WIAT, virtual channel 42 (UHF digital channel 30), is a CBS-affiliated television station licensed to Birmingham, Alabama, United States. The station is owned by the Nexstar Media Group. WIAT's studios are located on Golden Crest Drive near Valley Avenue in southeastern Birmingham, and its transmitter is located atop Red Mountain next to the American General candelabra tower near the southern edge of Birmingham.
On cable, WIAT is available on Charter Spectrum channel 3 in the immediate Birmingham area (channel 8 in outlying areas), Comcast Xfinity channel 9, and AT&T U-verse channel 42.
Early history of UHF channel 42 in Birmingham
The history of the UHF channel 42 allocation in the Birmingham market traces back to 1949, when the Birmingham News Company (owners of The Birmingham News and Birmingham Age-Herald newspapers) filed a construction permit application with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a television station license under the call letters WSGN-TV (for the South's Greatest Newspaper), which would have served as a sister station to radio station WSGN (610 AM, now WAGG; and 93.7 FM, now WDJC), owned by the News' Southern Broadcasting subsidiary. The station partnered with The Voice of Alabama, Inc., owners of WAFM-TV (channel 13, later WABT and WAPI-TV, and now WVTM-TV), to construct a broadcast tower next to its newly completed studio facility on Red Mountain, adjcent to Vulcan Park; plans called for WSGN-TV to operate from the radio stations' Radio Park building.
The application, however, faced multiple delays on its approval. The first such moratorium on the license approval resulted from a freeze on broadcast licenses that imposed by the FCC the previous summer; however Bascom Hopson, president and general manager of WSGN radio, requested an extension to the agency's consideration of the license. At one point, Southern tried to forge a deal with the owners of WCBI-TV in Columbus, Mississippi to forfeit its VHF channel 4 assignment in order to allow the allocation to be reassigned to Birmingham for use by the proposed station (the FCC reassigned the channel 4 frequency to Columbus in 1953, when WBRC-TV moved to channel 6 to alleviate signal interference issues with WSM-TV (now WSMV-TV) in Nashville). In 1954, months after the News decided to purchase WAFM-TV, Johnston Broadcasting – then-owners of radio stations WJLD (1400 AM) and WJLN-FM (104.7, now WZZK) – applied to launch a television station on UHF channel 48; after Southern Broadcasting's effort to acquire the channel 4 frequency failed, it sold the permit to Johnston in order for that group to operate its planned television station on the channel 42 frequency.
In 1956, Southern Broadcasting renewed its efforts to build a third commercial television station in Birmingham, when it formed a partnership with Chicago film salesman-turned-investment banker Bill DuBois to file for a new construction permit. Although the new permit application was granted that year, the station's debut was delayed due to a shortage of broadcast transmission equipment following the Korean War. The station would not sign on the air until October 17, 1965 as WBMG (standing for BirMinGham); the first program to air on channel 42 when it debuted at 5:30 p.m. that evening was NBC's broadcast of The Capitol: Chronicle of Freedom. DuBois and Southern Broadcasting served as co-owners of the station under the licensee, Birmingham Television Corporation, with Southern acting as minority partner. Many members of channel 42's early staff consisted of on-air personalities and other employees from WSGN radio, including Bill Bolen (who would later move to WBRC-TV), who served as one of WBMG's initial news anchors.
As was the case at the time with most UHF television stations in markets served by at least two commercial VHF stations – in Birmingham's case, fellow NBC/CBS affiliate WAPI-TV; and then-ABC affiliate WBRC-TV – WBMG experienced considerable competitive disadvantages from the outset that would plague the station for over 30 years. At the time of its sign-on, many households in the market did not have television sets capable of tuning into UHF broadcast signals without the aid of a converter. Television set manufacturers had only begun including UHF tuners built into the sets one year earlier, per a 1962 directive from the FCC. Even with a converter, the picture quality from UHF stations was marginal at best.
