Thursday, February 6, 2014

2.6.14 Bee-otch of the Day: Birmingham, Alabama's TV stations

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Name: the Birmingham, AL TV market
Age: 65
Occupation: purveyors of televised entertainment
Last Seen: north central Alabama
Bee-otched For: making the locals miss an important part of TV history 50 years ago


If you visit Birmingham, AL today, you're connected with all the major TV networks over-the-air.

CBS is on WIAT-42, NBC is WVTM-13, ABC is on WBMA 33/40, Fox is on WBRC-6 and so on.

But it wasn't always that way, and 50 years ago this weekend, the city paid the price when four young lads from Liverpool visited The Ed Sullivan Show.

It's almost hard to believe that it was 50 years ago this Sunday that John, Paul, George and Ringo played in front of hundreds of young, screaming teenage girls live from CBS Studio 50 on Broadway and some 73 million viewers at home over the CBS Television Network. At the time, CBS was seen in well over 90% of the country, even in small towns.

However, the ratings for The Beatles' Ed Sullivan appearance could have been much higher if it aired in the largest city in America at the time without a full-time CBS affiliate, that being Birmingham. If you lived in the area at the time, your best bet would have been picking up WAGA-5 Atlanta, WCOV-20 in Montgomery or WHNT-19 Huntsville.

So, why DIDN'T Birmingham, a town of over 200,000 citizens and thousands more in their viewing area get to watch The Beatles be a part of American television history? Well, it all began in the late 1940's when the FCC gave Birmingham four allotments for VHF channels, in this case being 6, 7, 10 and 13. There were four networks at the time - NBC, CBS, ABC and DuMont, which signed off for good in 1956 - which would have been great for Birmingham.

Bear in mind that most TV sets didn't have UHF (channels 14-83) capabilities until 1964. Until then, most people who wanted UHF channels had to buy a converter, which was quite expensive. Therefore, most broadcasters fretted even at the thought of broadcasting in UHF.

In 1949, Birmingham's first TV station, WAFM-13 signed on, carrying CBS, ABC and DuMont shows. Later that year, WBRC-6 also went on the air with NBC and carrying some of the ABC shows rejected by 6. However, in 1954, WBRC was sold to George Storer, who was a board member of CBS. He also owned CBS stations in Detroit (WJBK) and Cleveland (WJW) amongst others, so Channel 6 went with CBS while 13 went with NBC. However, Storer helped Alabama Educational Television to secure channels 7 and 10, to make sure that Channel 13 was his only commercial competition in Birmingham.

But then, the plot thickened. In 1957, Storer was forced to sell WBRC after purchasing a station in much-larger Philadelphia. So, he sold it to Taft Broadcasting. However, Taft had a great relationship with ABC, so in 1961, in an unprecedented move, WBRC-6 became a full-blown ABC affiliate. In most two-station markets in the 50's up until the 00's, one station usually had CBS and another had NBC and both stations cherry-picked at ABC since it was the least-popular of the Big Three networks. But there was another unfortunate reason why Channel 6 went with ABC full-blast: they didn't have a strong news department while CBS did, and they were pro-Civil Rights, angering many white segregationists in the Birmingham area.

When Channel 6 went with ABC, 13 - now WAPI-TV and owned by the Newhouse family - picked up some CBS shows. WAPI cherry-picked between the two networks, usually choosing NBC over CBS. When it came to news, 13 was with NBC, which meant that when JFK was assassinated, Birminghamians probably didn't get to see Walter Cronkite left off his glasses proclaiming that he had died.

One of the shows 13 didn't air was indeed Sullivan. Instead, they aired Disney's Wonderful World of Color from NBC. Channel 6, on the other hand aired a show that is well-remembered by all Americans these days: The Travels of Jamie McPheeters.

Thanks to corporate bullying and southern racism, rock fans in Birmingham were screwed out of rock history when The Beatles sang "All My Lovin'" on live TV. Of course, this was the ways before most people had cable or even the internet. Thankfully, a year later - and thanks to an FCC ruling that forced TV manufacturers to put UHF dials on TVs - Birmingham finally got their own CBS affiliate again.... Sort of. WBMG-42 signed on and they wanted CBS all to themselves. But CBS was scared that if they lost 13, they would lose more viewers. So, 42 settled airing 6 and 13's 'rejects', such as Sullivan, The Tonight Show and even Bewitched, which Channel 6 yanked off the air because it was about a man marrying a witch.

Thankfully in 1970, 6, 13 and 42 called a truce. 6 got ABC, 13 got NBC and 42 got CBS. 42 boosted their wattage, although CBS decided to affiliate themselves with the original 33/40, now Birmingham's ABC affiliate.

Even though virtually all TV shows are cleared in Birmingham's spacious TV market, nothing can replace the sadness of being a young teenage girl upset that she lived in a town that forbade The Ed Sullivan Show all because of being in a fierce city for TV. But thankfully, just about every episode of Sullivan still exists, including The Beatles' appearances.

And here they are.  


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