Channel 42 was originally licensed to the Birmingham News Company in December 1952 and was to have been called WSGN-TV, for the South's Greatest Newspaper, a sister of the flagship WSGN-AM radio station operated by Southern Broadcasting. Nothing happened with the station until Bill DuBois, a local investment banker formed a partnership with Southern Broadcasting.
Post-war shortages of transmitting equipment delayed the station's debut. WBMG (BirMinGham) finally signed on October 17, 1965 with a broadcast of NBC's "The Capitol: Chronicle of Freedom". The station originally broadcast only during prime-time hours, starting at 6:00 PM.
As was the case at the time with most UHF stations in markets served by at least two commercial VHF stations (CBS/NBC affiliate WAPI TV and ABC affiliate WBRC TV), WBMG experienced a considerable competitive disadvantage from the outset. Many households didn't have TV sets capable of viewing UHF signals without a converter, since the FCC hadn't required TV manufacturers to include UHF tuning until the previous year. The station's signal also left much to be desired. As a result, although on paper WBMG took the CBS affiliation from WAPI, CBS continued to allow WAPI to air some of its more popular programming. WBMG was left with several lower-rated CBS shows, and filled the schedule with some NBC shows that WAPI turned down, such as The Tonight Show. Both stations listed their affiliation as "CBS/NBC." WBMG also rebroadcast programs that aired earlier in the day on channel 13, such as the Bear Bryant Show.
With a poor signal, the lack of sets with UHF capability and two of the South's oldest and most respected stations as competition, WBMG found the going rather difficult. But many of WBMG's problems were of its own making. Its newscasts often became comedy shows, likely due to the staff's perception of their futility against the longer-established WBRC and WAPI. For instance, sportscaster Tommy Charles wadded up scripts and tossed them over his shoulder after reading them. He also let balloons fly around the set for no apparent reason.
WBMG quickly gained notoriety in Central Alabama for its local shows, such as live studio wrestling, and the children's show "Sergeant Jack", which featured former WSGN radio disc jockey Neal Miller, who donned the uniform of a sheriff's deputy (and actually was sworn in as an honorary deputy by the Jefferson County sheriff himself) and engaged in fanciful banter with puppets.
WBMG became a full CBS affiliate when Roy Park's Park Communications bought the station for $5.5 million in 1973 (due to WAPI's decision for NBC, not WBMG's for CBS). Hugh Smith stayed on as general manager. The new owners tried to professionalize the newscasts in the 1970s with lead anchor Thom Gossom, but due to the station's limited reach, enjoyed little success against the competition. The station, then managed by Hugh Smith did deploy the first color remote truck in Birmingham, using equipment purchased in 1972 to broadcast weekly services at Dawson Memorial Baptist Church. The station also broadcast the annual Veterans Day Parade and Peace Luncheon.
WBMG had no local newscasts at all from 1980 until 1987 aside from hourly cut-ins. During this time, the station broadcast syndicated shows at both 5 and 10 p.m. Even when local news returned in 1987, WBMG had no luck whatsoever competing with WVTM and WBRC. It was perenially one of CBS' weakest affiliates, in marked contrast to its competitors, who were two of their networks' strongest affiliates.
WBMG's ratings were so low that for several years, Birmingham-area viewers opted to watch CBS programming on two other stations in Central Alabama --WCFT 33 in Tuscaloosa and WJSU 40 in Anniston. WCFT and WJSU regularly trounced WBMG in their respective cities, especially in Anniston since WBMG's signal didn't cover Anniston very well at the time. When WBRC switched to Fox, WCFT and WJSU combined with low-powered WBMA- 58 to become the ABC affiliate for Birmingham, making WBMG the only choice for CBS. However, WBMG reaped almost no windfall from this switch and continued its dreadful ratings performance. As a result, CBS affiliated with another Central Alabama station, WNAL 68 (now WPXH 68) in Gadsden, which put a fairly decent signal into the Birmingham area as well as Anniston.
In 1997, Park Communications merged with Media General. WBMG stayed in the ratings basement with a mere 1% market share, trailing even reruns of Sanford and Son and The Andy Griffith Show. On January 1, 1998 General Manager Eric Land shut down WBMG's newscast and began a month-long overhaul. The station was relaunched on February 5 as WIAT.
- Jordan, Turner (October 18, 1965) "City's fourth channel arrives in fine style" The Birmingham News - via Birmingham Rewound
- Held, Julie (June 17, 1977) "Third station in three-station town acts like No. 1". The Birmingham News "Punch"