WAAY-TV is the ABC-affiliated television station for the Tennessee Valley area of North Alabama that is licensed to Huntsville. It broadcasts a high definition digital signal on UHF channel 32 from a transmitter at its studios on Monte Sano Boulevard on top of Monte Sano Mountain. The station is owned by Calkins Media. Syndicated programming on WAAY includes: Entertainment Tonight, The Doctors, Jeopardy! and Live with Kelly.
The station's first broadcast was on August 1, 1959 as WAFG-TV. It was Alabama's first primary ABC affiliate. There was only one other station in the area at the time, Decatur's WMSL-TV (now Huntsville's WAFF), an NBC affiliate. This was an unusual arrangement for a two-station market, especially one as small as Huntsville was at the time. When the station was sold to Smith Broadcasting (owners of WAAY, now WLOR, radio) in 1963, the call sign was changed to WAAY-TV. At the time Smith Broadcasting held a permit from the FCC to put a new station on the air broadcasting on UHF channel 25, but when the Smith family received the offer to purchase WAFG, they decided to take that instead of building a new facility. (Channel 25 was later licensed to Alabama Public Television station WHIQ.)
WAAY-TV switched network affiliation to NBC on September 2, 1967 but returned to ABC nearly ten years later, on December 11, 1977, citing higher network ratings and the lack of a duplicate ABC affiliate in Florence (where WOWL, now WHDF, was then an NBC affiliate) as reasons. Despite ABC's fall from first place in the 1980s in favor of a renewed NBC, WAAY still routinely came in first or second place in the ratings during the 1980s and 1990s. However, despite having left full NBC affiliation behind back in 1977, WAAY would once again clear some NBC programming during the 1980s, most notably Late Night with David Letterman and Friday Night Videos, which WAFF preempted in favor of evangelist Jimmy Swaggart's daily program at 11:30 p.m. It was only when Swaggart had to discontinue his weekday show in the aftermath of his sexual scandal in 1988 that WAFF resumed carrying Letterman and FNV. Since that time, WAAY has remained a strictly ABC affiliate, clearing most if not all its programs.
WAAY-TV was an early adopter of weather radar systems for its weather coverage in the early 1970s. During the 1974 tornado outbreak, the station was able to track the storms in real time using its radar system, while other media outlets had to rely on telephoned reports of visual sightings, as had been done traditionally. In 1995, the station decided to expand its internal data network to become the Internet service provider now known as HiWAAY Information Services. The service survived a period of intense local competition in the Huntsville area in the 1990s, and remains in business as an independent regional provider.
Smith Broadcasting sold WAAY-TV to GOCOM Broadcasting (originally Grapevine Communications, later renamed Piedmont Communications) in 1999. The Smith family, who previously owned broadcasting properties in Birmingham before coming to Huntsville, was the last local owner of a Huntsville television station as rivals WHNT-TV and WAFF had been sold to larger corporations years before. WZDX, which was the first station in northern Alabama not affiliated with the traditional networks or the educational television system, has always belonged to outside interests. The Smith family also, at various times, owned radio stations in Fort Walton Beach, Florida and South Pittsburg, Tennessee. At one time, all three of Huntsville's major-network affiliates (WAAY included) had studios located beside its transmitters and towers on Monte Sano.
After a 1982 fire gutted the building of WAFF, that station and later WHNT moved offices and production facilities into the city itself employing microwave relays to send signals to the transmitters. Only WAAY continues to maintain its full operations on Monte Sano Boulevard. WHIQ-TV, which is a PBS affiliate, serves as a translator relay of Alabama Public Television with programming originating from Birmingham, not Huntsville. On September 4, 2003, the 1,000 foot broadcasting tower leased by WAAY collapsed killing three people.
In 2006, Piedmont Broadcasting agreed to sell WAAY to Calkins Media, a Pennsylvania-based company that owns several small newspapers in Pennsylvania and two other television stations, (WWSB in Sarasota, Florida and WTXL in Tallahassee, Florida). The sale to Calkins became official on February 1, 2007. WAAY is Calkins' first broadcasting property outside of Florida.
On April 11, 2016, it was reported that Calkins would exit the broadcasting industry and sell its stations to Raycom Media. As Raycom already owns WAFF-TV, WAAY's license will be sold to American Spirit Media and operated under a shared services agreement by Raycom.
The station's digital signal is multiplexed:
|Channel||Video||Aspect||PSIP Short Name||Programming|
|31.1||720p||16:9||WAAY-HD||Main WAAY-TV programming / ABC|
|31.2||480i||TBD||StormForce 31 WeatherNation|
WAAY-TV shut down its analog signal, over UHF channel 31, on February 17, 2009, as part of the federally mandated transition from analog to digital television (which Congress had moved the previous month to June 12). The station's digital signal remained on its pre-transition UHF channel 32, using PSIP to display WAAY-TV's virtual channel as 31 on digital television receivers.
In the Spring 2007 ratings period, all of the station's newscasts ranked in third place. This is in contrast from the 1970s through the early-1990s, when WAAY was still family-owned. At one point, the station aired weekend morning newscasts but currently does not. On July 16, 2007 at 5, WAAY unveiled a new set and graphics package similar to that of sister stations WWSB and WTXL. Beginning September 13, 2010, its news title became WAAY 31 FirstNews. The station is now using the FirstNews brand and logo in all branding, including commercials for syndicated programming. The station was the first to air a 4:30 a.m. newscast in the market and is the only station in the area airing local news weekday at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. The channel produced a prime time newscast at 9 for UPN affiliate WHDF during the early-2000s. On September 20, 2010 through a new news share agreement, a second WAAY-produced broadcast at 9 began airing every night on Fox affiliate WZDX. In addition to its main studios, WAAY maintains news bureaus in Decatur (on Lee Street Northeast) and Florence (on North Pine Street within the University of North Alabama campus). The station operates its own weather radar at the main studios called "Live Storm Force 31 Doppler Max".
Also in 2010, after some years of a third-place finish in the ratings, WAAY did something relatively rare for a Central Time Zone station: it cancelled its 6 p.m. newscast, deciding to counterprogram WHNT and WAFF with (first-run) episodes of Jeopardy! It acquired the rights to the long-running syndicated show from WAFF, which had aired it in daytime slots since its inception in 1984. WAAY is thus one of only a few stations in the Central Time Zone affiliated with the traditional networks that allows a full hour of Prime Time Access between 6 and 7 p.m., rather than just a half hour.
On December 12, 2011, WAAY began broadcasting its news programming in high definition, making it the third station in the Huntsville television market to do so behind WAFF and WHNT. The WZDX shows were included in the upgrade.
In mid-2014, the station launched three websites, SpaceAlabama.com, RedstoneAlabama.com, and TechAlabama.com to cover the space, military, and tech industries in the Northern Alabama area.
In late-September 2014, the StormForce 31 Weather Team launched a 24/7 weather channel for Northern Alabama called StormForce 31 WeatherNation. The channel features regional and national weather from WeatherNation TV with local forecasts from the WAAY weather team, every 10 minutes on the 5's. The channel can be see on digital channel 31.2.