WBMA-LD, virtual channel 58 (UHF digital channel 40), is an ABC-affiliated television station licensed to Birmingham, Alabama, United States. The station is owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, as part of a de facto legal triopoly with MyNetworkTV affiliate WABM (channel 68) and Homewood-licensed CW affiliate WTTO (channel 21); Sinclair also manages Bessemer-licensed WDBB (channel 17), which operates as a full satellite station of WTTO, under a time brokerage agreement with Sinclair partner company Cunningham Broadcasting. However, Sinclair effectively owns WDBB as the majority of Cunningham's stock is owned by the family of deceased group founder Julian Smith.
WBMA-LD, WABM and WTTO share studios at the Riverchase office park on Concourse Parkway in Hoover (with a Birmingham mailing address); WBMA-LD's transmitter is located atop Red Mountain (near the Tarpley City neighborhood) in southwestern Birmingham. On cable, the station is available on Charter Spectrum channel 12, Comcast Xfinity channel 5, and AT&T U-verse channel 33.
WBMA transmits a low-power signal, which even in digital effectively limits its over-the-air radius to Birmingham proper and nearby areas in Jefferson, Tuscaloosa, Walker, Bibb and Shelby counties. Because of this, the station's programming is simulcast on the digital subchannels of three other central Alabama stations that act as full-power relays—including those of WABM and WDBB—in order to reach the entire Birmingham–Tuscaloosa–Anniston market.
The station's brand name, ABC 33/40, is derived from the two stations that operated as full-power satellites of WBMA to distribute its programming to southwestern and northeastern areas of central Alabama from the station's acquisition of the ABC affiliation in September 1996 until October 2014, WCFT-TV (channel 33) in Tuscaloosa and WJSU-TV (channel 40) in Anniston, which now respectively operate as Heroes & Icons affiliates WSES and WGWW (the latter of which simulcasts WBMA-LD on its second subchannel through a time brokerage agreement with its owner Howard Stirk Holdings).
Early history and formation of trimulcast with WCFT-TV and WJSU-TV
On May 5, 1994, Great American Communications (which would be renamed Citicasters following the completion of its debt restructuring later that year) agreed to sell Birmingham's longtime ABC affiliate, WBRC-TV (channel 6), and three of its sister stations (fellow ABC affiliate WGHP in High Point, North Carolina, NBC affiliate WDAF-TV in Kansas City and CBS affiliate KSAZ-TV in Phoenix) to New World Communications for $350 million in cash and $10 million in share warrants. As part of a broader deal between New World and the Fox Broadcasting Company signed on May 23 of that year, New World agreed to affiliate five of its eight existing television stations and the four it had acquired from Great American with Fox, in a series of affiliation transactions that would take two years to complete due to the varying conclusion dates of their ongoing contracts with either ABC, NBC or CBS. Three weeks later, New World agreed to buy NBC affiliate WVTM-TV (channel 13) and three other stations from Argyle Television Holdings (CBS affiliates KDFW in Dallas-Fort Worth and KTBC in Austin, and ABC affiliate KTVI in St. Louis), in a purchase option-structured deal worth $717 million. Due to conflicts with FCC ownership rules of the time period, New World subsequently decided to establish and transfer the licenses of WBRC and WGHP into a trust company, with the intent to sell them to the Fox network's broadcasting subsidiary, Fox Television Stations (in the case of Birmingham, New World could not keep WBRC and WVTM since the FCC then forbade a single company from owning two television stations in the same market; the concurrent Argyle and Citicasters acquisitions also put New World three stations over the FCC's twelve-station ownership limit).
Although the sales of WBRC and WGHP were finalized on July 24, 1995, Fox Television Stations could not switch WBRC's network affiliation in the short-term, as the station's contract with ABC would not expire until August 31, 1996. While this forced Fox to operate WBRC as an ABC affiliate for thirteen months after the sale's closure, it gave the latter network enough time to find a new central Alabama affiliate. ABC first approached WTTO (channel 21, now a CW affiliate) – which, along with semi-satellites WDBB (channel 17) in Tuscaloosa and WNAL-TV (channel 44, now Ion Television owned-and-operated station WPXH-TV) in Gadsden, was set to lose its Fox affiliation to channel 6 – for a deal to replace WBRC as its Birmingham outlet. However, the owner of WTTO, Sinclair Broadcast Group, only expressed interest in carrying ABC's prime time and news programming. It also refused to launch a news department for WTTO, as the group did not factor local news production into its corporate budget at the time (this was despite the fact that sister station WDBB had maintained a standalone news operation at the time ABC started negotiations with WTTO, which was eventually shut down when the former switched to a full-time WTTO simulcast in December 1995).
