WTTO, virtual channel 21 (UHF digital channel 28), is a CW-affiliated television station serving Birmingham, Alabama, United States that is licensed to the suburb of Homewood. The station is owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, as part of a de facto legal triopoly with ABC affiliate WBMA-LD (channel 58) and MyNetworkTV affiliate WABM (channel 68). The three stations share studios at the Riverchase office park on Concourse Parkway in Hoover (with a Birmingham mailing address); WTTO's transmitter is located atop Red Mountain, near the Goldencrest neighborhood of southwestern Birmingham.
WTTO operates a full-time satellite station, WDBB (virtual channel 17; UHF digital channel 18), licensed to the Birmingham suburb of Bessemer. It is owned by Cunningham Broadcasting and managed by Sinclair under a time brokerage agreement; however, Sinclair effectively owns WDBB as the majority of Cunningham's stock is owned by the family of deceased group founder Julian Smith. WDBB—whose transmitter is located east of State Route 69, near Windham Springs—relays WTTO's programming to areas of west-central Alabama that receive marginal to non-existent over-the-air coverage from the latter station's main signal (including its primary city of service, Tuscaloosa). However, there is a decent degree of overlap between the respective signal contours of WTTO and WDBB in western portions of the Birmingham metropolitan area. On-air references to WDBB are limited to FCC-mandated hourly station identifications during station promotions and regular programming, with both stations using WTTO's virtual channel number in on-air branding.
The main WTTO signal is distributed to cable providers throughout most of the Birmingham–Tuscaloosa–Anniston market from Jefferson, Tuscaloosa and Shelby counties northeastward, while its programming is available to providers southwest of that line via WDBB. In Birmingham, the station is available on Comcast Xfinity channel 4, Charter Spectrum channel 9 and AT&T U-verse channel 21.
Early history of UHF channel 21 in central Alabama
The UHF channel 21 allocation in Central Alabama was originally allocated to Gadsden. The first television station in the region to occupy the allocation was WTVS, which operated during the 1950s as an affiliate of the DuMont Television Network, and was one of the earliest UHF television stations in the United States.
However, it was never able to gain a viewership foothold against the region's other stations; its owners ceased the operations of WTVS in 1957, as it had suffered from severely limited viewership due to the lack of television sets in Central Alabama that were capable of receiving stations on the UHF band (electronics manufacturers were not required to incorporate built-in UHF tuners into television sets until the passage of the All-Channel Receiver Act by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1961, although such tuners would not be included on all newer sets until 1964). The WTVS callsign is now used by a PBS member station in Detroit, Michigan.
In 1963, Chapman Radio and Television Company—then the owners of radio station WCRT (1260 AM, now WYDE and 96.5 FM, now WMJJ)—filed a petition to the FCC to move the dormant channel 21 allocation to Birmingham, arguing that a new television station could better serve the region's ethnic and economic minority communities. The FCC granted the allocation of channel 21 in August 1965; however, the FCC chose to resume hearings on the matter after other applicants protested the granting of Chapman's petition. The Alabama Television Corporation (a group owned by John Jemison) was awarded the channel 21 license in the fall of 1968; Chapman subsequently filed a lawsuit against Jemison on the basis that it had already been granted the allocation.
The two parties were soon joined by the Birmingham Broadcasting Company (owned by investors that operated radio station WLPH [1480 AM, now WMMA] and the Birmingham Television Corporation (the original owners of CBS/NBC affiliate WBMG [channel 42, now WIAT and exclusively affiliated with CBS]), which also applied for the channel 21 license. As part of its efforts to resolve the four-way competition between the groups, the FCC conducted a survey of Birmingham residents that asked them what they wanted in a new television station. In 1981, Chapman – by then, known as Chapman Broadcasting – was awarded the license for the second time.
WTTO/WDBB station history
WTTO first signed on the air at 6:00 p.m. Central Time on April 21, 1982, with a rerun of the 1970s action series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century as the first program to air on the station. As Chapman Family Television, its original owners, Chapman Broadcasting, founded WCFT-TV (channel 33, now Heroes & Icons affiliate WSES) in Tuscaloosa in October 1965, before selling the station to South Mississippi Broadcasters in 1967. The station originally operated from studio facilities located next to its transmission tower near the city's Goldencrest neighborhood.
