March - June 2006
Unusual Journeys

Wowowee and the women
of 200 P. de la Cruz St.

TV networks benefit from the poverty and despair of their audience. But until the "Wowowee" tragedy, TV executives were oblivious to the perils of peddling dreams.

HER NEIGHBORS on 200 P. de la Cruz Street remember the 49-year-old Lolita Bergado as a fair, petite, and pretty housewife who loved to watch television. She lived in a one-bedroom house with her husband and their four sons, the oldest 30 and the youngest, 14. They also have a daughter, 19-year-old Marjorie-lue or Joy, who was born with Down’s syndrome. Two daughters-in-law and two grandchildren stay with them as well. Lolita cooked meals and kept house for them all — 11 members of an extended family that somehow managed to cram themselves into a dark and airless concrete shell barely 40 square meters in size.

ANATOMY OF TRAGEDY. Zenaida del Perio was wounded during the “Wowowee” stampede. She went to Ultra, encouraged by the winnings in the game show of her neighbor, Julieta Ferrer (standing, right, in the left photo). [photos courtesy of Malaya]

200 P. de la Cruz Street is the common postal address of an eskinita with a row of about a dozen wood and concrete houses in Barangay San Bartolome, Novaliches, in the northern fringe of Quezon City. The houses were built cheek by jowl, imposing on neighbors a forced intimacy. There are few secrets here, but plenty of neighborly sharing and concern, and the occasional neighborly envy and bickering. The households of 200 P. de la Cruz have one other thing in common: they are all hooked on Channel 2, the TV station run by network giant ABS-CBN. “Lahat dito kapamilya (All of us here are part of the ABS-CBN family),” they all say.

They are such big fans that 200 P. de la Cruz is perhaps the only eskinita in the entire country that can boast of having two winners in ABS’s popular noontime game show, “Wowowee.” Sixty-two-year-old Rosario Alorar or Aling Chi, who runs the sari-sari store right next to the Bergado home, won P20,000 in a “Pera o Bayong” contest last May, while Julieta Ferrer, 57, who lives across the alley, won a whopping P80,000 only last December.

Her neighbors’ good fortune was a constant source of wonderment for Lolita. They talked about it frequently in Aling Chi’s sari-sari store, where the women of the neighborhood would gather in the afternoon. Lolita was addicted to “Wowowee.” She never missed a show; when her household’s electricity connection was cut because they couldn’t pay their bills, she went over to her neighbors to watch it. “She watched TV every day,” says Zenaida del Perio of her friend Lolita. “She watched from morning till night. The TV was hardly ever turned off and it was always on Channel 2.”

Zenaida, 65, is a manicurist who is also yaya to the children of the couple who lives two houses from the Bergados. She is a big “Wowowee” fan herself. She happily said yes when Lolita asked her if she wanted to watch the show live at Ultra (also known as the Philsports Arena) in Pasig. Instead of its usual studio venue, “Wowowee” was going to have its first anniversary celebration there on Feb. 4, a Saturday. On the early morning of Friday, Feb. 3, Lolita and Zenaida left their eskinita for Ultra.

By Saturday night, some networks would report that about 74 people had died in a stampede earlier that morning outside the Ultra. The official Mar. 8 report of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), however, says there were 71 fatalities, and that they died mainly from severe head, chest, and abdominal injuries. People had literally been crushed and trampled to death. Of the dead, 68 were women, one of them pregnant. The youngest victim was only four years old; the oldest was 81. Over 800 others were injured.

The tragedy threw ABS-CBN into the maelstrom of controversy. On television, “Wowowee” host Willie Revillame shed tears. Both he and the network’s executives said they meant well, that they merely wanted to brighten the lives of the poor. Yet the death toll on that tragic Saturday also showed that they failed to fathom the depths of people’s despair. They didn’t realize that many of “Wowowee’s” viewers lead such brutish lives that they would cling — stubbornly, impervious to the well-being of others — to the most tenuous of hopes offered by games of chance. The network and the show benefited from their poverty and despair, as these meant a viewership that bolstered ratings and attracted advertising. They were apparently oblivious to the perils of peddling dreams.

