Birmingham, Ala., calls itself the "Magic City," but it hasn't always lived up to the name. In its steel-producing heyday, it was known for dirty air and labor disputes. The 1960s brought racial strife and economic downturn.
Then came Birmingham's recovery. Its renewal is due to a thriving medical-research hub at the University of Alabama and construction of two auto plants.
The good news for TV: Ad dollars are flowing.
The No. 40 television market, Birmingham is the largest with only two VHF signals. "The first half of the year was really strong," says Dennis Leonard, general manager at Fox-owned WBRC, a former ABC affiliate and the persistent market leader. It's also the top revenue producer, according to BIA. WBRC's 9 p.m. newscast draws more viewers than other stations' do at 10 p.m. (WBRC and NBC-owned WVTM tied for first at 10 p.m. in May.)
Albritton Communications devised a unique way to get around UHF signal limitations. It branded WBMA as "ABC 33-40," an assemblage of three stations. One covers the market's eastern fringes, one the western edge, and a low-power transmitter fills in the central city. "WBMA has been aggressive in recruiting top local talent," says General Manager Mike Murphy. Its shining star is James Spann, a homegrown meteorologist who has been in the market for four decades. WBMA tallied the No. 1 newscast at 5 and 6 p.m. in May.
Sinclair operates the market's duopoly, simulcast WB affiliates WTTO/WDBB and UPN station WABM. WTTO produces a 9 p.m. newscast using Sinclair's News Central format, in which part of the program emanates from corporate headquarters in Baltimore.
Media General's WIAT has been riding the wave of CBS's prime time success, but the station's newscasts typically finish fourth. Because of signal problems, Birmingham has historically been a weak CBS market. UHF signals don't carry well in North Alabama's hilly terrain.
As for cable, Charter Communications, the market's biggest operator, has invested more than $1 million since 2001 in a cutting-edge production center. Charter manages the region's interconnect, which includes Comcast and Adelphia cable systems in outlying areas.
These days, Birmingham hopes to recapture some of its lost magic with new commercial and residential developments. "The city is finally overcoming its cultural apology to the '60s," Leonard says. "There is a real vibe here."