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Batibot coming back with a bang

MANILA, Philippines - When news spread TV5 had acquired rights to Batibot, that much-loved children’s show of the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was much rejoicing among parents. The big reason for this was that Batibot babies of that era whose eyes were glued to TV sets daily, are the Batibot parents of today, currently at a loss at what shows to make their kids watch.

There has been an extreme decrease in television programming for children brought about by the over-all loss of revenue in television advertising. It is a sorry situation that children’s shows have to be the first to go. Which is why the commitment of TV5 to a year’s contract to air Batibot is admirable.

The best thing about the project is that they chose to do it with Feny Bautista, producer of Batibot until it went off the air in 1998, and driving spirit together with writer, the late Rene Villanueva. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to claim that Batibot was the iconic Filipino children’s show that took off from Sesame Street and in the end surpassed it.

Meeting Teacher Feny for the first time is like meeting a guru, or more appropriately a guro of children. She was Teacher Feny to everyone, young and old alike. In 30 minutes she gave us the entire history of Batibot from its birth to its death non-stop. The passion in her is amazing. No wonder the Americans who met her wouldn’t let her go.

Batibot had its birth in the country as a Philippine Sesame Street project when the Philippine government through the Cultural Center accepted an international co-production deal with the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW). The Philippines was the 13th of such arrangements in the world then.

Feny was teaching family life and child development at the University of the Philippines (UP) and working with Children Communications Center (CCC) which produced Aklat Adarna. CTW was sending a two-week exploratory mission to the Philippines and CCP asked CCC to set up everything needed for the visit. At the end of the mission, the American experts asked Teacher Feny to be research and curriculum director of the project. Although she was teaching, was chair of her department, and working with consultancy, Feny accepted.

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At this time Sesame Street had already been running about 20 years in the Philippines. When Feny left the UP, she also put up her school, the Community of Learners, a small 700 strong pre-school to high school institution which exists to this day. While in New York for training with CTW, she met Lyka Benitez Brown who agreed to uproot herself and her family to become her production counterpart for the new show. They worked on the Filipino version simply called Sesame! which was bi-lingual, adapted appropriate segments from the US Sesame, and in answer to the contract requirement to “create two muppets to replace Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch” who were exclusive to the US version, created Pong Pagong and Kiko Matsing.

At hindsight, Teacher Feny says, “I always say Sesame! was created by many… very committed to the Filipino identity. One of the signature segments not in the US version was storytelling, and that’s where they created Kuya Bodjie as storyteller. They used illustrations those in the international level called ‘ingenious... cheap,’ each an original art work, six to 10 for every story. Accents like Ilonggo and kapampangan which gave character and definition to the show were retained,” Teacher Feny continues.

Then in 1983, barely a year and a half after Sesame! went on the air, lack of finances on the part of government which was shelling out half the budget on a 50/50 arrangement with CTW, caused its closure.

“Even then in 1984, we realized it was the end of the road, it’s too expensive. The country is in political and economic crisis. It is unthinkable to continue so I remember we were sitting among ourselves looking at each other asking, “Tuloy kaya natin tayo tayo lang?” Feny reminisces.

It was foolhardy, in the midst of disarray, when Ninoy Aquino was murdered, when parents were migrating in hordes with their children in search of a better life, and civil strife starting to rear its head, Batibot under Philippine Children’s Television Foundation (PCTVF) was born and those who chose to stay behind are the better for it.

Batibot meaning small but robust lived up to its name. Children embraced the all-Tagalog 30-minute morning show Monday through Friday, fought over who was the better human or muppet — Manang Bola, Kapitan Basa, Irma Daldal, Kuya Bodjie, Ate Joji, Ate Sienna, Ningning and Gingging, Sitsiritsit and Alibangbang, Ate Isay, Kuya Mario, Koko Kwik-Kwak, Pong Pagong, Kiko Matsing — and in the process imbibed the lessons that the show had so expertly integrated in its storytelling.

Teacher Feny remembers how everything fell into place. The Americans they had befriended agreed to let them use Pong and Kiko which legally belonged to CTW. Advertising came back like Jollibee, PLDT, and San Miguel. Children found themselves a voice. It didn’t seem to matter that the show was being bounced around Channels 9, 4, 2 and 7, the children were still there. At PTV4, there were only two shows being watched — the PBA and Batibot. And when some important message had to be imparted, Batibot was there. Kuya Bodjie (Pascua) who was never really able to shake off his Batibot tag recalls being called by friends from PETA to rush to an improvised set amidst chaotic conditions during EDSA I to tell a story live on Batibot that would help kids understand what was going on. Through illustrations, Feny says, they created a story about the giant being sent away by People Power. Today’s generation of young adults was being primed to appreciate the wonders of bayanihan, of working together peacefully for a better life.

Meantime, Batibot was winning accolades everywhere in the country and abroad from 1985 to 1992 including what is known as the Oscars of Television based in Munich, Germany — the Prix Jeunesse which Batibot got in 1990 and 2002. Teacher Feny would encounter CTW bigwigs in competitions where Batibot would even win the Prix Jeunesse ahead of Sesame Street. These past incidents may not have had any bearing on succeeding events but in 1994 Feny was sent a demand notice by CTW new management to return Pong and Kiko.

A few years before, upon hearing intimations of such plans Batibot successfully launched a PR campaign for Ten Million Signatures for Pong to be allowed to stay in Batibot. The signatures clearly showed CTW how unpopular their plan would be. But this time, they appeared unflappable. Teacher Feny decided to buy time and discussed terms of licensing. For two thousand dollars, the muppets stayed with Batibot another three to four years. Other problems surfaced when the three-year contract with ABS was to expire with no talk of renewal. Feny, apparently now toughened by maneuverings in the business approached GMA 7 and got its head Menardo Jimenez to say yes. Batibot opened on GMA the day after it ended on ABS and stayed a glorious eight years. But again, relates Teacher Feny, with the new management the thrust was ratings and business until Community of Learners was already subsidizing production, and that took Batibot off the air in 1998.

Still Batibot continued in the mall shows and special events, wherever and whenever the event involved children. And most importantly, it remained in the memories of those Batibot kids of long ago, those fans who to this day upload segments on YouTube that continue to inspire the new generation.

What does the future now hold with TV5? Teacher Feny is hopeful. The Batibot package airing in June for three guaranteed seasons is a combination of the old and the new in a full 30 minutes on weekends, short segments throughout the week daily, the storytelling, a new community of muppets and humans meeting the old, the new technology coming into use in animated portions, and the live events that will be integrated in the package.

She finds TV5 the perfect partner being a large multi-media complex with the clout and will to utilize all its connections to prop up an under-utilized audience. “Batibot offers both the earning potential and the social redeeming value already proven in the past,” she states.

Of course there will be a lot of changes. Batibot utilized the talents of Bodjie Pascua, Sienna Olaso, Adriana Agcaoili, Isay Alvarez, Junix Inocian, Dwight Gaston, Eugene Domingo, Soliman Cruz in human roles, and Louie Ocampo, Mel Villena, Kontra-Gapi, Alamid for music, Kokoy Jimenez as director, all of whom have realized their potentials and are today recognized and respected artists. Kokoy Jimenez could rejoin the production; there will be new humans cast; a teaming up with the young indie filmmakers; more dreams and ambitions.

Once again Teacher Feny’s eyes light up as she envisions “Batibot on the community outreach bandwagon, reaching the curriculum of daycare centers, perhaps even a mobile Batibot na dadalaw sa mga liblib at congested na urban communities.”

 Batibot had always been an on-the-air educational tool addressing all aspects of early childhood growth and development. It imparted moral, emotional, socio-cultural, and intellectual values in an atmosphere of play. In a new environment on television, it can continue to do so to the heights that imagination will bring it.

(E-mail me at bibsycarballo@yahoo.com.)

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