Promises of prizes

Days before the first-anniversary show was scheduled, Revillame had already been announcing the prizes and inviting viewers to join what he promised would be a grand celebration. ABS-CBN itself hyped the show, airing ads that featured the prizes and made viewers feel that everyone and his mother-in-law were raring to go to Ultra. It even ran a video showing an aerial view of the crowd that had massed up at the stadium days before. ABS also had TV plugs that even some within the network are now uncomfortable about. One plug promised that the show would provide for day-to-day needs like food on the table. “For us it was a good sound bite,” says Menchie Silvestre, a social worker who was then with the outreach program of the network’s news and current affairs division. “But it was also a message that people can count on the show for their everyday needs.”

MISSING LOLITA. With his wife gone, Mang Peryo now has to take care of Joy (top photo). At night, he says, he talks to Lolita’s photograph (below), asking why, of all people, she had to die. [photos by Sheila S. Coronel]

“We wanted to show the audience gathering, how big it was, how many they were,” she adds. “But that sent a different message to the viewers who interpreted this as the entire neighborhood is there already, the ones from the provinces were there already, so what were we still doing here? The production people just wanted to entertain. But what did the audience want? They wanted a chance to better their lives. You ask them and they will say, we were hoping to win, not to be entertained.”

There was a mismatch between what the producers had intended and what the audience understood and wanted. Certainly that was the case with the women of 200 P. de la Cruz. Two other women from the eskinita, including sari-sari storeowner Aling Chi, had already joined the queue at the stadium as early as Thursday, Lolita told her husband Porfirio that Friday morning. There was the promise that early-comers would get P20,000 each as a prize, she said. She asked for P50 for bus fare from her husband, a big chunk of the P200 or so a day he makes as a tricycle driver. Mang Peryo gave her the money, knowing Lolita would be disappointed if she couldn’t go. He felt happy he could indulge his wife and nurture her hopes.

“Times are really hard and she wanted to help out,” he says, recalling how desperately Lolita wanted to win in a “Wowowee” contest. “We had not had electricity for five months. We owed P9,000 in taxes for the house, which we hadn’t paid in 10 years. I was also paying P1,000 a month for the loan for my tricycle. Our house needed repair — our roof leaks, the ceiling is falling apart. She thought that with ‘Wowowee,’ our luck would change.”

A mass of desperation

Thousands of others were apparently thinking the same way. By early morning of Feb. 4, says the NBI, the crowd outside the stadium had swelled to over 30,000. Many of those who had gathered there had been lining up for four or five days, lured like Lolita Bergado and her neighbors by the promise of a P1-million cash prize and giveaways that included two houses and lots, 15 passenger jeepneys, two taxicabs with franchises, and 20 tricycles. The NBI says the Ultra crowd was made up mostly of housewives and the unemployed, mainly from Metro Manila, but some from as far as Cavite, Laguna, and even Pangasinan. There were some out-of-school youths and children who had tagged along with their parents, but many were around the age of 50 or more, and female.

SENSELESS TRAGEDY. Relatives search for missing kin after the tragedy. [photo by Sheila S. Coronel]

The NBI report, based on the testimonies of ABS-CBN management and eyewitnesses, says that at about two a.m. of Feb. 4, the show’s organizers announced to the crowd outside the stadium that only 17,000 or a little over half of them would be allowed in. The organizers offered to raffle off 40 prizes of P5,000 each among those who would not be permitted inside, hoping this would cause the crowd to thin out. But it didn’t.

At around six a.m., when people began to be let into the stadium, the crowd was still swelling. When the organizers announced that they would give out tickets to those who would be allowed to enter and that the priority would be those at the head of the queue, the crowd started pushing and shoving. The NBI report says that even when the gates were shut, the mass surged forward, trampling hundreds of people underfoot.

Many in the crowd had waited so long to get in. “They ate and drank very little while they guarded their place in the queue,” says the NBI report. “They sat under the hot sun. Many of them arrived at the site with only enough money to get there and no money to get back to wherever they came from if they did not win any cash from the game show.” The crowd was so packed, the report adds, that those in the queue were not even able to move their hands to take a sip of water. “People were and been trampled over, still others walked over the corpses to inquire where the raffle tickets could be had.”

Women and Willie

The elderly women were the weakest and were therefore also the least able to defend themselves from the surging crowd. This was why most of those who died were females past the age of 50.