The station's signal also left much to be desired. The Birmingham market is a fairly large market geographically, stretching across nearly the entire width of the state from near the Alabama–Mississippi state line eastward to the Alabama–Georgia state line. Much of the terrain within this area is also hilly to mountainous, particularly in the eastern part of the state, which lies within the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. This was a major reason as to why it took longer for Birmingham to get a third television station in comparison to other cities of its size; on paper, the market's population had been large enough to support a third full network affiliate since the 1950s. The FCC had actually allocated four VHF channels to what would become the Birmingham market. However, two of them, channels 7 and 10 were acquired by Alabama Educational Television (now Alabama Public Television) for its two original charter stations, WBIQ in Birmingham and WCIQ in Mount Cheaha. Both had signed on in 1955 and were donated to the Alabama Educational Television Commission by Storer Broadcasting – which owned WBRC from 1953 to 1957 – both due to the company's support of educational broadcasting and as an attempt to stave off additional commercial competition. At the time, most UHF stations did not get good reception in areas with rugged terrain, and their signals did not travel nearly as far as their VHF counterparts, usually resulting in these stations not producing sufficient enough signal coverage in those instances. As a result, channel 42's coverage area was effectively limited to Birmingham itself and some inner-ring suburbs over Red Mountain.
The station originally broadcast for four hours each evening, carrying a mix of prime time programming from both CBS and NBC, before expanding its broadcast day from 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 a.m. two weeks later on November 1, 1965. On paper, WBMG took the CBS affiliation from WAPI-TV. However, CBS continued to allow channel 13 to air some of its more popular programs, in part due to the aforementioned signal shortfalls with channel 42. WBMG was thus left with CBS' news programming and numerous lower-rated CBS shows. To help fill out its schedule, it also aired some NBC programs that WAPI-TV didn't carry. Among these programs was, strangely given its popularity elsewhere in the country, The Tonight Show, which WAPI would not clear until 1969 (albeit on a one-hour tape delay); as well as the infamous Heidi Game event between the American Football League's Oakland Raiders and New York Jets in November 1968.
One benefit, though, was that WBMG cleared the CBS Evening News, which began airing in Birmingham for the first time in over two years. After CBS and NBC expanded their evening news programs to 30 minutes in 1963, NBC's The Huntley-Brinkley Report, which was carried by WAPI-TV, was the only national network newscast seen in Birmingham until channel 42 signed on (WBRC did not carry ABC's national newscast, John Daly and the News and its successors until September 1963). WBMG also carried certain locally produced and syndicated programs that aired on channel 13 (such as the University of Alabama football coaches' program, The Bear Bryant Show), which were rebroadcast on channel 42 in different time slots. Both WBMG and WAPI listed their affiliation as "CBS/NBC". One advantage that WBMG had over its rivals was that it was the first television station to be equipped for color broadcasts; at the time the station signed on, it had acquired a color film chain, specialized projection equipment that allowed it to air films and slides in color, although most of the station's camera consisted of monochrome equipment previously used by WBRC (which channel 42's original chief engineer worked for before being hired by WBMG). By 1970, though, WAPI's owners, the Newhouse family, opted to sign an exclusive affiliation contract with NBC, leaving WBMG to take a full-time CBS affiliation more or less by default; both stations became exclusive affiliates of the respective networks on May 1 of that year.
