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Magic Johnson to launch TV network via Comcast

Greg Braxton and Meg James
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — More than 20 years after he last played pro basketball, former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson is ready for a whole new game: running his own TV network.

The Hall of Famer, who has become a successful business mogul, is preparing to launch Aspire, a 24-hour channel with a focus on what Johnson called positive, uplifting images of African-Americans. The basic cable outlet will join other channels targeting black viewers, such as BET and TV One, and will offer opportunities for blacks who have struggled to find work in mainstream Hollywood.

“This is so exciting for me, I’m pinching myself,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “This is big for myself, for the African-American community and the African-American creative community. I wanted a vehicle to show positive images and to have stories written, produced and directed by African-Americans for our community. Aspire — that’s how I’ve been leading my life.”

Aspire’s mix will include film, TV, music and comedy, with a combination of acquired projects and original programming. “There will some performing arts and shows about faith,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s entry into the television arena comes courtesy of communications giant Comcast Corp. as part of its agreement with the FCC and Department of Justice to diversify the cable landscape. Comcast agreed last year to launch 10 new independently owned cable channels, with most backed by African-Americans and Latinos, by 2018. Johnson’s channel is scheduled to be the first.

Comcast’s obligation to support minority-owned channels came after a bruising yearlong federal review of the Philadelphia cable company’s acquisition of NBCUniversal, which includes the NBC broadcast network, NBC television stations, Universal Studios, Universal Pictures, cable channels USA, Bravo, Syfy, MSNBC and CNBC and Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo.

During the extensive review process, which spanned all of 2010, executives were called before Congress to defend the merger. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., was particularly tenacious in her grilling of NBCUniversal and Comcast officers, questioning their commitment to hiring and advancing minorities.

With Aspire, which is scheduled for a June 30 launch, Johnson becomes the second A-list celebrity to launch a network in the last two years. Oprah Winfrey established OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network as a vehicle for her philosophy of inspiration and personal empowerment. But OWN has struggled ever since its January 2011 launch, failing to develop any shows or projects that have attracted large audiences.

Johnson is aware of the risks: “We’ll learn from those who have gone before us. We understand the landscape, and we will run a sound business.”

A little more than two decades ago, Johnson announced he was retiring from basketball after testing positive for HIV. The news shocked and saddened fans who saw the point guard — an Olympic gold medal “Dream Team” player and three-time National Basketball Association MVP — as one of the world’s most popular and successful athletes.

Since then, Johnson, now 52, has achieved great success off the court, overseeing a vast empire of fitness centers, restaurants and other businesses. He has run a large charitable foundation and pumped millions of dollars into inner-city neighborhoods with a variety of establishments under the Magic Johnson Enterprises umbrella.

He recently made a multimillion-dollar investment to become chairman of Vibe Holdings, the New York parent company of Vibe magazine and the “Soul Train” dance series. Magic Johnson Enterprises also has an interest in Inner City Broadcasting, a group of 17 radio stations that includes the largest urban station in New York.

Owning and running a channel seemed like the next logical move for Johnson, who majored in communications studies during his time at Michigan State University: “Once we got into this whole new media space, we were thinking, ‘Now how do we get a television station?’” When Johnson learned that Comcast was accepting proposals, he immediately threw his hat into the ring. “We wanted to be the first one.”

Launching a cable channel takes considerable investment — in some cases, as much as $100 million. Johnson declined to discuss the financial details, although the venture will be paid for through a combination of personal and private equity funds.

Aspire will have headquarters in Atlanta and will partner with GMC, a regional cable channel that offers uplifting programming. The channel Aspire initially will be available in 11 million of Comcast Cable customers’ homes. Johnson hopes to expand the network to other cable providers to reach about 50 million homes within a few years.

Johnson will be the chief executive of Aspire, while Eric Holoman, the president of Magic Johnson Enterprises, will be chief operating officer.

An executive to run the channel is being sought. Johnson will not have much involvement with programming: “I’m not going to be picking shows. That’s not what I do.”

And even though Johnson may pop up on Aspire from time to time, one show is definitely off the table: a return of “The Magic Hour,” Johnson’s 1998 talk show, which was plagued by low ratings and less-than-flattering reviews.

Said Johnson with a huge laugh: “‘The Magic Hour’ is long gone.”

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