After the stampede, ABS-CBN formed the 71 Dreams Foundation to look after the families of the victims. Social worker Silvestre moved there and got to know the families better. Her interviews with the victims’ kin show that while some went there because they were Revillame or “Wowowee” fans, many had seen the show as a way out of hardship. One grandmother, says Silvestre, promised her grandchild that if she won, the child would be able to go to school. Another fatality, 60-year-old laundrywoman Nida Cruz, left behind a husband stricken with tuberculosis, six children, a daughter-in-law also sick with TB, and two grandchildren. All had been dependent on her earnings of P2,000 a month. Nida, according to Silvestre, had four adult sons, all jobless. They lived off their mother, who paid even for their mobile-phone loads. Even in her death, their mother provided for them. The 71 Dreams Foundation is now considering employment and livelihood assistance for Nida’s family.

Women hold the purse in Filipino homes and as various studies have shown, it is also the women who ensure that the money the household earns provides for the family’s needs. Women bear the psychological burden, they suffer the stress, of stretching and making do with meager family incomes even when, like Mang Peryo and his sons, it is the male members of the family who earn a living. When sons and fathers are unable to work, it is women like Nida Cruz who find ways to put food on the table.

WOMEN AS VICTIMS. (From left) Julieta Ferrer, Rosario Alorar, and Zenaida del Perio hang out at the neighborhood sari-sari store to swap stories. [photo by Sheila S. Coronel]

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of “Wowowee’s” audience is made up of women, who saw in Willie Revillame their own lovable rascal son or brother, the ne’er-do-well who nevertheless knew how to make them happy.

They laughed at his antics, his corny jokes, his occasionally cruel sense of humor. Revillame would cluster contestants — tricycle drivers, laundrywomen, fish vendors, etc. — and make fun of their looks, their jobs, even their poverty. He would tell an elderly fishmonger that she smelled of fish and everyone would love it, even the fishmonger herself. He pitted poor contestants against well-off balikbayan, who would generously give the wrong answers just so their poor compatriots back home would win. That way, he tapped into the goodwill of Pinoys overseas, many of whom also watched “Wowowee” on ABS-CBN’s overseas affiliate, TFC (The Filipino Channel).

No doubt, Willie Revillame’s language and sense of humor clicked with “Wowowee’s” target demographic: the poorest of the poor, those in the lowest rungs of the social ladder, the so-called D and E social strata who make up the bulk of the Filipino audience. According to AC Nielsen, which studies media markets, the D and E make up 73 percent of the TV audience.

Programming and masa marketing

It didn’t use to be so. Television was once a middle-class appliance, with mainly the English-speaking, more affluent sectors of society watching it. Television became a truly mass medium in the 1990s, with the availability of cheap TV sets, thanks to mass production and the flooding of the Philippine market by second-hand appliances. In the 1990s, it was estimated that 500,000 TV sets were being sold every year. The Bergados, for one, have a second-hand, 14-inch color TV, which they bought for P2,000 some years ago. All the homes in 200 P. de la Cruz have a TV set, which often occupies pride of place in the tiny living rooms of the neighborhood.

Today over 90 percent of all Filipino households have a TV, compared to only 30 percent two decades ago. As a result, television has also become the most efficient medium for selling products. TV now gets 75 percent of all advertising revenues, which were estimated by AC Nielsen at P113 billion last year. This makes television one of the most profitable businesses in the country today.

The emergence of a mass audience for television saw a radical shift in TV programming starting the late 1980s. The English-language shows and the canned U.S. programs were booted out. In their stead, the top networks introduced all-Tagalog programming, heavy on soaps and game shows intended for a mass audience.

Today the top advertisers on television are companies that produce goods intended for mass consumers. AC Nielsen says the biggest advertisers on free TV are telecommunication firms and shampoo and detergent manufacturers, which sell 80 percent of their products to the D and E market. It says that TV ad revenues are growing at about 20 to 30 percent every year, regardless of the state of the rest of the economy.

The channeling of so much money to television is a consequence partly of the emergence of more sophisticated technology to measure ratings, according to AC Nielsen. With ratings as their guide, advertisers can tell which programs can best sell their products — whether it is shampoo, corned beef, or cell-phone services. TV network executives therefore shape their programming so advertisers can sell their products more efficiently. The needs of advertisers to sell products and of TV networks to get the ratings so they could get the ads feed on each other. They are mutually reinforcing.