With a poor signal, the lack of television sets with UHF tuning capability and two of the South's oldest and most respected stations as its competitors, WBMG found the going very difficult. Due in part to WBMG's weak signal, CBS opted to affiliate with two other central Alabama stations, WCFT-TV (channel 33, now Heroes & Icons affiliate WSES) in Tuscaloosa and WHMA-TV (channel 40, later WJSU-TV and now Heroes & Icons affiliate WGWW) in Anniston. WCFT signed on ten days after WBMG made its debut (WHMA would not sign on until October 1969), and the signals of both the Tuscaloosa and Anniston stations reached some households in Birmingham proper that had UHF rooftop antennas installed (WCFT and WHMA carried an identical selection of prime time programming from CBS and NBC as WBMG did when all three stations were dual affiliates of the two networks). Furthermore, when CBS decided to cancel many of its rural-oriented sitcoms and variety shows in 1971 – especially the country music showcase Hee Haw, and shows hosted by Sylacauga native Jim Nabors – in order to comply with the Prime Time Access Rule, the move was a probable cause in hampering WBMG's ability to attract viewers in rural Alabama, where those programs were highly popular among viewers. For example, when Hee Haw returned as a syndicated program in the fall of 1971, it aired on WAPI because of that station's greater attractiveness to the distributor because of its longevity and larger audience. However, many of WBMG's problems were of its own making. For instance, its newscasts were widely perceived as unprofessional.
Still, WBMG gained publicity in Central Alabama for some locally produced shows, such as live studio wrestling, and the children's program Sergeant Jack (which aired weekdays on the station from November 1965 to September 1976, before being relegated to weekends from that point until June 1982), hosted by former WSGN disc jockey Neal Miller, who donned a sheriff's deputy uniform for the character (which was named by Jack Caddell, founder of Homewood-based fast food chain Jack's Hamburgers, which sponsored the show); Miller would be sworn in by then-Jefferson County Sheriff Mel Bailey (with whom Caddell collaborated with in developing the Sergeant Jack character) as an honorary deputy, as a prerequisite to be allowed to wear the official Jefferson County Sheriff's uniform on-air and in promotional appearances. The program revolved around Dick Tracy and Mr. Magoo cartoon shorts, and incorporated wraparound segments in which Miller interacted with various puppet characters; typical for children's programs of its day, it also featured a studio audience made up of elementary school-aged children (by the time the program ended, the audience had been dropped, with Miller simply sitting in front of a curtain and providing introductions to the cartoons). The station also assumed the local rights to the Romper Room preschool program franchise from WAPI-TV in June 1970; the second host of the Birmingham version, former teacher Carol Aldy, remained with the program after its move to channel 42, before she was replaced that September by Rita Sparling, who hosted the show until it ended in June 1971. Mother Angelica – who, in 1981, would launch a Christian-oriented cable network based in Irondale, the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) – began her career by taping faith-related programs at the WBMG studios for distribution on the station and other broadcast outlets.
DuBois and Southern Broadcasting tried vigorously to increase channel 42's signal coverage area and the quality of its local programming production, first by constructing a transmission tower that operated at 1.2 million watts in 1969. Next, they built a larger studio facility for the station on Golden Crest Drive, atop Red Mountain, where the studios of WBRC and WAPI were also located. However, this did not significantly improve the station's situation, likely prompting DuBois and Southern to sell WBMG to Park Communications for $5.5 million in 1973, becoming its tenth station and bringing that company to the FCC's national television station ownership limit at the time. Park significantly boosted the station's signal, erecting yet another new tower in 1974. Even still, WBMG's signal remained rather weak after the signal boost, effectively limiting its coverage area to Birmingham itself and close-in suburbs in Chilton and Shelby counties. This came back to haunt the station when cable arrived in Birmingham later in the 1970s. While this should have eliminated the disadvantage of being a UHF station serving such a large market, many cable providers in the western and eastern portions of the market refused to pick up channel 42 because its signal in those areas was weak to the point of unacceptability. With this in mind, CBS retained affiliations with WCFT and WHMA/WJSU, which regularly trounced WBMG in the ratings for their respective regions. This was especially true in Anniston since WBMG's signal did not cover east-central portions of Alabama well at all during that period, because of the higher elevations of the Appalachian foothills. What little market share WBMG had accrued in those areas dwindled even further when Arbitron separated Tuscaloosa and Anniston into separate markets (despite the fact that WCFT, WJSU and WCIQ were the only television stations in either market, which were otherwise served by the three VHF stations out of Birmingham) in 1977.
