment, a spokesman for ABS-CBN declined, saying he did not have details of the Amcara sale. An official of Amcara has yet to respond to a request for an interview as of posting time.

On Monday, President Rodrigo Duterte, who had vowed to block the ABS-CBN franchise, told its owners to just sell the TV network.

Duterte regularly lashes out as ABS-CBN, calling it the mouthpiece of oligarchs and his political opponents, and has a lingering dispute with the Lopez-led network over its refusal to air his 2016 election advertisement responding to an attack ad sponsored by his arch-critic, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV.

“Your contract is about to expire. You will try to renew it but I don’t know what will happen to that,” the president said on Dec. 30 in M’lang, North Cotabato, where he visited earthquake victims.

“Kung ako sa inyo ipagbili niyo na ‘yan. Kasi ang mga Filipino ngayon lang makaganti sa inyong kalokohan (If I were you, I would sell it. It’s only now that Filipinos would be able to get back at you for your wrongdoings). And I will make sure that you will remember this episode of our times forever,” he added. (