Market Eye: Alabama Shakes It Up

Birmingham feels Oklahoma City’s tornado pain; Allbritton’s WBMA for sale

Why This Matters

What’s Working in Birmingham

WBRC meteorologist Fred Hunter hosts Absolutely Alabama, which started as a local news segment in 1997 and as of April 26 got its own 30-minute slot at 10:35 p.m. Fridays. “Meeting Real People. Seeing New Places,” goes the slogan, and Lou Kirchen, WBRC VP and general manager, describes it as On the Road With Charles Kuralt, but just for Alabamans.

“It’s been very popular for a long time, and viewers were saying they’d love to see more of it,” Kirchen says.

Recent segments included pint-sized rodeo experts and a Little League World Series team’s reunion 60 years after their championship. Absolutely Alabama has been averaging around a 4.1 household rating and winning its time period. “We’ve been able to do it very successfully,” says Kirchen. —MM

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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
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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