Even when local news programming returned to the station in 1987 after a seven-year hiatus, WBMG had no luck whatsoever competing with WVTM-TV and WBRC in news or sign-on to sign-off viewership, leading many industry insiders to deem Birmingham a de facto two-station market. Channel 42 was perennially one of CBS' weakest affiliates, in marked contrast to its competitors, which were two of their networks' strongest affiliates. It even trailed WTTO (channel 21, now a CW affiliate), an independent station, and later a Fox affiliate, that had only been on the air since April 1982. By some measures, it was the weakest major-network affiliate in the nation. The station's performance was so weak that, by the early 1990s, WBMG was only ahead of another independent station, WABM (channel 68, now a MyNetworkTV affiliate), in the Birmingham ratings. In many cases, A. C. Nielsen couldn't even rate CBS' programs in Birmingham, since the sample sizes were too small to generate a rating.
To absolve ownership conflicts caused by its near-concurrent purchases of WVTM and WBRC, New World Communications decided to establish an outside trust company that it would place WBRC into, with the intent to sell the station to Fox's television station subsidiary, Fox Television Stations, on October 12, 1994; Fox, in turn, planned to convert WBRC into an owned-and-operated station of the network (New World had signed an affiliation agreement with Fox in May 1994, to switch most of the television stations it already owned or was in the process of acquiring from Argyle Communications and Citicasters to the network, but exempted WVTM from the agreement due to its sale of WBRC to Fox); however, ABC's affiliation with that station did not expire until August 31, 1996, forcing Fox to continue to run WBRC as an ABC affiliate, while that network sought another station to become its new affiliate for central Alabama. After ABC broke off discussions with WTTO, after it expressed interest in only carrying the network's prime time and sports programming, ABC then approached WBMG for a deal.
Despite channel 42's anemic ratings, ABC wanted to align with a station that at least had a functioning news department (WTTO's owner, Sinclair Broadcast Group, did not budget for local news programming on its non-Big Three stations at the time, and expressed unwillingness in forming a news department for WTTO). ABC saw enough promise that it even offered to buy WBMG outright; instead, for undisclosed reasons, Park Communications signed a long-term deal that renewed WBMG's affiliation with CBS. In January 1996, ABC signed an affiliation agreement with Allbritton Communications for its newly acquired stations, WCFT-TV and WJSU-TV (the latter of which Allbritton had agreed to operate under a local marketing agreement with then-owner Osborne Communications Corporation weeks prior), which developed a unique arrangement in which both would combine their operations to act as full-powered satellites of low-power station W58CK (channel 58, now WBMA-LD), whose signal did not extend outside of Jefferson and Shelby counties (the arrangement was due to the fact that WCFT and WJSU would not be counted in Nielsen ratings reports for Birmingham, since Tuscaloosa and Anniston were separate markets, which would have prevented ABC programming in the market from being counted toward the network's national viewership counts). At that time the switch took place on September 1, 1996, CBS decided to affiliate with another central Alabama station, WNAL-TV (channel 44, now Ion Television O&O WPXH-TV) in Gadsden, a former Fox affiliate and one-time repeater of WTTO's Tuscaloosa satellite WDBB (channel 17), which had a decent signal reach into the eastern portions of the Birmingham area as well as eastern Alabama.
Sale to Media General and callsign change to WIAT
In 1997, Park Communications was sold to Richmond, Virginia-based Media General. However, the new ownership brought no change to the station's flagging ratings. By late 1997, WBMG's market share had dropped to a mere 1%, leaving it significantly behind not only WBRC, WVTM and WBMA-LP, but also WTTO and even behind WABM at times (the latter two stations did not air any news programming at the time). Per an agreement with CBS, which had become increasingly concerned about its lackluster performance in a fast-growing market, Media General invested millions of dollars into turning WBMG's fortunes around.
