Magic 'Aspires' to offer channel for Black families

3/26/2013, 12:45 p.m.
As the crowd counted down, Earvin "Magic" Johnson pulled a large silver lever jutting from a box labeled "ASPiRE." With ...

NEW YORK - As the crowd counted down, Earvin "Magic" Johnson pulled a large silver lever jutting from a box labeled "ASPiRE." With that, his new cable network went live.

Then stagehands whisked the contraption off the dais at Aspire's gala premiere party Wednesday night. The switch was just a prop, of course, connected to nothing.

But Magic Johnson's ties to the African American community - not to mention sports history and contemporary culture - are direct and strong.

Now, the basketball great and business tycoon is leveraging his clout and good name to launch Aspire.

"We have a big platform for African American work," Johnson told those gathered. "Family driven content, positive images of African Americans - that's what we want that platform for."

It has big aspirations, indeed, as Aspire makes its debut. Initially it's available in about 7 million homes and in 16 of the top 25 African American markets (including New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Washington). It can be seen by some customers served by Time Warner Cable Inc. and by Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable operator, which is introducing the minority-oriented Aspire as part of an agreement struck with the Federal Communications Commission when Comcast purchased NBC Universal.

Aspire's reach will grow to 12 million homes by year's end, to 20 million to 30 million homes by the end of 2013, and to 40 million homes within two years, according to Johnson.

"Focus groups told us African Americans want more family content on TV," he says a few hours before the party. "If they would have told me, .We don't need another channel, there's not an opportunity for you,' we wouldn't be sitting here."

Seated in a raised director's chair whose exaggerated height seems made-to-order for the towering former L.A. Lakers point guard, Johnson is speaking with a reporter in an NBC green room during a busy day of meetings and media appearances.

"I wouldn't get into this if I didn't feel there was an opportunity," he goes on. " That's what I do. I look for opportunities."

Johnson doesn't dismiss the growing roster of other networks targeting Black viewers.

"BET dominates the young people and does a great job," he says. "TV One skews a little older. We're gonna skew older than both of them. Blacks want options; they want variety, like everybody else. There'll be enough viewers for all of us. So everybody wins."

He says Aspire is aiming for Black families with a slate of enlightening and positive programming - the sort of fare that everyone can gather in the living room to watch, "the way I grew up," Johnson fondly recalls.

Aspire will air movies, documentaries, music and comedy, as well as faith and inspirational programs.

Initially, the schedule consists of acquisitions, including long-ago series like The Bill Cosby Show, I Spy, Julia and The Flip Wilson Show. The network promises documentaries chronicling real-life events, people and places that shaped Black history. Movies include Shaft, Bird, Sarafina! and Lilies of the Field.