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The Battle of Birmingham

The Birmingham news wars resemble the “Iron Bowl” rivalry between college football powers Alabama and Auburn: two hard-nosed competitors vying for ’Bama bragging rights. Fox-owned WBRC is the longtime news leader in the market. But, in the last two November sweeps, Allbritton’s ABC affiliate WBMA nabbed No. 1 rankings in the 10 p.m. news and also won early evening.

The market is particularly competitive because two stations—WBRC and NBC-owned WVTM—are O&Os, while WIAT and WBMA are owned by news-oriented companies. WVTM, third in news, added Dr. Phil to strengthen its early-evening lead-ins and is focusing on mornings. “We’re trying to get more into the community and be a little warmer,” says President Jim Powell. Last month, WVTM mimicked NBC’s Today show and threw a wedding for a local couple that aired on its morning news.

Media General’s CBS affiliate WIAT, No. 4 in news, is adding newscasts. In October, it started producing a 9 p.m. news for Sinclair’s WB affiliate WTTO. “It is an opportunity to give our front-line talent more exposure,” says General Manager Bill Ballard, who also plans to launch an early-morning newscast in 2007.

Broadcasters are jockeying in a growing market. “The news appetite is huge here,” says WBRC General Manager Dennis Leonard, who airs 46 hours of news per week. Stations grossed $111 million last year, up from $106.3 million in 2003, according to BIA Financial. Sinclair owns the one duopoly, with WTTO and UPN station WABM.

The region is attracting new retail and medical businesses, which are benefiting stations. This year, furniture store Rooms To Go entered the market and spurred increased TV-ad spending in the category. But growth has its downsides, too: Birmingham has the second-longest commuting times in the Southeast, behind Atlanta. The TV market, covering 15,000 square miles, is larger than the New York and Detroit markets combined.

WBMA made the Nov. 19 Iron Bowl a centerpiece of its marketing strategy during sweeps, giving away tickets in a “watch-and-win” contest. Rivals griped that such contests unfairly inflate ratings, but WBMA General Manager Mike Murphy says news ratings increased after the contest ended. The 5 p.m. news, for instance, averaged an 11.7 rating/20 share before the game and grew to a 13.3/22 after. The 6 and 10 p.m. news experienced similar bumps. “Our news is a very strong product,” he says. “The giveaway was part of a marketing plan and a way to reward people for watching.”

The Iron Bowl, which actually aired on WIAT, posted a stunning 40.5 rating/60 share—showing that, while Alabamans love news, they adore football.

Next: Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek, Mich.