Noob Tube: A Newbie’s Journey through Local Television

Shinji Manlangit

mikoreverza

Shinji Manlangit had abandoned local TV for the internet. And then he started writing for a local late night talk show

In the aftermath of last year’s storm that almost flooded my room, I lost the stand of my teeny LED monitor. Since MacGyver taught me ingenuity, my TV is currently sandwiched between two ancient encyclopedia volumes. I rarely open my TV and rarely does it open up to me. The only time I do open it is during sexless Saturday nights for German “Kuya Germs” Moreno’s Master Showman: Walang Tulugan—a two-hour late night variety show encased in a perpetual 90s carbonite casing.

The internet owns me—a member of Generation Y, the first generation to grow up online. The TV exists, but my computer is the only real thing, and file-sharing applications are akin to God’s manna. Nowadays, I dictate my own TV-watching schedule. I don’t wait a week after the original telecast and not a single subliminal advertising gimmick passes through my eyes—everything is just Claire Danes and the infinite terrorist threats that constantly endanger America.

With the instant gratification of the internet, kids my age (technically adults) no longer find the need to press their remotes because a click of a mouse is all it takes. I am, however, just one part of a much larger demographic, one that still thrives on teledramas, talk shows, and the news. To me, local television is a dormant beast rendered immobile by tradition, repetition, and showbiz asphyxiation.

A Confession: I Work for Television

To be honest, I stopped watching television when I started working for it. I didn’t plan to work for TV, but the job fell on my lap. At a time when the only viable career choices available were becoming a call center agent or an English instructor for Koreans, I took the dumb route and worked for the largest network in the country for a staggering 10,000 pesos a month. Minus tax.

And health insurance.

The job was simple: make commercials for the network’s shows. It wasn’t Mad Men; concepts were neither highbrow nor sensible. I curated concert highlights, announcements, odd contests for obscure K-pop acts, celebrity greetings, and sad promos where I made boring people seem more interesting than they were. I did nothing to revolutionize television and even got censored for making a young actor suck a lollipop—an act deemed “suggestive” because the actor was plagued by gay rumors.

I eventually got bored with celebrities and decided to venture into the mundane world of BPOs. After a few months of normalcy, I was offered to write for a weekly supplement of a local publication where I now (sometimes) skewer celebrities and make fun of their popularity. I guess sarcasm goes a long way because I eventually ended up writing for a 15-minute late night talk show.

Remember when I said that working for television just fell on my lap? It fell hard and strong. It’s not that I hate it. I spent 13 internet-less years before I first heard the cringe-inducing sound of a modem connecting to ISP Bonanza. Before that, it was all TV. I remember feeling Mara’s pain whenever Clara went Bad Girls Club on her. My ideal friends were made to resemble the hodgepodge of characters from T.G.I.S., Gimik, G-mik, and C.L.I.C.K. It still baffles me why Selina died in Mula Sa Puso: The Movie, but continued to wreak havoc in her television incarnation.  As I grew up, local television slowly drifted away from my life and I eventually tradedPangako Sa ‘Yo for Game of Thrones.

Like celebrities who refuse to see their movies, I avoid local TV. It’s also because I have access to pretty much anything thanks to the internet. Like the Suez Canal, which opened up numerous trading routes for the West, the internet gave us The OC, Veronica Mars, Lost, and Battlestar Gallactica.

Television in the US is in a golden age, churning out the greatest shows by continually pushing the limits of the medium. Or sometimes they just feature a lot of sex. HBO is rife with shows with the 3 Bs: boobs, buns, and bush. And yet Philippine TV has its own charms. For example, Anne Curtis has been facing scrutiny over the immodesty of her birthday gown. Three years ago, her nipples made their public debut due to a wardrobe malfunction in Boracay. Yes, we’ve seen her nipples before, so maybe a sexy slit on her dress can pass off as a little less controversial.

