One of the Quiet Visionaries Behind GMA Network Innovations
BY RAGIE MAE TAÑO-ARELLANO
MEET THE INNOVATIVE THINKER WHO CHANGED THE FACE OF PHILIPPINE TELEVISION
Today, we live amidst the Asian and K-Drama Revolution. Korean dramas, or K-dramas, are a source of intense and widespread attraction for Filipino viewers. Their passion for these shows has grown to an unprecedented level; they are now more than just entertainment and are a vital part of Philippine popular culture, impacting many aspects of life. Unknown to many, a GMA executive was responsible for bringing K-dramas to the Philippines. First Vice President for Program Management of GMA Network, Inc. and Project Director of GMA Network Films, Inc. Joey Abacan is the driving force behind the K-dramas dubbed in Filipino that air in the Philippines.
The concept originated from the Chinese and Mexican dramas that were dubbed in Filipino and broadcast on various networks in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Abacan enjoyed watching Asian dramas dubbed in Filipino. One day, he saw a K-drama and was immediately enthralled, not just with the actors’ good looks but also with the storyline. His boss and programming consultant Annette Gozun approved when he suggested that they purchase K-dramas and have the shows dubbed in Filipino. The first drama they aired in 2003 gained popularity. Abacan claims that from that point on, he and his team would look for dramas, purchase them, and broadcast them on their network. “If you cannot actually produce a lot of them because it’s very expensive for the network to be producing, you have to be acquiring. That’s basically my main job. So I go out of the country and then do a lot of research.” He explains that he buys Asian dramas since they are cost-efficient and people enjoy watching them because they are not only new to the eyes of the Filipinos, but the stories are actually the ones that the people need. Abacan was also responsible for introducing Thai, Indian, and Turkish dramas to the Philippines.
Although Abacan acknowledges that these Asian dramas dubbed in English and in Filipino have had a negative impact on the local film and television industry, he believes that this should help everyone understand why Filipinos prefer to watch these kinds of dramas over local productions. “Maybe that’s where producing, creativity, and directing come in. So it should actually be an eye-opener for everybody, a challenge for us in the industry to improve whatever we have. Eventually, it is our dramas that will be bought by other foreign countries. That is my dream” He hopes that Filipino film and program producers and content providers will take Filipinos’ fanaticism over Asian dramas as a challenge for them to produce better programs and films so that it will be foreign countries that will in turn buy Filipino dramas to be dubbed in foreign languages. Abacan says this has been his dream. He is hopeful that this dream will be achieved before he retires from GMA.
FROM PRACTICUMER TO TOP EXECUTIVE
Abacan, who will soon retire from GMA, did not climb the corporate ladder so easily. He said that he started as a practicumer fetching coffee for people, including artists and directors. “Being the youngest, I’m the one who had to do the menial work. You can’t just hold on to idiot boards or run around with tapes like that. I also made coffee for other artists, and I was the one who also bought cigarettes for them. I’m not ashamed about how I started,” recalls the GMA executive. He is thankful for the experience because it made him go out of his comfort zone because, in the industry where he works, no one cares about someone’s family or educational background. “We don’t really care which school you came from or who your parents are. You are supposed to learn how to do it. You have to do whatever you have to do.”
Now that he is on top, some of the known artists and personalities in the TV industry whom he served coffee to when he was just starting with GMA would not believe his stories. He even told one of them that he remembered what kind of coffee he liked when the GMA VP was still fetching coffee for them.
Abacan said he is never ashamed to remind those whom he served coffee when he was just starting in GMA because he would look back at it with pride. “I do not want to be haughty about it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gotten to this certain position. Serving coffee is what brought me to my journey in GMA for 30 years.”
RISING ON FAITH
Abacan is convinced that it is not his personal qualities or accomplishments that have propelled him to the top, but rather God’s favor, as there are individuals who could be seen as being more deserving of the position he currently holds. He reveals that he leads a devout life and attributes his current position to a providential arrangement with God. “It is a good sign that you do the work with guidance. At all times, I engage in prayer prior to making decisions, even the most trivial ones, including what to wear.” He asserts that prayer is of the utmost importance, particularly when making decisions, in order to be guided away from making erroneous selections. Abacan holds the conviction that it is indeed God who placed him in his present position, and he has come to the realization that God has accomplished his goal. “Not even the devil in hell could take that away from me.”