Originally operating as an independent station, it was the second independent to sign on in Alabama—debuting a few months after WPMI-TV (now an NBC affiliate) in Mobile—and the first to begin operations in the Birmingham market. On paper, the Birmingham market had a large enough population to provide suitable viewership for an independent station since the early 1970s. However, as a whole, Birmingham is a very large market in terms of geographical size, and portions of the area are somewhat mountainous. UHF stations do not get good reception over wide areas or in rugged terrain. By the early 1980s, cable television service had gained enough penetration in central Alabama to make an independent station viable in the region.
Channel 21 was programmed as a typical UHF independent, maintaining a schedule reliant mainly on cartoons, sitcoms and movies. From its sign-on in 1982 until 1985, WTTO also carried programming from the Financial News Network. WTTO quickly became known in the market for airing a broad mix of cult films as part of its film lineup (the station also hosted film festivals at parks throughout central Alabama, featuring public screenings of the movies that it broadcast), as well as spoof promotional campaigns for its programs. WTTO quickly became the strongest independent station in Alabama, and one of the highest-rated independents in the United States. In 1984, the station launched a low-power translator in downtown Birmingham, W62BG, which served areas that could not receive the main WTTO signal due to the rugged mountainous terrain of the area. Chapman Broadcasting sold WTTO to Arlington Broadcasting in 1983; Arlington, in turn, sold the station to HR Broadcasting in 1987. WTTO remained the only independent station in central Alabama for its first two years of operation; however, it would eventually gain a competitor in the west-central part of the state.
WDBB began operations on October 8, 1984 as an independent station that was originally licensed to Tuscaloosa, although it branded itself as a full-market Birmingham station. In point of fact, it was the second commercial television station to serve west-central Alabama, after WCFT-TV, which signed on in October 1965 as a part-time affiliate of CBS and NBC. The station was founded by DuBose Broadcasting, a locally based company owned by Tuscaloosa businessman David Dubose. Originally operating from a newly constructed studio facility located on Jug Factory Road on the southern edge of Tuscaloosa, it maintained a general entertainment format, with a heavy emphasis on movies during prime time and on weekends as well as local newscasts focused on the Tuscaloosa market; it also carried certain ABC daytime programs that were not cleared locally by WBRC-TV (channel 6).
Dubose invested heavily in the station, filling its schedule with strong first-run and off-network syndicated programming. The upstart station gained a major coup in the fall of 1985, when WDBB acquired the local broadcast television rights to the football and basketball coaches' shows of the Alabama Crimson Tide; prior to this, both Tide coaches' shows had aired on NBC affiliate WAPI-TV (channel 13, by then known as WVTM-TV), and before then, on WBRC. Although Birmingham was just barely large enough at the time to support two independent stations, WTTO and WDBB spent most of the first half of the 1980s in a pitched battle for ratings supremacy.
In September 1986, HR Broadcasting Company, a unit of HAR Communications, purchased the station along with WCGV-TV in Milwaukee from Byron Lasky's companies. HAR Communications was 20% owned by Hal Roach Studios.
Because of its distinction as one of America's strongest independent stations, WTTO was approached by the Fox Broadcasting Company for an affiliation contract deal prior to its October 1986 debut. Channel 21 turned down the affiliation; however, the station continued to prosper even without the support of Fox. WDBB then quickly reached an agreement to serve as the central Alabama outlet for the upstart network. The signing of the affiliation agreement with Fox occurred just as WDBB was finalizing preparations to launch WNAL-TV (channel 44, now Ion Television owned-and-operated station WPXH-TV) in Gadsden, which debuted in April of that year as a satellite station intended to serve the northeastern part of the market—specifically, areas to the east of downtown Birmingham—that could not receive the WDBB signal due to interference from the rugged mountainous terrain within the city. WDBB used its new status as a network affiliate to make a concerted effort to improve its reach in Birmingham. In addition to signing on WNAL, WDBB was allowed to move its city of license to Bessemer, which allowed it to build a new transmitter tower located closer to Birmingham that would provide a much stronger signal in the western portion of the city.
WDBB/WNAL officially joined Fox when that network launched on October 6, 1986. As was the case with other Fox stations during the network's early years, channels 17 and 44 continued to essentially program as de facto independent stations as, by the time it expanded its programming outside of late-night in April 1987, Fox initially ran prime time programs only on weekend evenings; the network would not carry seven nights a week of programming until September 1993. Until Fox began airing programming on a nightly basis, WDBB aired movies (and later, syndicated programs) in the 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. time period on nights when the network was not scheduled to air any programming.