The Rhythms of Pinoy TV

Local television is made to fit the rhythms of Pinoy life, which is why you get similar programming patterns. Morning shows are genetically modified to cause chaos in the morning and pander to sleepy students anxiously waiting for a class suspension and their frenzied moms. The mid-morning is reserved for syndicated cartoons and anime reruns. In the 90s, this slot was dominated by local educational shows that promoted creativity, science-based learning, and English speaking—now, kids are getting tagalized trash.

By noon, people are too fixated on their lunch breaks to care. Which is why noontime shows exist. Easily digestible entertainment pairs well with piping hot sinigang. Afternoon is siesta time; it’s also the time when moms and yayas get their “me” time before the kids come back from school. It’s the time for afternoon soaps or films on TV.

Primetime kicks off with the news, because we need grim news about massacres and scandals with dinner like adobo needs toyo. The real primetime is dominated by 30-minute teleseryes. Stories can range from intense sibling rivalry caused by being exchanged at birth to fantasy tales about mermaids and demons. Anyone who says Filipino television isn’t creative should take a fucking look at ABS-CBN’s Kokey. Or Kampanerang Kuba, which allowed Anne Curtis to become a media darling by playing a hunchback. Or Mulawin, with its cutting-edge green screen technology.

After the local and foreign dramas, the night winds down with a news and public affairs program or the occasional comedy—vestiges of 90s sitcoms that poked fun at the lives of the masa. Trends arrive in waves and fade away quickly, until they wash up in the shores of basic cable replay channels.

The Emancipation of TV

Local television is based on centralized power. Programs are controlled by big networks, and we’re all expected to keep our eyes glued to our screens.

In an ideal Philippines, media should be used to emancipate the masses. The audience should choose what they want to see. Instead of dumbing things down, producers should assume that their viewers are transmitters of messages rather than mere receivers.

So why is local TV the way it is? It’s because of what the masa have been made to expect. Chismis and showbiz glamor keep people glued to the tube. And since there is a lack of public cable programming (even if a huge chunk of the middle class has access to cable), the alternative is watching foreign shows.

My millennial peers often complain that local television doesn’t appeal to them. They dub my job  “shitty,” “unintentionally hilarious,” or “borderline camp.” But we are not the masa, and our interests and tastes can’t dictate cultural norms.

Still, I think it’s valid to call for smarter TV writing. I’m fairly new to the game, but I try my best. When people like Lena Dunham or Louis CK are noticed for being different voices, I get excited and think about the possibilities for local television. There are ways to circumvent the pitfalls of repetition by turning to our own culture. Instead of remaking teleseryes, we can create new series based on our literature. An HBO-like adaptation of Noli Me Tangere that airs once a week would be a towering achievement. Or why not remake Abangan ang Susunod na Kabanata by turning it into a multi-camera family mockumentary a la Arrested Development? There are ways to give the masa smart programming without taking them out of their comfort zones.

Pitch Imperfect

Breaking into TV is nerve-wracking. The ratings game dictates much of my contract—not that I signed one. But our team is rife with ideas even if the need to appeal to an audience drives us up the wall. I heard we were picked up for a second season, which means there is more work to be done—more work than researching about #ArtistaTweets.

A friend of mine who was tired of making art films for the foreign market wants to transition into TV. A network executive is asking him to pitch a few ideas for their new line of programming. While sitting in a bar, I asked him what kind of show he had in mind. The words “mainstream” and “masa” were tossed around, which shocked me since my friend is an international festival darling. Over a few beers, we talked about crafting a show that would appeal to the public, while maintaining artistic integrity. As we spoke, we were interrupted by a text from a friend in London asking me to write him in as a character in our show.

In a way, his sentiment echoes what most Filipinos want: to see a reflection of themselves represented for them. At a time when facts are only delivered through news and public affairs programs, perhaps creating a niche of Pinoy content that is neither fantastical nor overtly dramatic can create small waves in television. But that may be wishful thinking. If all else fails, there’s always Master Showman.