Market Eye: Alabama Shakes It Up

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While some 700 miles separate Oklahoma City and Birmingham, residents of Alabama’s largest city were deeply shaken when lethal tornadoes ripped through the heartland last month. It was two years ago that the socalled Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado leveled the region, killing dozens and leaving billions of dollars in damage. “It was almost like we were reliving it,” says Michael Murphy, president and general manager at Birmingham’s WBMA.

Birmingham TV stations sprang into action. WBRC, for one, had a bottled water drive, urging viewers to load up an 18-wheeler with water that would be driven to Oklahoma City. A day after announcing “H20 4 OKC,” WBRC had to ask people to hold off on dropping off water when a second truck was filled to the ceiling. “Even though that was Oklahoma City, people here care deeply because of the losses they had,” says Lou Kirchen, WBRC VP and general manager.

It is acts such as the water drive that keep WBRC entrenched as the favorite in DMA No. 42. The rare Fox affiliate to be a market leader, WBRC enjoys having Raycom siblings in neighboring markets including Huntsville and Montgomery. “They’re able to do some unique things,” says Murphy of the rival station. “They’re a very strong competitor in the market.”

Bankrupt in Birmingham

The local economy is soft. The Birmingham- Anniston-Tuscaloosa DMA dropped three spots in the Nielsen rankings this year, the biggest dip of any Top 100 market. Furthermore, it is only No. 47 in terms of revenue, according to BIA/Kelsey. Some speak of a “hangover” related to the tornadoes; Jefferson County, which Birmingham is part of, declared bankruptcy in 2011, though it may exit soon. “The market is off a little, but nothing we feel we can’t make up by the end of the year,” says William Ballard, WIAT VP/GM.

The 125-year-old Birmingham News ceased printing daily last fall, laying off staffers and shifting to printing three days a week. Local TV leaders say the move has put ad revenue in play. “It’s an opportunity to steal money from the newspaper,” says Ballard. “We’ve had success often at their expense.”

LIN Media acquired WIAT, a CBS affiliate, in its pickup last year of New Vision Television. Ballard says the station is enjoying the perks of a larger owner. Media General, which this month announced merger plans with Young Broadcasting, owns NBC affiliate WVTM. Allbritton has ABC affiliate WBMA, and a second ABC in Tuscaloosa, WCFT. Sinclair owns CW-MyNetworkTV duopoly WTTO-WABM. Charter and Bright House are the main subscription TV operators.

Allbritton has put its station group on the block. Insiders say Nexstar, among other groups, has paid a visit to Birmingham.

Fox Rox

WBRC was Birmingham’s ABC affiliate until 1996. Kirchen says its signal covered the vast DMA back in its analog days, key to establishing a legacy for the station. “People got used to watching us,” she says.

WBRC won all the major news races in the May sweeps, while WBMA grabbed primetime and was a strong second in news. WBRC took 10 p.m. with a 7.7 household rating/12 share, just ahead of WBMA’s 7.6/11. Airing 49½ hours of news a week, WBRC has expanded its bureau in Tuscaloosa. It also recently rebuilt its newsroom, knocking down a walled “rabbit warren,” says Kirchen, to foster better communication.

WBMA has what Murphy calls “a highenergy, fast-paced” afternoon news in Focus at 4, with Pam Huff anchoring and a batch of multimedia journalists supplementing. WVTM uses “Accuracy Matters” as its slogan.

The economy may be ailing, but station general managers say there’s a lot to love about Birmingham, including the climate, the restaurants and the warm people. “You ask anyone why they love Birmingham,” says Murphy, “and they all say, ‘I just do.’”

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Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.