The result: programs like “Wowowee,” which are marketed relentlessly to an audience of mostly poor people. While celebrities like Willie Revillame entertain target audiences with the promise of big wins, the shampoo and detergent people get to sell their wares. The poor are a willing and captive audience of television. In fact, poor people watch free television more, if only because they have few other alternative distractions. In some poor households, the TV is on 16 or 18 hours a day. The better off have cable TV, DVDs, and cinemas. They visit malls, travel elsewhere during their vacations, eat out in restaurants, and look for nighttime entertainment in theaters and clubs. The poor watch TV all day and all night. Mang Peryo recalls that his wife would even skip lunch just so she could watch “Wowowee.”

For the longest time, GMA-7’s “Eat Bulaga,” was the top noontime show. In its drive for ratings, “Wowowee” ate into “Eat Bulaga’s” audience share by providing bigger prizes, easier games that anyone could win, and inviting into its studio audiences from the poorest of the poor. No qualifications were needed. The more pitiful a person looked, the more likely he or she would be accepted as a contestant. Revillame made fun of them, but he also asked them questions anyone with even the barest of schooling could answer, thus opening the floodgates to an audience of desperate, dead-ended people who looked to television for their salvation.

Willie Revillame had a cult following in poor neighborhoods like that of 200 P. de la Cruz. Many of the women here had lined up outside ABS-CBN for a chance to be on his show. They knew the drill: start queuing at six a.m., fill up the form, drop this in a box, and wait for the raffle. If you’re lucky, you get to be one of 40 allowed into the studio, with the possibility of ending up as one of the contestants for the day. Lolita had already tried her luck there. Aling Chi of the sari-sari store queued outside the station six times before her name was drawn. Aling Julieta across the alley lined up daily for a whole month, but then she won P80,000, which she used to buy a sofa set, a mattress, and a shelf on which her TV now has a place of honor.

To these women, Revillame was the noontime peddler of dreams, the messiah of the idiot box. Even now, despite a recommendation by the NBI that he and 15 other ABS-CBN officers and staff be charged for “reckless imprudence resulting in multiple homicide and multiple physical injuries,” the women of P. de la Cruz hold him blameless. “It’s not his fault or ‘Wowowee’s’ fault,” says Lolita’s friend Zenaida, who was herself wounded in the stampede. “We wanted to go there. No one forced us. We wanted to try our luck.”

Anatomy of misfortune

Lolita and Porfirio Bergado did not always lead such desperate lives. Neither did their neighbors in 200 P. de la Cruz. In the 1980s, Mang Peryo remembers, everyone here had jobs. There were several factories nearby and they provided the employment that allowed people to lead fairly decent lives. Mang Peryo himself was a foreman at the nearby Royal Porcelain Co. This was where he met Lolita, then just a teenager working in the finishing section, decorating and polishing plates. When they married in the mid-1970s, life was good. Both of them had jobs and they lived fairly comfortably, as did their neighbors in 200 P. de la Cruz.

TELEVISION RULES. No matter how small, every home in 200 P. de la Cruz (top photo) has a TV set. The children of the neighborhood (bottom photo) are reared on a diet of television programs. [photos by Sheila S. Coronel]

In 1985, Mang Peryo resigned from Royal Porcelain to try his luck as a forklift operator in Iraq. He borrowed money from his in-laws for the trip. He stayed in Iraq for a year and four months, but was cheated by his recruiter. For six months he didn’t get a salary, so he decided to return home. He came back with almost nothing — yet had to pay off a P20,000-loan. He worked as a forklift operator in a sardine company; the job was hard, his hours were from six a.m. to midnight, so he quit. In 1995, he borrowed P120,000 to buy a tricycle. He is still paying P1,000 a month for that loan up to now. Also in 1995, Lolita quit her job at Royal Porcelain, as the company was laying off people and hiring only casual workers. It finally went bankrupt in 2001, leaving 4,000 people jobless.

