NEW YORK — As the crowd counted down, 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 Mr. Johnson’s ties to the black community are direct and strong, and 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,” Mr. Johnson told the gathering. “Family-driven content, positive images of African-Americans — that’s what we want that platform for!”
Big aspirations, indeed, as Aspire makes its debut. Initially it’s available in about 7 million homes and in 16 of the top 25 markets for blacks, including New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C. It can be seen by some customers served by Time Warner Cable Inc. and Comcast Corp. Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, is introducing the minority-oriented Aspire as part of an agreement struck with the Federal Communications Commission when the company purchased NBC Universal.
Aspire’s reach is expected 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, Mr. Johnson said.
“Focus groups told us African-Americans want more family content on TV,” he said 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 seemed made to order for the towering former L.A. Lakers point guard, Mr. Johnson spoke 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 continued. “That’s what I do. I look for opportunities.”
Mr. Johnson doesn’t dismiss the growing roster of other networks targeting black viewers.
“BET dominates the young people and does a great job,” he said. “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 said Aspire is aiming for black families with a slate of enlightening and positive programming — the sort of fare everyone can gather in the living room to watch, “the way I grew up.”
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 such as “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.”
Eventually, Aspire plans to create its own programming. For that, Mr. Johnson said he hopes to tap black artists ranging from young up-and-comers to the likes of Spike Lee and Tyler Perry.