As a first step, Media General boosted WBMG's overall transmitting power to 5 million watts, the highest level allowed by the FCC. This finally put the station's broadcast signal on an equal footing with the other Birmingham area stations. The upgrades made by Media General also allowed channel 42 to become the first television station in the market to broadcast a digital television signal, and effectively, the first to broadcast network programming in high definition, an accomplishment that was important to Media General as it fought the wide perception among viewers and those in the media industry that the station had a weak signal.
In order to signify a new start as channel 42 prepared to reboot its news department (see below), Media General also applied to change the station's callsign to WIAT (for "It's About Time", the station's new slogan) on February 1, 1998. One month earlier, Eric Land, whom the group hired as the station's general manager, fired all but one member of its news department staff and replaced channel 42's evening newscasts with a countdown clock to signal the forthcoming relaunch of the station as the new WIAT on February 5 (the WBMG call letters are now used by a low-power station on UHF channel 38 in Moody).
On that date, preceding the debut of its relaunched 5:00 p.m. newscast under the new 42 Daily News format, Land appeared in the parking lot outside the station's studios just before the countdown clock expired speaking to an unseen audience of Birmingham-area community leaders on the meaning behind the station's relaunch, before throwing a switch that blew up an image of the logo WBMG had been using since the fall of 1995 to unveil the new WIAT logo. Further allowing WIAT to be able to gain some footing in other parts of central Alabama, Paxson Communications (now Ion Media Networks) chose not to renew WPXH's contract with CBS and cede the network's rights in central Alabama to WIAT in January 1999, in preparation of turning channel 44 into the Pax TV (now Ion Television) owned-and-operated outlet for all of Central Alabama.
In 2003, Bill Ballard, who took over as WIAT's president and general manager, forged a new path for the station which included numerous changes to its newscasts and programming including the acquisition of a stronger slate of syndicated programs (such as Dr. Phil, Jeopardy! and Entertainment Tonight) and a much more aggressive approach to its news coverage. The moves which were implemented dramatically altered the landscape of Central Alabama television, and allowed channel 42 to become a factor in the local ratings for the first time in the station's history. At that time, WIAT discontinued all references to its callsign and erstwhile slogan, "It's About Time," within its on-air branding, instead concentrating on establishing the station's association with CBS and restructuring the news department's focus towards more in-depth investigative reporting.
New Vision Television ownership
On April 6, 2006, NBC Universal announced that it would sell WVTM-TV and three of its other smaller-market owned-and-operated stations – WJAR-TV in Providence, Rhode Island, WCMH-TV in Columbus, Ohio, and WNCN in Raleigh, North Carolina – to Media General for $600 million. As the FCC media ownership regulations for television duopolies prohibit broadcasting companies from owning two of the four highest-rated television stations within the same media market, Media General subsequently announced that it would it seek a buyer for its existing station in the Birmingham-Tuscaloosa-Anniston market, WIAT, and acquire WVTM, which at the time was the higher-rated of the two stations in terms of total day viewership.
The FCC subsequently granted the company a temporary waiver of its ownership rules that allowed it to keep both WVTM and WIAT for six months after the purchase of the former was completed; Media General's purchase of all four stations was finalized on June 26, 2006. On August 2, Media General announced that it had sold WIAT and fellow CBS affiliate KIMT in Mason City, Iowa to New Vision Television for $35 million; the sale was finalized on October 12, 2006.
The extensive changes that helped WIAT become a ratings force in the market in the latter years under Media General ownership continued as a New Vision-owned station. Under New Vision, channel 42 saw some of its largest ratings increases in the station's history. It is now one of the strongest CBS affiliates in the nation, after spending the better part of its history as one of the weakest. WIAT has particularly benefited from the network's broadcasts of college football games from the Southeastern Conference, which garner higher ratings on channel 42 than on any other station in the country. SEC game telecasts, particularly those involving the Alabama Crimson Tide and Auburn Tigers, are among the highest-rated programs in Birmingham during the NCAA Division I football season, typically delivering higher ratings in the market than network telecasts of the Super Bowl; this includes the Iron Bowl rivalry game between Alabama and Auburn, which – through CBS – has aired on WIAT for all but three years since 2000.