Today most of the men in 200 P. de la Cruz don’t have regular jobs. Mang Peryo estimates that in San Bartolome, once a thriving community of factory workers, 80 percent don’t have work. “Maraming istambay (there are many who just loiter around),” he says. “If only we can bring back the past. Times weren’t hard then. It was never this bad, it never came to the point that we couldn’t pay our electric bills. Now, you feel insecure. Kakaba-kaba ka (you are always worried).”

The malaise is evident everywhere in the community. At 10 a.m., men who should be at work gather round a bottle of Tanduay instead. Unemployed youths turn to shabu. The houses are rundown. The women look old and spent beyond their years, and constantly fret about the future of their children.

“Wowowee” winner Aling Chi, who sent two daughters to college from her sari-sari store earnings, worries that the one who studied to be a midwife is still jobless while the one who finished a computer course is just a saleslady. Both her sons dropped out of high school. One sells fruits in a kariton at the Tutuban market, while the other is unemployed and prefers to hang around with his barkada. If she could win big in “Wowowee” the next time around, she says, she would use the money to provide for her children’s future.

The eskinita’s other winner, Aling Julieta, has an 18-year-old son who spends most of the day lazing on the sofa his mother bought from her booty. She would have wanted him to go to college, but with a mother ill with cancer and a husband who earns just the minimum wage, there isn’t enough money left for the boy’s education. If only she could win again, says Aling Julieta, her son can make it to college.

Lolita’s last moments

Lolita did not seem discouraged by the fact that her neighbors’ lives did not really change even after their “Wowowee” windfalls. So long as her family had a chance at having even just a day of no worries, she was more than willing to have a shot at being a contestant, to join the throng at Ultra.

Aling Zenaida remembers that she and Lolita were already safely in the ring of the stadium by early morning of Saturday. “We were alright there, we weren’t crammed together, we could even sit down comfortably,” she says. “But when they announced that the others wouldn’t be let in, the crowd pushed forward. We were crammed tight. There was a man trying to pick Lolit’s bag, so I told her to move aside. But then the crowd pushed me to the side and Lolit was left alone in the middle of the mass of people. I don’t remember what happened, only being pushed, and when I gained consciousness, I was already in the hospital. I had wounds in my leg and on my shoulder. My glasses and my bag were lost.”

Mang Peryo heard the news about the Ultra stampede late that morning, but he didn’t think his wife would be among those hurt or killed. When she hadn’t come home by afternoon, he thought she may have just gotten lost. Pasig, after all, is a long way from Novaliches and Lolita rarely ventured that far.

At about six p.m, he and his neighbors saw Zenaida on TV, her face flashed along with the others hurt at the stadium. Mang Peryo thought Lolita was just keeping her friend company at the Pasig city hospital where Zenaida had been confined. So he went to search for her, borrowing a vehicle from Lolita’s more affluent cousins, who also live on P. de la Cruz. Their search ended at about 9:30 p.m at the Arlington Funeral Homes in Quezon City. They got there just as the TV screen in the funeraria was showing Lolita’s body along with those of many others who had perished in the stampede.

“We all screamed,” Mang Peryo remembers. “We went to the morgue at Arlington. There were so many corpses there, lined up like fish in the market. We looked at each one. When we finally found her, I wanted to take her in my arms and hug her, but the guard stopped me. The embalmer said all her ribs were broken, her lungs had collapsed. There was no way she could have survived after all those people had trampled on her.”

Mang Peryo claimed his wife’s body the following morning and held a wake for her at the empty lot next to their house. The wake lasted eight nights before Lolita was finally buried, with the food for the guests eating into the P50,000 that Mang Peryo had received from ABS-CBN, which also paid for the funeral expenses. “We wanted to make her feel how precious she was to us,” he says of the extended wake.

With his wife gone, Mang Peryo is at his wit’s end. Without Lolita to take care of Joy, who is mentally retarded, he has had to stay home for longer hours. He cannot venture out until one of his sons — three of them also tricycle drivers and the youngest still in school — is home. “I worry if she is left alone,” he says of Joy. “The drug addicts might harm her.” He is thinking of having her confined in an institution so he could work more.

