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 Magic Johnson's ties to the African-American community (not to mention sports history and contemporary culture) are direct and strong.
Now, 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," Johnson told the gathered. "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 African-American markets (including New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Washington). It can be seen by some customers served by Time Warner Cable Inc. and by Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable operator, which is introducing the minority-oriented Aspire as part of an agreement struck with the Federal Communications Commission when Comcast purchased NBC Universal.
Aspire's reach will 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, according to Johnson.
"Focus groups told us African-Americans want more family content on TV," he says 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 seems made-to-order for the towering former L.A. Lakers point guard, Johnson is speaking 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 goes on. "That's what I do. I look for opportunities."
Johnson doesn't dismiss the growing roster of other networks targeting black viewers.
"BET dominates the young people and does a great job," he says. "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 says Aspire is aiming for black families with a slate of enlightening and positive programming — the sort of fare that everyone can gather in the living room to watch, "the way I grew up," Johnson fondly recalls.
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 like "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, Johnson hopes to tap black artists ranging from young up-and-comers to the likes of Spike Lee and Tyler Perry.
But what about a certain world-class star already on the payroll? Will Earvin "Magic" Johnson step in front of the Aspire cameras?
"I may do a show interviewing celebrities," he says. "Or a business show. We haven't planned it yet, but African-Americans want to know how to build wealth. They want to know how to start a business or grow one. Home ownership. Having good credit. I think I'm going to have to go on and teach them that sort of thing."
The principal owner of Aspire is Magic Johnson Enterprises, with the 52-year-old Johnson as the network's chairman and CEO.
But Aspire is teamed with Atlanta-based GMC (formerly the Gospel Music Network), which, available in about 50 million homes, focuses on uplifting music and family entertainment. GMC is providing operational infrastructure (what Johnson dubs "the back of the house") for Aspire, also based in Atlanta.
Johnson declines to say exactly what he's investing in Aspire as its principal owner, but acknowledges "it takes $100 (million) or $150 million just to turn the lights on and really get it going — and we're gonna be in that neighborhood."
Already, Johnson has landed five blue chip "charter brand partners": Coca-Cola Co., Chrysler, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., L'Oreal and Nationwide Insurance. He says his network is on track to be "almost break-even in a year."
Johnson sees Aspire as the logical next step in his burgeoning media empire, whose holdings include 20 radio stations, Vibe magazine and the "Soul Train" brand.
But an almost dizzying array of other investments includes real estate, restaurants, a prepaid debit card he soon will introduce and, of course, the Los Angeles Dodgers, purchased in May for $2 billion by a group he fronted.
"I am SO proud of the Dodgers," he grins when that subject comes up. "I'm like a little kid! To know I own the Dodgers is even blowing ME away!"
In short, Johnson's career as an NBA legend and Hall of Famer is rivaled by his entrepreneurial efforts, which, along with his philanthropic and motivational work, largely cater to the black community.
"I've been doing business almost as long as I've been playing basketball," he says. "I bought a radio station when I was 19 years old, when I first got drafted by the Lakers."
For now, despite his many business interests, he's giving Aspire top priority.
"When you're starting a business, you have to be more involved day-to-day," he says. "I'm a control freak. Even though I allow people to do their jobs, I want to know everything, and I HAVE to know everything: It's my brand, my name; everything is out there on the line."
Looking to Aspire's future, he points out how he always had two big dreams: to play in the NBA and be a businessman.
"I don't know why God blessed me with this life, but I'm glad he did, and I love it," Johnson sums up. "And I'm full steam ahead!"