In November 1995, Allbritton Communications purchased CBS affiliate WCFT-TV (channel 33) in Tuscaloosa from Federal Broadcasting for $20 million; it concurrently signed a deal with Fant Broadcasting to assume operational responsibilities for WNAL-TV under a local marketing agreement. Then in January 1996, after it terminated the WNAL deal, Allbritton acquired the non-license assets of CBS affiliate WJSU-TV (channel 40) in Anniston from Osborne Communications Corporation for $12 million (through an LMA arrangement which included an option to eventually purchase the station outright). Allbritton wanted to relocate WJSU's transmitter facilities closer to Birmingham to provide a stronger signal within that metropolitan area and nearby Tuscaloosa; however, the relocation was prohibited under FCC regulations that required a station's transmitter site be located no more than 15 miles (24 km) from its city of license (Anniston is 63 miles (101 km) north-of-due-east of Birmingham), which would have required an application to change the city of license closer to Birmingham in order to legally allow the move.
Shortly after the WJSU purchase took place, ABC reached a unique deal with Allbritton, in which WCFT and WJSU would become the new ABC affiliates for Central Alabama, with WCFT acting as the main station. ABC had a very strong relationship with Allbritton, particularly as Allbritton's flagship station, WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C., had long been one of ABC's highest-rated affiliates. In April 1996, a few months after the Birmingham deal was struck, Allbritton's ties to ABC were sealed wholesale when Allbritton reached a ten-year affiliation agreement with ABC that renewed contracts with the group's five existing ABC affiliates (WJLA-TV, WSET-TV in Lynchburg, Virginia, KATV in Little Rock, Arkansas, KTUL in Tulsa, Oklahoma and WHTM in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) and resulted in two of its other stations switching to the network (NBC affiliate WCIV (now Heroes & Icons affiliate WGWG] in Charleston, South Carolina) and WB affiliate WBSG-TV (now Ion Television owned-and-operated station WPXC-TV] in Brunswick, Georgia), the latter of which would become a satellite of WJXX in nearby Jacksonville, Florida when Allbritton signed that station on in February 1997).
A key problem with the deal, however, was that under Nielsen rules, neither WCFT nor WJSU would likely be counted in the Birmingham ratings books as it had designated Tuscaloosa and Anniston as separate markets at the time. Allbritton's solution to this issue was to purchase W58CK, a low-power independent station in Birmingham that began operations on November 18, 1994 (under the ownership of Shirley James), which would serve as the primary station for the purpose of being counted in local ratings diaries. While the purchase of channel 58 was not a condition of the deal between ABC and Allbritton, it did pave the way for Anniston and Tuscaloosa to be consolidated back into the Birmingham television market in September 1998 (at the start of the 1998–99 television season). That move benefited all of the major Birmingham stations, as it not only increased their viewership in Tuscaloosa and Anniston, but also resulted in Birmingham's placement in Nielsen's national market rankings jumping twelve spots from 51st to 39th place.
W58CK became an ABC affiliate on September 1, 1996, at which time WCFT and WJSU also ended separate operations and became full-powered satellite stations of W58CK, with Allbritton assuming control of WJSU's operations under the originally proposed LMA, which was transferred to Flagship Broadcasting upon that company's purchase of that station (Allbritton would eventually purchase WJSU-TV outright in 2008). The respective studio facilities of both stations – located near Skyland Boulevard in Tuscaloosa and on Noble Street in downtown Anniston – were converted into news bureaus, with their master control operations being migrated to W58CK's new studios on Concourse Parkway in Hoover. WCFT and WJSU also ceded the CBS programming rights in central Alabama to WBMG (channel 42, now WIAT), which had recently upgraded its transmitter to provide a much stronger full-power signal throughout much of the Birmingham market, and WNAL-TV, which took over as CBS's northeastern Alabama affiliate on the day of the WBRC/WBMA+/WTTO switch.
Even though WBMA was the official ABC affiliate for the Birmingham market, Allbritton chose to brand the combined operation as "ABC 33/40", using the over-the-air channel numbers of WCFT and WJSU instead, making it appear as if WCFT was the primary station. The three stations' combined signal footprint covered the majority of Central Alabama (with the exception of certain areas to the immediate north and south of Jefferson County that could not receive a Grade B signal from W58CK/WBMA or the Tuscaloosa and Anniston satellites) and provided at least secondary coverage from the Alabama–Georgia state line westward to Columbus, Mississippi. Cable (and eventually, satellite) providers within the market usually picked up the signal of either WCFT or WJSU, both of which provided at least secondary coverage of Birmingham's inner ring.
