Inside Magic Johnson’s perfunctory African-American TV network

Patrick Howley Political Reporter
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NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s African-American cable television network, Aspire, has been plagued in its early months by disinterest from Johnson, minimal programming ambition, budgetary constraints, conflicts of interest and perfunctory management, raising questions about the network created one year ago in an agreement with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) to increase African-American presence in cable television.

Managers from GMC tv — which was founded by white executive Charley Humbard and is generally run by “whites,” according to observers — make the vast majority of the programming, management and hiring decisions at Aspire.

Aspire was announced in February 2012 as the first of 10 new cable networks launched by Comcast Corp. in the course of its merger with NBCUniversal. California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters waged a fierce battle to hold up the FCC’s approval of the NBC-Comcast merger until Comcast agreed to create 10 new networks, at least eight of which would be run by minority businessmen, to “diversify the cable landscape.”

Johnson, a longtime friend of Maxine Waters who has donated more than $80,000 to Democratic politicians since 2007, quickly applied and was given control of the first network. It is unclear how much money Johnson received from Comcast as part of the deal.

So far, Aspire has been the only network launched as part of the program. And insiders are doubting whether Johnson – who led an ownership group that purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers shortly before Aspire’s launch in June – was ever really interested in creating diverse television at all.

Chairman and CEO Johnson has visited the Atlanta-based offices of Aspire on no more than two ocassions. Representatives of his company Magic Johnson Enterprises, the principal owner of the network, have visited Aspire no more than four times, according to a source.

The network is managed by its partner, GMC TV, a family-oriented gospel music-themed cable network, and housed in the same office building as GMC. Both Aspire and GMC moved into the beige Atlanta office building across the street from a Marriott hotel at the same time, back in June.

But Johnson’s disinterest in the network has placed Aspire’s primary management in the hands of its partner, a rival cable network competing for the same market share that Aspire was ostensibly designed to access.

“If Comcast had thought in the first place that there was a viable business model here, they probably already would have [created an Aspire-type network]. It’s not going to be a success if you force them to do it,” TechFreedom president Berin Szoka told The Daily Caller, referring to the political pressure that led to Aspire’s creation.

The desire on the part of GMC staffers to build Aspire into a successful entity in its own right, or even to hire talented African-American executives from outside the company, has apparently been low.

The general manager of Aspire, former GMC general counsel Paul Butler, who is African-American, moved over to Aspire in June after a long tenure at GMC, despite having no experience running a television network on his own. The entire Aspire programming department consists of one individual who also moved over from GMC.

Though numerous pitch meetings were held last summer and fall, Aspire’s budgetary constraints prevented many of the prospective deals for new series from being made.

Aspire’s schedule currently consists largely of low-cost syndicated reruns: episodes of the 1960s series “I Spy”, “Julia”, and “The Bill Cosby Show” (not to be confused with the more popular “Cosby Show” of the 1980s), “Soul Train” from the 1970s, and the early 1970s sketch comedy program “The Flip Wilson Show.”

Aspire’s limited original programming, interspersed between the near-constant cycle of reruns, includes “The Root 100,” comprised of 24 interviews with honorees of the annual “Root 100” African-American achievers list; a collection of independent short films and documentaries hosted by actor Omari Hardwick and billed as an original series; and the “Groundbreaking” series blocks, in which hosts discuss classic African-American films, music, and culture in between video clips.

These original series haven’t done much to raise Aspire’s visibility or ratings, or to inspire confidence within the company of Aspire’s long-term potential. The network still has fewer than 3,300 Twitter followers.

“The only reason this had to happen at all was because of the unconstitutonal threat, the political pressure applied on these business interests” by the federal government during the Comcast-NBC merger, TechFreedom senior fellow Geoffrey Manne told TheDC. “Why were they forced to even make these hollow promises in the first place? That is problematic.”

“Aspire will be a network that encourages African-Americans to reach for their dreams,” Johnson said last year.

Aspire did not immediately return a request for comment.

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