WVTM-TV, virtual and VHF digital channel 13, branded on air as Alabama's 13, is an NBC-affiliated television station licensed to Birmingham, Alabama, United States. The station is owned by Media General. WVTM's studios and transmitter are located atop Red Mountain, between Vulcan Trail and Valley View Drive in southeastern Birmingham, adjacent to the Vulcan Statue and next to the studios of ABC affiliate WBRC (channel 6).
On cable, WVTM is available on Charter Spectrum channel 8 in the immediate Birmingham area (channel 5 in outlying areas), and Comcast Xfinity and AT&T U-verse channel 13 in standard definition; and in high definition on Spectrum channel 1008 (channels 705 or 1005 in outlying areas), Dish Network, Xfinity and AT&T U-verse channel 1013.
The station first signed on the air on May 29, 1949, as WAFM-TV, originally carrying a limited schedule of local programming. The station began carrying select network programming on July 1, operating as a primary CBS and secondary ABC affiliate; channel 13 began carrying an expanded schedule of programming from ABC and CBS on October 1. It was originally owned by The Voice of Alabama, Inc., along with radio stations WAPI (1070 AM), and WAFM (then at 93.3, now WJOX-FM at 94.5 FM). It is the longest continuously operating television station in Alabama. During the summer of 1949, most programs aired by WAFM-TV aired during the daytime hours, allowing radio electronics and department stores to demonstrate television set receivers to potential customers. In January 1953, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved an application to increase the station's transmitter power from 26,000 to 316,000 watts.
In July 1953, The Birmingham News bought the Voice of Alabama and changed the station's call letters to WABT (for "Alabama's Best Television"). The following year on July 4, 1954, WABT traded primary network affiliations with WBRC-TV (channel 6) and joined NBC; however it retained a secondary affiliation with ABC as did WBRC-TV, which took over the CBS affiliation as its then-new owners, Storer Broadcasting, had maintained a strong relationship with the network (the company's founder and chairman, George B. Storer, was a member of the board of directors at CBS). On January 26, 1956, newspaper publishing company Newhouse Newspapers (now Advance Publications) purchased the News. The station changed its callsign again in 1958 to WAPI-TV (for Alabama Polytechnic Institute [now known as Auburn University], which owned WAPI radio from 1925 to 1932) to match its sister AM radio station; WAFM-FM adopted the WAPI calls at the same time, as moved its frequency to 94.5 FM.
Channel 13 also became known for its heavy schedule of local programs during the 1950s and 1960s, most notably two popular shows aimed at younger audiences hosted by two early staples of Birmingham television. Magician Cliff Holman hosted a children's program on the station for 15 years from 1954 to 1968; originally debuting in March 1954 as The Tip Top Clubhouse (named after the Ward Baking Company's Tip Top Bread brand), the afternoon cartoon showcase featured Holman—who previously served as the voice and puppeteer of Mr. Bingle, a marionette character originated in 1949 by City Stores of New York, for a Loveman's-sponsored holiday series that aired on WAFM-TV in November 1950—in the persona of "Cousin Cliff" (which was given to him by Ward executives as the then-25-year-old was too young to fit the "uncle" image then common of other children's show hosts), and underwent three format and title changes between 1956 and 1958, first as Cliff's Clubhouse (after Ward Baking withdrew sponsorship due to corporate difficulties) and then as Cartoon Clubhouse and later, The Popeye Show, after WAPI acquired the local rights to the Fleischer Studios animated shorts. In 1968, Holman left WAPI after station management relegated Popeye to weekend mornings, after ratings declined following the show's move to weekday mornings and a switch to a pre-recorded format; he revived his program at WHMA-TV (channel 40, now WGWW) in Anniston in 1969, as The Cousin Cliff Show. Benny Carle hosted Western Theatre, a showcase of western films interspersed with studio segments with local children as part of its studio audience that aired from 1953 to 1954, when Carle left to take over Bob Bandy's role as host the similarly formatted Circle Six Ranch on WBRC-TV, where he remained until 1964.
