NBA Hall-of-Famer and business entrepreneur Ervin “Magic” Johnson will soon play on the cable industry’s court with the summer launch of Aspire, an African-American targeted, family-themed basic cable service. I recently talked to Johnson about his plans for Aspire, one of four multicultural-themed networks to launch on Comcast Cable systems over the next two years as part of the MSO’s NBC Universal merger mandate. Johnson also talked about his interest in owning the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team as well as his thoughts on the current NBA season in a wide-ranging interview.
TU: What do you want to accomplish with Aspire?
Magic Johnson: We’re trying to fill a void in the marketplace for African Americans. When you think about it BET does a wonderful job catering to the younger audience and TV One’s [audience] is just a little older than them. It’s the professional 30 and over [audience] where there’s a void, so we’re going to speak to them and program toward them and really bring some good family programming through Aspire to that audience. We’re excited about the opportunity – I know that the African American creative community is very excited because there are not enough opportunities for them to showcase their talents. The actors, actresses, directors, producers and writers are all excited. My phone has been flooded, so we know there’s an opportunity there and we’re going to take advantage of that.
TU: Is there a large enough audience to support family value programming on cable, given the popularity of other salacious programming coming out of the reality genre?
Magic Johnson: Yea I think so. I can remember when Tyler Perry first started the whole faith-based movement; people said there’s no way it’s going to work and now a few hundred million dollars later he’s doing an incredible job because they were underserved, and Tyler delivered for them. It’s the same thing here – I think there are a lot of minority viewers that are not watching Tv because no one is speaking to them, so there’s a huge opportunity. Of course you’re going to still have the reality shows on other networks and that’s going to work for that other audience — and a lot of times it’s the younger audience. But there are a lot of advertisers who want to speak to the professional, 30 and over crowd. We’re going to give them a chance to do that.
TU: You have so many investments in so many other industries, how does Aspire stack up among your other investments?
Magic Johnson: It’s a great investment because we have other platforms to help it in the new media space. We own almost 30 radio stations; we own [urban-targeted publications] Vibe and Uptown Magazine, and the Soul Train brand. I’m building a one-stop-shop platform for advertisers, sponsors and people who want to reach minorities.
TU: How hands on will you be in the day-to-day operations of the network? Will we see you on air?
Magic Johnson: No, no (laughs). I make businesses work– I’m not the programming director or the guy that will run the network day to day. We’re going to get someone who’s been in the business. As we speak we’re down to our last few candidates. But that’s not what I do …. I’m smart enough to know to hire somebody that’s excellent in that field. That’s why I’ve been successful because I know how to pick the right people and we’ll do the same thing here.
TU: What other investment are you looking at? There are rumors that you’re interested in the Dodgers?
Magic Johnson: We’ll there’s no rumor there – that’s the truth! (Laughing). We’re going to make our run – we’re in the third round [of talks] so we’ll have to see what happens. There’s not a lot I can tell you; we’re just waiting on marching orders and we’ll take another run at it. I’m excited about the opportunity and we’ll see what happens.
TU: How do you see the NBA shaping up going into its run toward the playoffs?
Magic Johnson: Right now it’s amazing … the numbers are up across the board in terms of viewers watching and the excitement is there. It’s going to be one crazy playoff run because there are some really, really outstanding teams. I think also we’ve had some really amazing storylines – Jeremy Lin came out of nowhere with the Knicks and he’s got New York really excited about basketball once again; we have the storylines about Chicago and Miami – that’s going to be a battle to the end to see who gets the home court advantage in the East, which will be compelling and competitive. With the West you have Oklahoma City with those two guys Kevin Durant and (Russell) Westbrook, as well as San Antonio, the Lakers and the Clippers with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. I’m excited because you don’t really know what’s going to happen, especially in the West where there could be some upsets. It’s going to be fun.