Net boosted by fanta-series such as 'Mulawin,' 'Darna'

MANILA — It’s a fantasy come true for GMA. After 15 years as the Philippines’ No. 2 net, it has overtaken dominant ABS-CBN in the ratings thanks to three blockbuster fantasy skeins.

Ironically, net’s done it by following lead of ABS-CBN, which last year bowed “Marina,” a drama series about mermaids and sea creatures.

That opened the door to a new genre and upped the ante in terms of quality and coin for local productions. Fanta-series cost in excess of 18 million pesos ($350,000) per hour, about 50% more than regular programming here.

GMA fought back with “Mulawin,” a better-written, better-produced and more expensive skein about bird people and their quest for truth, freedom and justice.

The show tapped into a zeitgeist — it broke primetime records with 49.9% viewership share in Mega Manila at high points of its run.

The 160-part “Mulawin” helped GMA overtake ABS-CBN in mid-2004 before it closed at Easter with another record-breaking 51% aud share for its last episode.

Eager to hang on to its lead, GMA followed with “Darna,” a homegrown superheroine who has enchanted generations of Filipinos in various film incarnations since Ace Comics’ artist Mars Ravelo created her in 1947.

With a budget said to be even bigger than “Mulawin’s,” although execs won’t disclose the amount, and a cast of vet thesps and young stars to appeal to every age group, Darna’s pilot episode on April 4 produced a rating of 47.1% — the highest for a pilot episode in local primetime. Later episodes pulled ratings of 52.1%, breaking records yet again.

All the skeins are produced inhouse and GMA’s special effects group and martial arts instructors have their hands full with Darna, a Pinoy wonder woman who flies across the skies in a red-gold suit, wearing a winged cap and knee-high boots.

If “Darna” was not enough to keep most viewers glued to GMA, the network has served up an even more spectacular, and what execs say is an even more expensive, production called “Encantadia.”

The fantasy world is peopled by fairies, warriors, a lovely queen and four beautiful princesses in sumptuous costumes, interacting with CGI and animatronics, used for the first time on local TV.

“Encantadia” was supposed to be a film entry to last year’s Metro Manila Film Festival but was reshaped as a soap opera instead.

“GMA ups the ante of how fanta-series should look, establishing a benchmark that might be hard to duplicate, if not surpass,” says a critic.

“Encantadia” airs back-to-back with “Darna” during primetime, creating a powerful hold on TV audiences for a full fantasy hour. The latest figures show GMA still leads competition, particularly in Mega Manila.

GMA will extend the block when it bows the martial arts-theme “Sugo” (Champion) in July. It stars “Mulawin” lead Richard Gutierrez in a double role as both the slayer and protector of a powerful evil magician, waiting to be resurrected from the dead.

“We just stopped thinking like No. 2 and started acting like No. 1,” says GMA prexy and CEO Felipe L. Gozon, explaining the web’s success.

“The GMA production team will always outdo themselves to come out with noteworthy scripts and quality productions,” says Wilma Galvante, GMA’s senior veep for entertainment.

It’s paid off. Profits at GMA, the second-largest Philippine TV and radio network operator, soared 62% to $7.4 million in the first quarter as higher ratings lured advertisers away from bigger rival ABS-CBN.

It now airs 17 of the Top 20 TV shows in the Manila area.

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