Following his college graduation, Abacan became a program coordinator for GMA Telesine. As far as he was concerned, the position served as an excellent launching pad for his creativity. GMA Telesine was tasked with the weekly production of films intended for television. He distinctly remembers that, subsequent to his graduation with a degree in psychology, he possessed neither technical expertise nor formal education related to the position. He pushed on however, because he regarded the then vice president for programming, Lenny Parto, as having faith in him. Parto would have him read the script to determine its quality, and would also require him to select the story’s illustrators. “Subsequently, I eventually understood how to do it,” Abacan reveals. Throughout his nine years in the said position, he encountered other individuals who helped him improve his craft. The bottomline, however, is that he succeeded “through diligent preparation and practice.”
MENTORS AND MOTIVATION
Television show producers, according to Abacan, should still follow their hearts while creating content, even though they must stay up-to-date with the latest technological advancements. Producers, he says, should listen with their hearts and to the people. They should craft programs according to what the people need. But not sacrificing the moral values. Listening with a heart or being sensitive to the people’s needs is the principle to which the Kapuso Network adheres.
The above is something that Abacan also learned from his mentors. One of them is the late German “Kuya Germs” Moreno. The famous host and actor, whom he dearly calls “Tatay,” is the reason why others thought of Abacan as a talent manager. Kuya Germs would frequently visit Abacan’s office, and it was also where he would meet and hold meetings with artists. “Tatay would always tell me, ‘Joey, whenever people approach you for advice, you have to be very open to them and show how to guide them,' " Abacan shares. This must have been the reason why, despite Kuya Germs’s passing, several artists continued to visit Abacan’s office. They would go there to seek his advice.
Abacan is humbled by his encounters with big bosses in the industry and he considers it a blessing. It was Regal Films owner Lily “Mother Lily” Monteverde and “Boss” Vic Del Rosario of Viva Films who taught Joey the business side of entertainment and movies.
He may have grown up in GMA, but Abacan is honest enough to admit that he is a big fan of Charo Santos-Concio, an actress and former president of ABS-CBN. He has been reading articles about Charo. “She is beautiful, no nonsense. She knows her ways; she commands respect, although she is a woman. I think she has the heart and pulso (pulse) to make shows for ABS-CBN. Imagine, when I met her personally in one of the events, I was fanboying.”
Abacan disclosed that, he too was greatly affected when ABS-CBN stopped operating. He said that it would have been better if there were strong competition in the broadcast industry because it would challenge and encourage television networks to produce better programs and content, and there would be many choices for people to choose from. The competition will be beneficial not only to the television networks but to the audience as well. “And once you better yourself, you begin to compete not only nationally but eventually globally,” he asserts, adding that the competition will push television networks to produce better programs and content that will have global appeal.
PEOPLE LOVER INSTEAD OF PEOPLE PLEASER
Abacan believes that his open and honest nature is one of the reasons he has risen to the top. He admits that he dislikes sugarcoating things. He would deal with truthfulness toward artists, personnel, or others around him. He believes that honesty is crucial for survival in the entertainment industry because it is a world wanting in truthfulness. That is why he expects those around him to be truthful with him and tell him things straight to his face, since he is a person who can handle the truth. “If you cannot handle the truth, you don’t belong here,” he shares.
PLEASING PEOPLE IN ORDER TO BE POPULAR IS NOT ABACAN’S LEADERSHIP STYLE. HE BELIEVES IN TOUGH LOVE, AND THAT’S WHAT HE EMPLOYS FOR HIS STAFF, MAKING THEM UNDERSTAND THAT IN THE INDUSTRY IN WHICH THEY WORK, BEING TOUGH AND FIRM IS NECESSARY.
This may be one of the reasons why others have become averse to Abacan’s leadership style. He believes that being a leader does not guarantee that you will be liked by the people around you, especially since you need to do whatever task you must do. And this, for him, is the most difficult task that he must undertake as a leader. Pleasing people in order to be popular is not his leadership style. He believes in tough love, and that’s what he employs for his staff, making them understand that in the industry in which they work, being tough and firm is necessary. “So, once you love a person, it is also important that you tell them that this is the task that you have to do, because eventually, they’re going to benefit from it. If I spoil you, you won’t be able to go anywhere else. You’ll never grow.”
Abacan admits that climbing the corporate ladder was never easy for him. There are no hard-and-fast rules, and he needs to be on his toes all the time. God and his family are his sources of inspiration. He unwinds by watching TV shows and movies, for these are what inspired him to create new shows for GMA. However, he does not consider watching television drama series and movies to be work because doing so would exhaust him. It is a passion and a way of life that he enjoys. That’s why he is not stressed about work. “My work is part of my life. My life is basically my work,” he concludes.