When Comcast took a majority stake in NBC Universal, the cable giant promised to launch 10 minority-owned independent networks over a period of eight years. Making good on that commitment, it has announced that at least two will have big name African Americans at their helms, with Sean "Diddy" Combs and Earvin "Magic" Johnson on board as majority owners of unique new channels.
Diddy's Revolt Network, coming in 2013, will be all about music and pop culture — in his words, "We're gonna be like the CNN or ESPN of music." And Johnson's Aspire promises positive programming for black families beginning in summer 2012. Both celebs say they plan to fill gaps in programming, and more — they'll create opportunities for African Americans in front of the camera and behind the scenes.
At an event at Washington, D.C.'s Newseum Wednesday night to celebrate the upcoming launches of the networks, The Root caught up with Johnson to talk about his idea of good television, his vision for Aspire and the "unmet need" he hopes it will fill.
The Root: Do you view your involvement with Aspire primarily as business venture, a service to the black community or both?
Magic Johnson: It has to be a combination of both. It has to be business first because of the fact that if I don't make sound business decisions or if we don't do it right, then we're out of business. So that has to be first. Second, it is for the community. The community wants Aspire to be successful — it's for them. It gives [the African-American creative community] a platform, where they can be on TV, they can sell me shows, they can create shows and they can work the camera behind the scenes, and on and on. So there are job opportunities, and that's part of the blessing of Aspire. Also, we need programming that will inspire people — will make them think, cry, make them feel good. That's what we're trying to provide.
TR: Is Aspire a response to your impression that those things are missing on television now?
MJ: Yes. When you think about the black professionals out there, they've been underserved. And black families have been underserved. There might be something for adults and something for kids, but there's nothing for everybody. So that's a sweet spot for us. Our friends at BET are doing a wonderful job, and we wouldn't be here without Bob Johnson — none of us. And we're inspired by what Cathy Hughes has been able to do at TV One. But the good thing is, we're not trying to directly compete with them. There's an unmet need, and a place where we can fit in.
TR: Can you give a couple of examples of shows that are on TV right now that you think are quality programs of the type you hope Aspire will air?
MJ: I love Unsung — the show on TV One that looks back on artists' careers. I really enjoy what BET did with The Game. And I'm a news guy, because like to keep up with the world, so I watch a lot of CNN. It's up to the person at home, and what they think is smart for them and their family. But the bottom line is, we know that the African-American professional has been underserved and we're going to fill that void. Our focus groups tell us that, and so we're going to go right into those homes with Aspire.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor to The Root.