Discovering the birthplace of Philippine television

October 23, 1953 is a milestone event in the history of Philippine mass media, and of Philippine television in particular. This date is now being celebrated as the birth date, so to speak, of television in the Philippines.

The idea of television in the Philippines was something seriously thought about since after World War II as the country was trying to rebuild after the destruction it experienced. In fact it was the dream of an American engineer named James Lindenberg that the country would be the first in Asia to have the first television broadcast through the company he founded in June 13, 1946: the Bolinao Electronics Corporation. (BEC)

James Lindenberg (courtesy of Xiao Chua)

But lack of needed raw materials for this undertaking, not to mention the strict controls imports imposed during that time, made the realization of Lindenberg’s dream a difficult one. So Lindenberg decided to set up a radio station for the meantime, while Japan would become the first in Asia to do a television broadcast in 1950.

But all was not lost as Lindenberg found a “savior” of sorts in the person of Antonio “Tony” Quirino, a judge and brother of then Philippine President Elpidio Quirino. Judge Quirino shared Lindenberg’s dream for television in the country and had the finances and the connection needed to make that a reality. Quirino originally wanted to set up his own television network at first. But because of his difficulties in obtaining that license, (owing to his connection to the president) he turned his sights instead to Lindenberg’s BEC to make those television dreams a reality.

To set things in motion, Quirino bought majority shares of the BEC and renamed it as Alto Broadcasting System, (ABS) the name Alto coming from the names of Aleli and her husband, Judge Tony Quirino himself. He then made a way to have some television sets from the United States imported here to make way for a possible TV broadcast, thanks to some help from American electronics firm RCA.

Finally, the stage was set for the country’s first television broadcast; it was decided that it would be held at Judge Quirino’s residence called the Sitio Alto in the hilly part of San Juan town near Manila. A transmitter was set up right across Sitio Alto for the broadcast. The event: a garden party with Tony’s brother, with Pres. Quirino himself as guest of honor.

Philippine President Elpidio Quirino, who was facing reelection prospects in 1953, was enticed by the prospect of television as a way to gain votes. Unfortunately, he would lose to the popular Ramon Magsaysay (image from Corbis Media)

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the garden at Sitio Alto where the first Philippine TV broadcast was made

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ABS would soon be merged with another broadcaster which followed its footsteps in TV broadcasting; the result of which became the broadcasting giant we now know today as ABS-CBN.

Sitio Alto also still exists today in that quiet corner along P. Guevarra in San Juan’s Brgy. Sta. Lucia, quite unaffected with the bustling activity that is now going on a few meters near the corner of Wilson St. I don’t know if this is still owned by the family or heirs of Tony Quirino nor as to whether this place is being used as a venue for some occasions. It would be nice if it can used as a little museum dedicated to Philippine television.

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That being said, it is unfortunate that not much has been documented about this historic property. It’s not even documented in the many maps I consulted. More unfortunate is the fact that there is no marker set up in this place that would let the present and future generations know about the significance of this place. I think it deserves even a simple recognition for its contribution to Philippine television which has become part of our everyday lives.

Acknowledgements to Raul Rodrigo’s book “Kapitan: Geny Lopez and the making of ABS-CBN” for the history presented here and Ivan Henares of Ivan About Town for giving me the hint in finding Sitio Alto.

© The Urban Roamer

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