Station Cooperation

Birmingham rivals join forces to fight cancer
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The notion of Southern hospitality has long been celebrated, but stations in Birmingham, Ala., take goodwill seriously.

While they're heated rivals throughout the year, the CBS, NBC and ABC affiliates linked arms last September for charity. When the Big Three networks worked together on the Stand Up to Cancer event, WVTM VP/General Manager Gene Kirkconnell wondered if it would be feasible on a local level.

A few calls to his rival GMs, and plans were underway for the stations to do their own combined cancer benefit. (Fox affiliate WBRC declined to take part; the Fox network did not participate in the national event.)

“It was really cool to turn on the TV that night and see the three affiliates working together,” Kirkconnell says. “We're competitors, but that night we were fighting a common enemy.”

Indeed, niceness pervades in the No. 40 DMA. The big news is leader WBRC, which changed hands yet again recently. Local TV swapped it to Raycom for WTVR Richmond in January, not long after Local bought WBRC from Fox. Rivals insist that having a Raycom station in the market is good for everyone, perhaps raising ad rates across the board. “Raycom is a solid broadcast operator,” says WBMA President/General Manager Mike Murphy. “It's good to know a seasoned professional will be operating the station.”

WBRC retains the ratings crown. It won total day household ratings in November, along with morning, evening and late news. The acquisition was logical for Raycom, which is based in Alabama. WBRC President/General Manager Lou Kirchen does not expect ownership to shake things up. “There's a huge commitment to the community here,” she says. “I think the community always knows we're here when they need us.”

Other stations include Allbritton's ABC affiliate WBMA, which won primetime; Media General's NBC outlet WVTM; New Vision's CBS affiliate WIAT and Sinclair's CW/MyNetworkTV duopoly. Charter is the main cable provider, and AT&T's U-verse service recently hit the market.

The stations are ramping up their game to compete with WBRC. Kirkconnell says WVTM was first in the state with local HD, which brought lots of samplers. The station will attempt to keep them tuned in when it launches Daytime Alabama, co-hosted by traffic reporter/former The Bachelor contestant Brooke Smith. Daytime launches later this month.

WBMA is also playing up its local connections, with a high school football show Blitz Gameday and the daytime talker Talk of Alabama, both of which launched in September. “Montel went away, so we decided to make our own little show,” says Murphy of Talk.

Over at WIAT, President/General Manager Bill Ballard says the station has grown ratings by adding local shows in place of paid programming. It debuted morning news in September 2007, and will produce the high school basketball and football post-season for a range of Alabama stations. “It looks like the first year of this will have significant impact on our bottom line,” Ballard says.

Indeed, football passions run high—the annual University of Alabama-Auburn showdown, known as the Iron Bowl, outrates even the Super Bowl, pulling a 73 share in November. “It's amazing how much people like their football,” Murphy says. “It's unlike anything else on this Earth.”