As it is, he is finding it hard to make ends meet. The Bergado family of 10 consumes 1.5 kilos of rice every meal. That costs P26. Because gas is expensive, they sometimes just buy food instead of cooking — two viands at P40 each from the neighborhood carinderia. One meal alone could already eat up half of Mang Peryo’s daily earnings. For lunch the day this writer was visiting P. de la Cruz, Joy and her brothers shared one fried tilapia and leftover rice. “Sometimes, we make do with dried fish or egg or Lucky Me noodles,” says Mang Peryo. At least the electricity is back, he says, thanks to the donations at Lolita’s wake. He was also able to repair the gate of the house and the sewer. But he wants to save the rest of the money left over from the contributions for emergencies, in case one of the children gets sick or another calamity hits the household.

‘Wowowee’ reborn

In the past, Lolita and the rest of the women of 200 P. de la Cruz would probably have prayed novenas to Our Lady of Perpetual Help or St. Jude, Patron of the Impossible. They would probably have lit candles in Quiapo Church or walked on their knees in the church’s aisle, in the hope that the Black Nazarene would answer their prayers. Today they watch game shows. Lolita may have died trying to join “Wowowee,” but the women of this eskinita continue to latch their hopes on TV shows like it.

Even now, after the tragedy, network executives still seem not to see that the range of programming on primetime TV, which is watched by millions of poor Filipinos, does not suffice. The range of programs is very narrow, consisting of game shows, telenovelas, fantaseryes, gag shows, and reality programs. While some of these are very good and provide quality entertainment, it’s obvious that most are produced for no other reason than they will rate. There are almost no programs on prime time television that provide for values formation, education, information, much less empowerment. Television provides viewers escape without also providing them the tools to navigate a harsh and complex world.

When “Wowowee” was relaunched on March 11, new rules were put in place, including one that requires contestants to register by text first, so that hopefuls won’t queue for hours just to get into the studio. But 100 “walk-ins” will be allowed in during the show, although there are now separate queues for children and the elderly. “Steel stanchions with web harness shall be placed to help the audiences queue more properly,” say the new “Wowowee” guidelines. “The elderly and children are to queue nearest the Audience Waiting Shed while the General Audience should line up after the lagoon gate; everyone will receive a number to ensure order. There are prominently placed signs pointing to the queueing areas, portalets, and medic stations.” Winners of contests that give big prizes will also get a free training seminar on how to manage their money and venture into “a sustainable means of livelihood.”

But “Wowowee” itself remains pretty much the same, opening to noisy, upbeat music and a hyperkinetic Revillame introducing the studio audience and showing the range of places from which they came. Revillame is his usual irrepressible and irreverent self, no hint of the tragedy evident in the way he hosts the relaunched program.

“All of the victims are really bilib kay (believers in) Willie,” says Silvestre, the social worker with the 71 Dreams Foundation. “He’s such a powerful voice. A lot of them say it wasn’t Willie’s fault. They put him on a pedestal.”

But Willie’s help — and “Wowowee’s” generosity — are driven by pity. The prizes made people happy for a few days, but they had to face harsh reality soon enough, as Aling Chi and Aling Julieta eventually did. Instead of giving educational messages-like how the poor can avail themselves of public goods, how they can fight for services in the barangay, and how they can assert their rights-“Wowowee” only distracts and entertains them. The poor need information on a range of topics like livelihood, eating balanced meals on shoestring budgets, family planning, etc. yet there is precious little on free TV that educates and empowers them. Willie, with his cult following, could influence audience behavior on such things as the dangers of smoking or unprotected sex. He could provide them useful information such as that anti-TB drugs and family planning pamphlets should be given for free in barangay health centers, and that they can complain if these are not available.

After all, the reach, influence, and prestige of network TV dwarf even that of the government or of the public school system. Children may not be able to recite the “Panatang Makabayan,” but they can all sing the “Big Brother” song. Yet TV programming executives do not see that their task is to educate and empower the poor. For the most part, it is profit margins, ratings, and audience share they worry about. The audience that they have created also does not ask much more of them.

Fortunately for them, the poor are forgiving and undemanding. “I am not mad at ‘Wowowee’ or at Willie,” Mang Peryo says quietly. “None of us wanted this to happen. It’s fate. It’s God’s will.”

On a table near his wooden bed is a framed photograph of Lolita at age 17. She is smiling in the picture, looking so pretty and so full of promise. “Sometimes, I think I’m crazy,” says Mang Peryo. “I talk to her at night. I tell her, why you? So many others could have been killed. Why you? We need you.”