WBRC-TV became a full-time ABC affiliate on September 7, 1961, although it continued to occasionally carry certain CBS shows that WAPI chose not to carry until 1965. The WBRC deal with ABC—which was also a result of the strong relations between the network and WBRC's owner, Taft Television and Radio Company, which acquired that station in 1957—forced WAPI-TV to shoehorn both NBC and CBS programs onto its programming schedule. This was rather unusual, since in most two-station markets, ABC (which would not be on equal footing with CBS and NBC until the early 1970s) was typically relegated to a secondary affiliation on either one or both of the existing television stations. The Birmingham market then (as it is now) was 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. The market also has areas of fairly rugged terrain—particularly in the eastern part of the state, which lies within the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains—which often created impairment issues with the over-the-air reception of UHF television stations. Both of these factors made prospective broadcasters skittish about signing on a television station on one of the available UHF allocations. Although there were two other VHF channels in the market (channels 7 and 10), both had been allocated to Alabama Educational Television (now Alabama Public Television). This came after George Storer, whose company donated the two frequencies and accompanying transmitters to the Alabama Educational Television Commission (which were respectively signed on WCIQ and WBIQ on those channels in 1955) in a move that may have been an attempt to forestall future commercial competition in the market. As a result, while Birmingham had been large enough population-wise to support three full network affiliates since the 1950s, it had a long wait for full network service.
The Birmingham market would not get a third commercial broadcast television outlet until WBMG-TV (channel 42, now WIAT) signed on in October 1965. Although WBMG nominally had a CBS affiliation, the network allowed WAPI-TV to continue airing its higher-rated programs. This was largely because WBMG had launched only one year after the FCC's All-Channel Receiver Act went into law, requiring that television sets manufactured from 1964 onward include all-channel tuning; relatively few households in the area at the time had sets with built-in UHF tuning capability, or expensive converter boxes that enabled older television sets to pick up UHF signals. Compounding things, channel 42 operated at a lower effective radiated power, producing a signal that was considerably weaker than that of either WAPI-TV or WBRC-TV. To fill out its schedule, WBMG aired some NBC programs that WAPI-TV turned down or otherwise had no room to broadcast on its schedule (such as The Tonight Show). Both stations listed "CBS/NBC" as their affiliation, as WBMG maintained a nominal secondary affiliation with the latter network. On April 3, 1967, WAPI-TV became the first television station in Birmingham to broadcast all of its programming in color, having acquired camera, projection and slide equipment to broadcast local and acquired programming in the format, in addition to carrying NBC and CBS programs available in color.
In May 1970, WAPI-TV became the exclusive NBC affiliate for Birmingham, simultaneously resulting in the CBS programs not already carried by that station moving to WBMG. The switch to an exclusive NBC affiliation was because two of Newhouse Broadcasting's other stations, WSTM-TV in Syracuse and WETM-TV in Elmira, New York (which were then WSYR-TV [not to be confused with the current WSYR] and WSYE-TV respectively), were already affiliated with the network; in addition, the company's chairman did not have a great personal relationship with CBS's president William S. Paley. At the same time that WAPI and WBMG aligned with the respective networks, 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, two UHF stations respectively serving the western and eastern portions of Central Alabama, also became full-time affiliates of CBS; like WBMG and WAPI prior to becoming exclusive network affiliates, WCFT and WHMA—both of which signed on the air in the late 1960s—started as affiliates of both CBS and NBC. Prior to that time, the prime time schedules of the Tuscaloosa and Anniston stations virtually mirrored that of WBMG, because of WAPI's exclusive rights to network programming shown on that station for the entire viewing area.
Newhouse exited the broadcasting industry in the early 1980s to focus exclusively on its newspaper holdings. In 1979, the company sold its television stations, including WAPI-TV, to the Los Angeles-based Times Mirror Company; the WAPI radio stations were sold to Dittman Broadcasting. Following the completion of the sale, the station, due to an FCC rule in place at the time that stated that TV and radio stations in the same market, but with different ownership had to have differing call letters, changed its call letters to WVTM-TV (for Vulcan Times-Mirror; the "V" referencing both the cast-iron statue in Vulcan Statue as well as its location atop Red Mountain at Vulcan Park, where WVTM's transmitter tower was located) on March 28, 1980.