In June 1990, Qintex Entertainment sold its stake in HR Broadcasting Co., which owned WTTO and WCGV stations, to ABRY Communications for over $40 million.
Despite covering a majority of central Alabama over-the-air, WDBB only provided Grade B coverage (at best) within Birmingham proper, even though Bessemer is located only 15.5 miles (24.9 km) southwest of the city. Due to the eastward location of its transmitter tower, WNAL's signal did not penetrate well into Birmingham either, only reaching as far west as extreme eastern Jefferson County. As a result, several major cable providers in the Birmingham market, including those serving Jefferson and Shelby counties, refused to carry the station. Ultimately, after all of DuBose's efforts to increase WDBB/WNAL's cable footprint failed, Fox signed an agreement to make WTTO its new Birmingham affiliate and moved its programming to channel 21 in January 1991.
Soon afterward, WDBB and WNAL began simulcasting WTTO for all but three hours of their broadcast day, with separate syndicated programming airing during the time that WDBB and WNAL programmed themselves. As part of the deal, WDBB/WNAL merged its stronger inventory of programming onto WTTO's schedule. WTTO now found itself with a large amount of programming that it no longer had time to air; it then chose to sell the local rights to some of its classic sitcoms to WABM (channel 68), which converted into a general entertainment independent around the same time WDBB/WNAL became its semi-satellites. The station subsequently began identifying as "Fox 21," relegating mentions of WDBB and WNAL to legal identifications. The WTTO/WDBB/WNAL trimulcast provided a strong combined signal throughout the central third of Alabama that was comparable to those of WBRC and WVTM.
By 1993, Abry had purchased WDBB and WNAL outright and converted both stations into full-time satellites of WTTO. WDBB then relocated its transmitter facilities to a tower in Moundville and reduced its transmitter power to reduce overlap with WTTO, but continued to maintain Bessemer as its city of license. That same year, WTTO entered into a local marketing agreement with WABM, which had been sold a few months earlier to a locally based group. By 1994, WTTO had become one of the highest-rated Fox affiliates in the country, and managed to overtake CBS affiliate WBMG as the third-highest-rated television station in central Alabama. Late that year, both WDBB and WNAL began airing separate programming during the daytime and late evening hours, consisting of syndicated sitcoms, drama and animated series that WTTO did not hold the rights to broadcast as well as local newscasts.
In 1994, Abry Communications merged with Sinclair Broadcast Group, which, in addition to acquiring WTTO and WDBB, also assumed the rights to the local marketing agreement with WABM. At that time, the station moved its operations into WABM's facilities on Beacon Parkway West. In 1995, WNAL was purchased by Fant Broadcasting, but continued to simulcast WTTO's programming through a time brokerage agreement.
Disaffiliation from Fox and eventual switch to The WB
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 WBRC 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 Fox 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. WBRC was one of the stations involved in this agreement. Although WTTO had established itself as one of the network's strongest affiliates, Fox jumped at the chance to align with WBRC, which had been the dominant station in central Alabama for over three decades.
Three weeks later, New World agreed to buy WVTM-TV and three other stations—CBS affiliates KDFW in Dallas–Fort Worth and KTBC in Austin, and ABC affiliate KTVI in St. Louis—from Argyle Television Holdings, in a purchase option-structured deal worth $717 million. The two purchases created a problem for New World due to conflicts caused by restrictions on television station ownership imposed by the FCC at the time; New World was not permitted to retain both WBRC and WVTM in any event as the ownership of two television stations in the same market by a single company was prohibited, and the concurrent acquisitions would give New World ownership of a combined fifteen stations, three more than the FCC allowed. The group's affiliation deal with Fox allowed New World to solve its ownership conflicts in Birmingham, as it chose to establish and transfer the license of WBRC into a trust company with the intent to sell the station to the network's broadcasting subsidiary, Fox Television Stations; the trust transfer was completed on July 24, 1995.
Although the transfer of WBRC to the trust was finalized on July 24, 1995, Fox 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 Television Stations to operate WBRC as an ABC affiliate for 8½ months after its purchase of the station from the New World-established trust closed on January 17, 1996, creating the rare situation in which a station was run by the owned-and-operated station group of one network but maintained an affiliation with one of its competitors, it gave ABC enough time to find a new central Alabama affiliate. The network first approached WTTO for an affiliation agreement. However, Sinclair—which would not own any stations affiliated with either of the Big Three networks until it acquired River City Broadcasting in 1996—was only willing to carry ABC's prime time and news programming, as it was not interested in carrying the network's then-languishing daytime and Saturday morning programs. Even though WDBB operated a news department at the time negotiations with ABC began, Sinclair was also not willing to start a news department for WTTO; the group did not allocate a budget for news production for its non-Big Three stations at the time.