Its original slogan for its first ten years as an ABC affiliate was "We're [Always] Building Our Station Around You", which unlike most advertising catchphrases, was quite accurate; the station's programming consultants surveyed a large number of central Alabama residents to literally build a new station from the ground up, catering to the interests of its potential viewers. At the time it joined the network, WCFT began serving as the default ABC affiliate for the Columbus–Tupelo market; this lasted until WKDH signed on as the market's ABC station in 2001 (WKDH shut down in 2013 following the termination of a local marketing agreement with NBC affiliate WTVA, which took over the ABC affiliation on a digital subchannel). W58CK, which had been informally been using the WBMA calls from the time it began operations, officially changed its call letters to WBMA-LP on September 23, 1997.
In June 1998, ABC parent The Walt Disney Company entered into negotiations to purchase the eight Allbritton stations and the LMAs with WJSU and WJXX, reportedly offering the company more than $1 billion to acquire them (which if successful, would have made WBMA+ the Birmingham market's third network-owned station, alongside WBRC and WVTM, which operated as an NBC O&O from 1996 – when New World sold it to NBC Television Stations on May 22 of that year – until 2006, and Birmingham the smallest American television market with at least three major network O&Os). Negotiations between Disney and Allbritton broke down when the former dropped out of discussions to buy the stations the following month.
Between May 26, 2008 and March 23, 2009, Nielsen Media Research mistakenly undercounted viewership for WBMA+ in its diary ratings tallies. Due to a "procedural error", ratings for WBMA-LP, and WCFT and WJSU respectively (which were traditionally measured collectively as "WBMA+" due to the unique trimulcast structure) failed to properly measure viewership through the three stations' digital signals – the feeds that were also distributed to local cable and satellite providers – together and combine them with ratings counts for their analog signals, resulting in ratings for WBMA's digital signal only being counted. The error significantly reduced the total viewership and ratings share estimates recorded to less than half of what station management expected. It was later explained that Nielsen had undercounted and overcounted the stations' viewership at various times between February 2008 and November 2009, as well as during a period in January 2010 that it had shortchanged WBMA+'s primetime ratings (including the registry of occasional zero shares for some ABC programs). The confusion stemmed from the station's unique three-station simulcasting setup.
Acquisition by Sinclair
For over a decade and a half, WBMA+ maintained a strong relationship with Allbritton, with no major problems arising between the two entities and, likewise, no major changes occurring to the station's operations. On July 29, 2013, Allbritton announced that it would sell its seven television stations, including WBMA+, to the Sinclair Broadcast Group (which would purchase the stations for $985 million), in an attempt by the company to shift its focus toward co-owned political news website, Politico. As part of the deal, Sinclair had intended to sell the license assets of its existing Birmingham stations, CW affiliate WTTO and MyNetworkTV affiliate WABM (channel 68) to Deerfield Media, and retain operational responsibilities for those stations through shared services and joint sales agreements]]. At the time, no affiliation changes were expected.
On December 6, 2013, the FCC informed Sinclair that applications related to the deal need to be "amended or withdrawn," as Sinclair would retain an existing time brokerage agreement between WTTO and its satellite station, WDBB (channel 17); this would, in effect, create a new LMA between WBMA+ and WDBB, even though the Commission had ruled in 1999 that such agreements made after November 5, 1996 covering the programming of more than 15% of a station's broadcast day would count toward the ownership limits for the brokering station's owner. A sale of WBMA and its satellites to a separate buyer was also not an option for Sinclair, as Allbritton wanted its stations to be sold together to limit the tax rate that the company would have had to pay from the accrued proceeds, which it estimated would have been substantially higher if the group was sold piecemeal.
On March 20, 2014, as part of a restructuring of the Sinclair-Allbritton deal in order to address these ownership conflicts as well as to expedite the Allbritton acquisition because of them due to the FCC's increased scrutiny of outsourcing agreements used to circumvent in-market ownership caps, Sinclair announced that it would retain ownership of WTTO (choosing to retain the LMA between that station and WDBB, and continue operating it as a satellite station of WTTO), and form a new duopoly between it and WBMA+; WABM was to be sold to a third-party buyer with which Sinclair would not enter into an operational outsourcing arrangement or maintain any contingent interest, other than a possible transitional shared facilities agreement until WTTO was able to move its operations from its longtime home on Beacon Parkway West to WBMA's facility in Hoover.
On May 29, 2014, however, Sinclair informed the FCC that it had not found a buyer for WABM (even among the market's three existing major station owners, WBRC owner Raycom Media, then-WVTM owner Media General and then-WIAT owner LIN Media, neither of which operated an existing duopoly station in the Birmingham market, although the latter two groups were in the process of merging at the time, with Media General eventually selling WVTM to Hearst Television) and proposed surrendering the licenses of WCFT and WJSU to the agency. Under the restructured plan, WABM would become the main ABC affiliate for central Alabama, with WBMA-LD becoming its repeater. WABM's existing programming would move to its second digital channel on 58.2 (WBMA-LD itself, as a low-power station, would not be affected as FCC rules allow the ownership of one or more low-power and up to two full-power stations regardless of market ownership caps for duopolies). Sinclair opted to retain WABM on the basis that its transmission facilities are superior to those of WCFT and WJSU; indeed, moving ABC programming to WABM would have given ABC a full-power affiliate in Birmingham itself for the first time since 1996. After nearly a year of delays, Sinclair's deal to acquire Allbritton was approved by the FCC on July 24, 2014, and was completed on August 1, 2014.
Sale of WCFT and WJSU to Howard Stirk Holdings
On September 18, 2014, in preparation for the planned shutdown of WCFT and WJSU eleven days later on September 29, WDBB and WABM added a simulcast feed of WBMA-LD on their respective second digital subchannels (17.2 and 68.2). WJSU officially signed off at 10:35 p.m. on September 29, 2014; in addition to being available on the second digital subchannels of WABM and WDBB, WCFT-TV continued to simulcast WBMA-LD on its main channel in the interim.
On September 24, 2014, Sinclair filed an application with the FCC to sell the license assets of WCFT to Howard Stirk Holdings (owned by conservative political commentator Armstrong Williams, who has ties to Sinclair as his political affairs program, The Right Side, airs on many of the group's stations and is produced at the studios of its Baltimore flagship station WBFF) for $50,000, foregoing any operational agreements with the company for the station. Sinclair had reached a similar deal to sell WCIV in Charleston – another station that was set to be shut down as a result of a similar arrangement involving its MyNetworkTV affiliate in that market, WMMP, due to a grandfathered LMA that station maintained (and subsequently decided to terminate) with Fox affiliate WTAT – to the same company.
As a result of the WCFT/HSH deal, WCFT remained on the air past its scheduled September 29 sign-off date. In addition, as the sale of WJSU-TV in effect superseded the proposed surrender of its license, Sinclair requested that the FCC hold off on canceling the license until at least ten business days after acting on the proposed transaction. In order for Sinclair to continue operating WJSU and WCFT and maintain their existing licenses until the FCC ruled on the petition and the sale to HSH, the two stations began providing interim programming as affiliates of Heartland (which they both previously carried on their third digital subchannels as WBMA satellites) on October 20, 2014; at that time, WJSU was essentially converted into a satellite of WCFT. WBMA-LD's main ABC programming and its "James Spann 24/7 Weather" channel were restored on WJSU's second and third subchannels on December 3, 2014. The FCC approved the transfer of license of WCFT-TV and WJSU-TV to Howard Stirk Holdings the following day on December 4.
Even though WGWW (the call letters assigned by Howard Stirk to the former WJSU-TV on March 11, 2015, at which time WCFT also changed its calls to WSES) is the only one of the two original satellites that continues to relay WBMA's programming, the station continues to identify by "ABC 33/40" as an artifact brand as most central Alabamians still refer to WBMA+ by either that name or "channel 33/40", as well as the fact that the station is carried on either channel on AT&T U-verse, DirecTV and Dish Network in the market. With WDBB, WABM and WGWW relegating the station's ABC programming to digital subchannels, WBMA-LD became the largest Big Four network affiliate by market size to rely on digital multicasting for full market distribution over-the-air (in addition to its existing status as the largest low-power Big Four affiliate overall), as well as making Birmingham one of the only U.S. television markets where all but one of the six major broadcast networks (in this case, CBS, NBC, Fox, The CW and MyNetworkTV) maintain primary channel affiliations on full-power stations, while the remaining network (ABC) is only available through low-power and digital multicast affiliations (the latter status since been surpassed by WBTS-LD in Boston, when it became an NBC owned-and-operated station – the only Big Four O&O originating on a low-power signal – in January 2017).
|TV stations in Alabama|
|TV stations in serving Central Alabama, including Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Anniston, and Gadsden|
|WBRC 6 (Fox) |
WCIQ 7 (PBS)
WVUA-CD 7 (This TV)
WBIQ 10 (PBS)
WVTM 13 (NBC)
WDBB 17 (CW)
WOTM-LP 19 (Ind.)
WTTO 21 (CW)
WVUA 23 (This TV)
WEAC-CD 24 (The Walk/AMGTV)
WBXA-CD 24 (Biz TV)
WCQT-LP 27 (The Walk)
WBUN-LD 28 (Daystar)
WSES 33 (H&I)
W20DE-D 34 (HSN2)
WGWW 40 (H&I)
WIAT 42 (CBS)
WPXH 44 (Ion)
WUOA-LD 46 (Laff)
WSWH-LD 46 (RTV)
W47EI-D 47 (Rel.)
WOIL-CD 47 (Youtoo)
WSFG-LD 51 (Daystar)
W16CM-D 55 (Rel)
WBMA-LD 58 (ABC)
WTJP 60 (TBN)
WABM 68 (MNTV)