Earvin “Magic” Johnson has spent a lot of time on TV over the years, as a Hall of Fame point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, an NBA analyst and for a brief moment in time, a TV talk show host.
Now he is now working behind the scenes, launching his own Atlanta-based cable network called Aspire that will focus on family-friendly programming. It debuts Wednesday, June 28, at 8 p.m. Johnson is a majority owner but is in partnership with Atlanta-based GMC, which carries its own brand of uplifting shows.
“I’m a great believer in partnerships,” Johnson said in a phone interview Monday. “If I didn’t partner with GMC, I wouldn’t be in the business. We needed someone with some expertise. I thought it was a natural fit.” The name of the network, he added, is meant to reflect the positivity he hopes will come out of the programming.
Aspire was created as part of an agreement with the Federal Communications Commission when Comcast purchased NBC Universal. Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator with about 23 million subscribers, was required to start four minority-oriented networks.
I haven’t gotten much in the way of details when it comes to programming. It’s about 27 hours from launch, and my Comcast DVR schedule does not have Aspire up yet as an option.
UPDATE 6/28 3:08 p.m.: I am now looking at my Comcast DVR. Aspire’s first couple of days mines the late 1960s and early 1970s. The 1972 film “Sounder” is on now starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Whitfield. Later today, Aspire will air “Julia,” the first sitcom starring a black woman in a non-stereotypical role; “The Flip Wilson Show,’ the first successful variety show led by a black performer; and “The Bill Cosby Show” that aired from 1969 to 1971 and was the first comedy starring a solo black actor.
On Monday, they sent out their first press release about programming: an original two-hour block of independent black features hosted by actor Omari Hardwick. In general, there will be a mix of films, documentaries, music and comedy.
Charles Humbard, president and CEO of GMC, said “Soul Train” repeats will be on the slate, partly because GMC is majority-owned by InterMedia Partners, which also has the rights to the classic music show. (Johnson has worked with InterMedia in the past.) Humbard also namedropped “I Spy,” the 1960s drama starring Bill Cosby. Otherwise, I do not know what’s on the schedule but will update this as I get more details.
Aspire will now enter an increasingly crowded sphere that already has BET, Centric, TV One and Atlanta-based Bounce, which launched just nine months ago. Humbard said the network will have access to about 7 to 10 million households out of the gate. (Locally, you’ll be able to find it on Comcast Channel 188.)
“They’re banking on Magic’s name and personality,” said Brad Adgate, head of research at Horizon Media. “Time will tell. It depends how good the programming is. There are a lot of choices out there.”
On the sales side, Magic was able to get category-exclusive deals with several advertisers, including Atlanta’s own Coca Cola, L’Oreal, Chrysler, Wal-Mart and Nationwide Insurance.
Johnson said the network did focus groups and found a hole in the market for family-friendly African-American programming. “Nobody is going to mess with BET. They’re doing a great job. We understand the other guys. But we feel good about where we are. Based on the research and homework, we have a great opportunity. If everyone was satisfied already, I wouldn’t be launching Aspire.”
Aspire, which is moving to offices in College Park next month, has hired 15 employees with a few more on the way. GMC’s former counsel Paul Butler was picked last month to be general manager of Aspire. Given the network’s limited marketing budget, it hopes to generate buzz not only through Johnson but through social media. It has hired two employees to work Twitter/Facebook magic.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk