Skip to main content

The Tide Is Turning

Click here for more Market Eye articles

They’re still celebrating the local college football teams’ stranglehold on the nation’s top awards in Birmingham, but it’s not all fun and games at the TV stations. Nielsen has had myriad problems measuring viewership in DMA No. 40, stemming from issues with WBMA’s unique setup, which includes a low-power station in Birmingham and two satellite outlets in neighboring cities. Senior representatives of Nielsen will be in Birmingham in March, doing their best to convince a skeptical bunch of local station execs that the market’s ratings are finally trustworthy.

Nielsen will share an independent audit of its ratings with station managers. “We’ve made clear and demonstrable progress ensuring that the Birmingham delivery data is accurate,” says Sabrina Crow, senior VP at Nielsen.

Three Birmingham stations have signed up to receive ratings data from Rentrak, though they have not dropped Nielsen. After a series of reissued sweeps books, local GMs have learned not to get too excited about high or low numbers. “We’re happy, but cautiously happy,” says Mike Murphy, WBMA president and general manager. “There’s been change after change after change.”

A happier story is college football. The two most recent BCS champions (Alabama and Auburn) and Heisman trophy winners (Mark Ingram, Cam Newton) have come out of the market. The Auburn versus Alabama “Iron Bowl” earned a 54 household rating/77 share this past fall on WIAT, ahead of the 2011 Super Bowl’s 50/64. “SEC football is huge here,” says Bill Ballard, WIAT president/GM. “The market was consumed with Auburn and Cam Newton.”

Stations in Birmingham are almost as competitive as Alabama-Auburn in football. Raycom’s Fox affiliate WBRC has been the longtime ratings and revenue leader, but rivals say the titles are in play. WBRC, New Vision’s CBS affiliate WIAT and Allbritton ABC outlet WBMA split the household ratings contests in last November’s sweeps. WBMA won primetime and late news; its 9 rating/13 share at 10 p.m. led WIAT’s and WBRC’s 6/9. WBRC won mornings. It tied with WBMA at 5 p.m., and WBMA won at 6.

WBMA’s Murphy credits strong weather coverage—it has been a rough winter in Alabama— and the steady hand of the station’s longtime news chief, Garry Kelly. “He’s somewhat old school,” Murphy says of Kelly. “He realizes the passion of day-in and day-out news, and he just stays the course.”

The market is rounded out by Media General’s NBC affiliate, WVTM; Sinclair’s CW outlet WTTO; and MyNetworkTV affiliate WABM. Charter is the main subscription-TV operator.

The stations are increasing their news product. WVTM recently added four hours on weekend mornings and a 6 p.m. news on Sundays. “We’re finding the pressure on inventory is there,” says Gene Kirkconnell, WVTM VP/GM.

WBRC kicked off 4:30 a.m. news last spring, giving the station 49½ hours of news a week. “We saw more and more need for early-morning news,” says Lou Kirchen, VP/GM. “People are watching earlier, and watching more.”

In syndicated programming, WBRC in March will insert Inside Edition in favor of Seinfeld. Come fall, WBMA will add Dr. Oz in place of Oprah Winfrey.

General managers say the local economy, which is dominated by the University of Alabama- Birmingham and the medical community, is robust. A new Dollar General distribution center is adding 650 jobs. The “Blueprint Birmingham” civic initiative is focused on boosting economic opportunity and quality of life.

“It’s a lot of people’s vision of what Birmingham can be, and everyone’s working hard to bring it together,” WBRC’s Kirchen says of the program. “We’re seeing a lot of stores light up again, and new businesses step up.”

E-mail comments to and follow him on Twitter: @StationBiz