In the summer of 2009, the station upgraded its master control facilities to allow the transmission of pre-recorded syndicated programming in high definition, some station promotions beginning to be broadcast in the format by September 2009.
LIN Media ownership
On May 7, 2012, LIN Media announced that it would purchase the New Vision Television stations, including WIAT, for $330.4 million, in a deal under which the company would also assume $12 million in New Vision's corporate debt. The FCC approved the sale on October 2, and the transaction was finalized ten days later on October 12; as a result, WIAT became a sister station to LIN's Mobile duopoly of Fox affiliate WALA-TV and CW affiliate WFNA, both of which had been purchased by LIN from Emmis Communications in 2006.
On March 21, 2014, Media General announced that it had entered into an agreement to merge with LIN Media in a $1.6 billion deal. As a result, due in part to the same FCC duopoly restrictions based on total day viewership that prompted Media General to sell WIAT to New Vision eight years earlier, Media General was once again required to sell either WIAT or WVTM to another station owner in order to comply with FCC ownership rules. In this situation, the sales that Media General and LIN voluntarily chose to conduct in Birmingham and four other markets were also in response to the FCC's plan to restrict sharing agreements involving two or more television stations in the same market. On May 12, 2014, when it unveiled a new proprietary graphics and imaging package, WIAT dropped the "CBS 42" brand after eleven years in favor of a callsign-based branding as "WIAT 42"; the station would later combine the latter moniker with a restored "CBS 42" brand (as "WIAT CBS 42") in May 2015, initially in the form of verbal identification during newscasts and station promotions.
On August 20, 2014, Media General announced that it would reacquire WIAT and sell WVTM, along with ABC affiliate WJCL in Savannah, Georgia, to Hearst Television; the sale made WIAT a sister station to Mobile's CBS affiliate WKRG-TV (an existing Media General station which formed a new duopoly with WFNA after LIN chose to sell WALA-TV to the Meredith Corporation due to similar ownership conflicts as those involving WIAT and WVTM). Media General completed its merger with LIN on December 19, making WIAT a Media General property for the second time; Hearst closed on its purchase of WVTM and WJCL three days later on December 22.
Sale to Nexstar
On September 8, 2015, Media General announced that it would acquire the Des Moines, Iowa-based Meredith Corporation for $2.4 billion with the intention to name the combined group Meredith Media General once the sale was finalized.
However, on September 28, Irving, Texas-based Nexstar Broadcasting Group made an unsolicited cash-and-stock merger offer for Media General, originally valued at $14.50 per share. On November 16, following opposition to the merger with Meredith by minority shareholders Oppenheimer Holdings and Starboard Capital (primarily because Meredith's magazine properties were included in the deal, which would have re-entered Media General into publishing after it sold its newspapers to BH Media in 2012 to reduce debt) and the rejection of Nexstar's initial offer by company management, Media General agreed to enter into negotiations with Nexstar on a suitable counter deal, while the Meredith merger proposal remained active; the two eventually concluded negotiations on January 6, 2016, reaching a merger agreement for valued at $17.14 per share (an evaluation of $4.6 billion, plus the assumption of $2.3 billion in debt).
On January 27, Meredith formally broke off the proposed merger with Media General and accepted the termination fee of $60 million previously negotiated under the original merger proposal; Media General subsequently signed an agreement to be acquired by Nexstar (with the combined company to be known as Nexstar Media Group), in exchange for giving Meredith right of first refusal to acquire any broadcast or digital properties that may be divested. As of the completion of the sale on January 17, 2017, WIAT is under common ownership with two other Alabama stations that are already owned by Nexstar outright, Fox affiliate WZDX in the adjacent Huntsville market and ABC affiliate WDHN in Dothan.
|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)