Unlike situations in St. Louis and the Piedmont Triad, where the network had little other choice but to align with a Sinclair-owned station (or one that the group would later acquire) due to a lack of another financially secure full-power station, other options were available in the Birmingham market. After turning down the WTTO offer in late 1995, ABC reached an agreement with Allbritton Communications to affiliate with WCFT in November of that year; Allbritton planned to acquire the non-license assets of WNAL-TV under a local marketing agreement and convert it into a satellite of WCFT-TV. Allbritton would later terminate the proposed LMA with WNAL and entered into an LMA with Osborne Communications Corporation to take over the operations of WJSU-TV; it also purchased low-power independent station W58CK (channel 58, now WBMA-LD) to serve as the official ABC affiliate for central Alabama for the purpose of being counted in the Birmingham station ratings reports (as Nielsen designated Tuscaloosa and Anniston as separate markets at the time), with WCFT and WJSU serving as its satellites.
On September 1, 1996, when WBRC-TV officially became a Fox owned-and-operated station and W58CK/WCFT/WJSU became an ABC affiliate, WTTO and WDBB reverted to operating as independent stations. Simultaneously, WNAL formally terminated the WTTO simulcast, and became the CBS affiliate for Gadsden and northeastern Alabama. WBRC originally planned to carry the entire Fox network schedule, running the Fox Kids block on weekday afternoons to replace the displaced ABC soap opera lineup upon its move to the W58CK trimulcast (which would be collectively known as "ABC 33/40," a brand referencing the respective channel numbers of WCFT and WJSU, and will mostly be referred to hereafter in the article as "WBMA+"). However, in what would be the catalyst to a change in the carriage policies for Fox Kids that allowed stations the option of either airing the block or being granted the right to transfer the rights to another station in the market, Sinclair approached WBRC about allowing WTTO to retain Fox Kids, which the Fox network (on behalf of Fox Television Stations) allowed it to keep.
On February 2, 1997, WTTO and WDBB became affiliates of The WB Television Network, and changed its on-air branding to "WB 21". It was one of the first Sinclair stations to affiliate with the network, occurring six months before the group struck an agreement to affiliate most of its UPN-affiliated and independent stations that it either owned or controlled to The WB on July 21. Prior to that point, Birmingham had been one of the largest markets that was not served by a local WB affiliate; central Alabama residents were only able to receive WB programs on satellite and some cable providers through the national superstation feed of the network's Chicago affiliate, WGN-TV (now an independent station; its cable feed now operates as a standalone channel), which carried the network's programming nationwide from The WB's launch in January 1995 until October 1999.
With the WB affiliation, WTTO added one of Fox Kids' competitors, Kids' WB, to its inventory of children's programming. The station carried Kids' WB's weekday morning and afternoon blocks together on Monday through Friday mornings (bookending Fox Kids' weekday morning block) on either a one-day delay or live-to-air depending on the time slot and accordant block; the Saturday morning edition of the block, meanwhile, aired on Sundays in a day-behind arrangement as WTTO aired the Fox Kids weekend block on Saturdays. During the late 1990s, WTTO reduced the number of movies, classic sitcoms and cartoons on its schedule, and began shifting its syndicated programming towards a lineup of talk, reality and court shows as well as more recent syndicated sitcoms, that would become the common variety of programming for netlet stations at that time.
In early 2000, WDBB relocated its transmitter facilities back to its original 609.6-metre (2,000 ft) guyed-mast transmission tower in Windham Springs (which was constructed and completed shortly before the station signed on in 1982). WTTO dropped the Fox Kids block in September 2000, at which time, the station moved the Kids' WB blocks to weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Neither WBRC, nor any other central Alabama station, chose to acquire the local rights to Fox's children's programming lineup; as a result, Fox Kids, as well as the successor blocks that 4Kids Entertainment programmed for the network after 2002 (Fox Box and 4Kids TV), were not cleared in the Birmingham market for the 7½ years that the network continued to carry children's programming; in addition, WTTO (as with WBRC) declined to air the paid programming block that replaced 4Kids TV in January 2009, Weekend Marketplace; it would air instead on WABM. WTTO has continued to air the children's program blocks carried by The WB, and later by The CW (Kids' WB, The CW4Kids/Toonzai, Vortexx and One Magnificent Morning), without interruption through the years. In 2001, Sinclair purchased WABM outright, creating the Birmingham–Tuscaloosa–Anniston market's first television duopoly with WTTO/WDBB.
