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The Politics of "Wowowee"



From where I sit, I can tell you,
a President is always as strong as she wants to be.

GMA




One of the "perks" of being unemployed is the chance to watch local noontime variety shows. After I do my work from the time I get up from the haven of my bed until I tire out from the hell of my desk, I sit back, have lunch brought in my study, and turn to Wowowee and Eat Bulaga. I switch to and fro the two shows, which is a bit of a dilemma for me since they seem to have made it a point to simultaneously cut to commercial breaks, leaving to the poor viewer the all-important task of deciding between the two--when all he wants is to stay away from all decision-making problems that he has to confront the rest of the day. Anyhow, I manage to watch both shows in between trips to the microwave to reheat my food (I like it very, very hot) and refills of Diet Coke (the cure for the daily hangover).

Based on my "expert" observations from watching the two shows faithfully, I have come up with an idea that I have been honing and incubating for the past two weeks. But it only crystallized and came into a complete form yesterday when I focused my attention on Willie Revillame, the host of Wowowee, and on how he spoke, his facial expressions, his eyes, and how he related with the people around him. It suddenly dawned on me that Willie Revillame represented nothing else but an autocratic dictator. Let me describe why.

Willie is known to be a champion of the masses. He always has a spiel where he talks about how his show is all about helping the poor, how all the prizes in the contests are for the people, and how the sole thrust of the show is making everyone feel being part of a family--that they are kapamilya. If this is one big loving family, then Willie is the "Papi"--which is how the audience and co-hosts address him. As the figure of a loving father, Willie stands for generosity, goodness and a bearer of hope.

Everything revolves around this father. He carries a thick wad of cash in his hand, dispensing it to the audience--and even to the dancers--as he walks around the stage. He brands around money; he is money. And who among the hundreds present gets a dole-out is all upon his whim and arbitrary fancy: if you dance well enough to the tune of "Adoo-doo-doo," you receive five hundred; if you have make the audience laugh, a thousand; if you make the audience cry, much more.

And whatever decision he makes stands. He is judge and law. No one--from the co-hosts to the audience--can ever question him and how he gives out the money; how could they when they all stand and fall in his trail? Wowowee is Willie Revillame. In episodes where he does not show up, you could see how the co-hosts fumble their way through two unforgiving hours in an attempt to imitate the absent god. And they fail miserably. Because no one can replace the one in power much like a vice-president is pretty much a lame duck. Willie has the power to make the show run; he is absolute power.

But a dictator has to have his cohorts. Enter the beautiful co-hosts and the background of Muses dancing in bright, vivid and skimpy dresses. These are the distractions--and lovely ones at that--which try to displace the attention from Willie in an attempt to hide his power. One cannot but gaze at the co-hosts and the smiles permanently plastered on their faces. Everyday they step out of a fashion magazine, at times leaving some room for the imagination of men, or plainly making their curves show under a noonday sun. They are not there to sing nor dance--they lipsync the songs and have been doing the same steps over again. They are there to be seen and nothing else. I imagine how much they get paid to sing the same theme song everyday, to shout out the title of the show accompanied by some weird gesture of the hands, and to bear the side-comments of their "Papi."

Then there is the audience. Where they are asked to sit shows everything you need to know about how this country is divided cleanly but absolutely. The "TFC subscribers," supposedly those who are balikbayans, get ringside tickets. Carrying hastily prepared signs made from manila paper, they show in full view of the nation the places they have been to and where they are based: San Diego and Chicago, Tokyo and Hong Kong, London and Helsinki, a place the housewife cleaning at home has not heard of and a country's name misspelled. These are the lucky ones. They are those who have left this hell of a present in search for better lives and now, coming back to a country they must still love and where their children and families remain, they show you that everything is rosy. They even have hats or necklaces made out of dollar bills--which upon close inspection are a buck a piece. They give these ornaments to Willie, as an offering to the king, trusting that he knows how to divide such wealth, in a benevolent act of sheer generosity.

Meanwhile, at the the bleachers where the cameras are rarely able to reach, stand those who do not carry signs of other places but those bearing hopes of a better life. Old women who have come from the provinces with plastic bags containing all of their belongings. Children who have skipped school in order to show the moves they have practiced for days if, by chance, Willie selects them to dance to the pied piper's song. They confuse where to point when they sing "Shake it to the left, shake it to the right." But it does not matter; no one has to correct their sense of direction or lack of it. Because "Papi" is forgiving on these matters. Some--perhaps necessarily--get chosen as one of the "Bigaten" where one could say "Ako si. . . , bigatin ng Tondo" after the TFC subscriber--sometimes a foreigner unable to understand the question in Filipino--to his left says "Ako si. . . , bigatin ng San Francisco." Everyone, after all, deserves a chance in this show of the people--rich or poor, young or old, senile or autistic.

The contests where one names the song and sings it or the singer who sang it comprises the bulk of the show. The participants are pre-screened, towing a loved one (husband, wife, mother, etc.) along with them who then stand in line until their "number" comes up. The "categories" or "groups" that can join are announced the day before: they call on street sweepers, single mothers, children who have won awards in public schools, plumbers, jeepney drivers, etc. It takes no genius to figure out that those who join are those who aspire to win--or need--some money or help. Dressed in the their "costumes," the lucky few come up to the microphone, one by one, for a their chance to be up-close and personal with "Papi." After the necessary pleasantries are hastily done away with, the relative of the contestant comes forward and is asked to deliver what he or she wants to say to the now proud contestant.

Willie's usual question is: "Anong gusto mong sabihin sa iyong nanay?" (This always strikes me as absurd because don't they live together and speak to each other all the time? Why the need for a "worldwide" audience--as the show claims--to say what you want to say? But of course, shortly after, you see why.) Out of nowhere, tears well up in the eyes of the contestant upon hearing the endearing message of the loved one (e.g., "Sana manalo ka para makaahon tayo sa paghihirap"). He cries. And the now puzzled Willie asks the next logical question: "Bakit ka umiiyak?" This is the cue for the contestant to spill his heart out, to tell everybody about how his alcoholic father left them, how he wants to continue schooling but cannot afford it anymore or how the cancerous liver of his brother is slowly killing him. The contestant gets camera time as long as he can sustain making everybody feel sad--which is only possible by making everybody feel better off or luckier, in a word, happier. And I admit, I've cried a couple of times; but I do not know if it was because of the former or the latter reason.

Then after this poignant moment is done, the child wipes away the tears and dances to the song and manner of Billy Crawford--with a bandana under the now redundant baseball cap and with one leg of his jeans pulled up to his knees. Now all is well.

If there may be a deeper truth hidden in what the rich and intellectuals consider as a waste of their precious noonday time, it is that Wowowee stands as a reflection of our present society and all its dreams and problems. The television screen serves as a mirror against which we see ourselves and our country. What was supposed to be a noontime variety show offers nothing different from the story of child on the street, the plight of the homeless, the despair of my brother.

Wowowee, which was supposed to be a comedy, turns out to be a tragedy--as tragic as the Ultra tragedy.

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  2. Interesting take on Wowowee. My partner and I were on the 20 MAY episode and we had never experienced anything like it. Yes, there was a lot of hype but it was good fun in the end. As you say, we were placed in the Balikbayan seats (even though Neal had never been to the Philippines before) and there was an unusual amount of camera focus on that area. So much so that Neal became a Bigaten player for "Hep, Hep, Hooray." 1000 pesos was his prize but the experience at ABS-CBN Studios was priceless.

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