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Sweet Home Alabama

While most markets can say American Idol is a big draw for its viewers, Birmingham, Ala., has a special connection to the Fox smash. After all, winners Taylor Hicks (2006) and Ruben Studdard (2003) are from the market, as is 2005 runner-up Bo Bice. Idol posted a Birmingham-best 34.8 rating/44 share in February, and Fox affiliate WBRC frequently partners with the homegrown Idol talent for public appearances. “We've turned it into a community effort,” says WBRC VP/General Manager Dennis Leonard. “They're great citizens, and they give back to Birmingham.”

Like Hicks in a local karaoke contest, WBRC is head and shoulders above the competition in Birmingham. The Fox O&O won total day, primetime, and morning, evening and late news in February. The stations are waiting for the May numbers, and Leonard sees no reason to think the trend will shift. The key, he says, is public outreach. “We're very true to our community, whether we're cleaning, painting or helping area youth find jobs,” he says. “Our success is a result of the community responding to us.”

Indeed, nice flies in Birmingham. “[Residents] are outstanding people—friendly, everybody wants to help,” says WBMA VP/General Manager Mike Murphy. “At every corner, someone's looking to do a fundraiser for someone.”

The generosity isn't necessarily shared by marketers. While it's the No. 40 Nielsen market, Birmingham ranks 45th in revenue. Segments like healthcare and banking are making up for lost manufacturing jobs in the old steel town. The market brought in $116.2 million in 2006, according to BIA Financial, which forecasts a slide to $113.8 million this year. WBRC led comfortably with $38.5 million in 2006, ahead of Allbritton's ABC affiliate, WBMA ($23.9 million); Media General's NBC affiliate, WVTM ($21 million); and New Vision's WIAT ($13.9 million). Sinclair owns the CW and MyNetworkTV outlets.

Station sales have been common of late in the DMA. Last year, Media General bought WVTM from NBC, and New Vision bought WIAT from Media General. News Corp. recently announced that it's selling WBRC, along with eight other stations, to focus on the markets in which it has multiple stations—and perhaps free up cash for the Wall Street Journal.

The stations are hoping that WBRC's undecided future chips away at its dominance. WBMA was runner-up in total day and evening and late news and has the top-rated syndicated show in Wheel of Fortune. The station has some new faces in the anchor team in Roy Hobbs and Tracy Haynes.

Finishing February sweeps as the runner-up in prime, WIAT has established itself at No. 3 since its sale. It has a highly valued local resource: University of Alabama football. The annual game against Auburn, known as the Iron Bowl, did a 45.5 rating/65 share last fall. “It's the event of the year,” says WIAT President/General Manager Bill Ballard. “The whole town shuts down for it.”

WVTM, meanwhile, is finding its footing with Media General. Covering the Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and Anniston markets, offers a wide array of video clips (including streaming newscasts) and an interactive marketplace for new and used cars, among other features.

Despite being on the block, WBRC keeps pushing ahead, particularly on the Web. The station is launching local music site and is encouraging viewers to interact with talent via e-mail and staffer blogs. Like seeing the homegrown Idol stars at area events, the interactivity promotes community.

Says Leonard, “It helps people feel connected to anchors and reporters.”