On January 24, 2006, the Warner Bros. Entertainment unit of Time Warner (which operated The WB) and CBS Corporation (which acquired UPN through its split from Viacom in December 2005) announced that the two companies would respectively shut down UPN and The WB, and enter into a joint venture to form a new "fifth" broadcast television network, The CW, that would initially feature a mix of programming from both of its forerunner networks as well as new content developed specifically for The CW. WTTO, however, continued to show The WB's programming until The WB's The Night of Favorites and Farewells, which aired on September 17, 2006. On May 2, 2006, Sinclair Broadcast Group announced that it had signed an affiliation agreement with the network, in which WTTO would become the Birmingham charter affiliate of The CW; when it officially joined the network upon its debut on September 18, WTTO/WDBB adopted "CW 21" as its official branding (although, the station sometimes identifies as "CW 21 Alabama" in some promotional imaging); sister station WABM affiliated with MyNetworkTV, a new secondary service started by Fox, on September 5, 2006.
In 2007, Sinclair sold WDBB to Cunningham Broadcasting, and entered into a time brokerage agreement to continue operating that station as its repeater. However, the sale itself was purely nominal, as 97% of Cunningham's stock is controlled by trusts owned by the family of now-deceased Sinclair founder Julian Sinclair Smith (including, among others, its current chief executive officer David Smith). Since the late 1990s, when it was known as Glencairn, Ltd., Cunningham has long faced allegations that it merely acts a shell corporation to circumvent FCC rules on television station ownership within a single market.
Secondary ABC affiliation
On July 29, 2013, Allbritton Communications announced that it would sell its seven television stations—including the trimulcast operation involving WBMA-LD and satellites WCFT-TV and WJSU-TV—to Sinclair Broadcast Group (which would purchase the stations for $985 million), in order to focus on running its co-owned political news website, Politico. As part of the deal, Sinclair had intended to sell the license assets of WTTO and WABM to Deerfield Media, and retain operational responsibilities for those stations through shared services and joint sales agreements.
On December 6, 2013, the FCC informed Sinclair that applications related to the deal need to be "amended or withdrawn," as Sinclair would retain the existing time brokerage agreement between WTTO and WDBB; 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. 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 approval of the Allbritton acquisition that was delayed due to the FCC's increased scrutiny of outsourcing agreements (such as those maintained by Sinclair) used to circumvent in-market ownership caps, Sinclair announced that it would retain ownership of WTTO (under which WDBB would continue operating as its satellite under the existing LMA), and form a new duopoly between it and WBMA+ (which would mark the first known instance in which the senior partner in one duopoly became the junior partner in another, as well as the first instance involving a duopoly that was broken up legally terminating all operational ties with the junior partner); 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 Beacon Parkway studios to WBMA's facility in Hoover.
On May 29, 2014, after informing the FCC that it had not found a buyer for WABM (even among the respective owners of WBRC, WVTM and WIAT that did not operate an existing duopoly in Birmingham, Raycom Media, Media General and LIN Media, the latter two of which were in the process of merging at the time), Sinclair stated that it would propose a surrendering of the WJSU and WCFT licenses, and migrate the WBMA simulcast to WABM's second digital subchannel on the basis that the latter's transmission facilities are superior to those of WCFT and WJSU (as a low-power station, WBMA-LD would not be affected as the FCC does not apply in-market ownership caps to low-power stations owned alongside any full-power station). After nearly a year of delays, Sinclair's acquisition of Allbritton was approved by the FCC on July 24, 2014, and completed one week later on August 1.
On September 18, 2014, in preparation for the planned shutdown of WCFT and WJSU eleven days later on September 29 (the transaction would be suspended on Sinclair's asking by the FCC days prior to the shutdown after the group agreed to sell both stations to Howard Stirk Holdings, on the agreement that Sinclair would not enter into any operational arrangements with HSH for either station), WDBB added a simulcast feed of WBMA-LD on digital subchannel 17.2, replacing WCFT (which became a Heartland affiliate) as WBMA's Tuscaloosa repeater; WABM also added a simulcast of the WBMA on its 68.2 subchannel.
|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)