GMC and NBA Hall of Famer gear up for cabler launch in June

If June 30 seems awfully quick to launch a new cable network that was only unveiled on Tuesday, the folks teaming with Magic Johnson on the Aspire channel are undaunted.

GMC — the faith-friendly cabler that is partnering with Johnson and Ron Burkle’s Yucaipa on Aspire — launched in October 2004, barely six months after it had raised funding.

“We’ve been here before,” GMC vice-chairman Brad Siegel told Variety, “and so we’re not new to the short window.”

This time around, Siegel noted, Atlanta-based Aspire is in a much better position for a smooth launch, and not just because of the high profile of Johnson. For one, cable giant Comcast has committed to carrying the channel across its systems, as part fulfilling its pledge to add 10 indie outlets over the next eight years.

Aspire will also lean heavily on the backbone of the GMC operation.”To help program and produce and sell and market and operate this network,” Siegel said, “we have an infrastructure that’s been going. Ever since we sort of had a sense that we were a leading candidate, we started to get the wheels in motion to start our programming strategy, to begin the design of the network.”

Johnson, whose simultaneous bid to purchase the Los Angeles Dodgers will be decided upon by April, in the midst of Aspire’s gestation period, serves as chairman of the board and set the vision for the network, while delegating day-to-day responsibility to GMC and personnel from Magic Johnson Enterprises, led by MJE prexy Eric Holoman.

“I have people who will run it who have the expertise in the TV business,” Johnson said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “But I will make sure from a distance that we’re running on budget, that we’re doing the right things.”

Siegel said that the diversity of the staff at GMC was one of the reasons Johnson chose to partner with the cabler.

“This is his vision,” Siegel said. “It is his name associated with it. That means that Aspire has to be a reflection of his brand. He’s very involved.”

Aspire and GMC will complement each other, but Siegel said that while GMC is marketed to the general market with faith-friendly family entertainment — “Think ‘Blind Side'” — Aspire would be “100% targeted toward African-American viewers.”

Specific original and acquired content announcements for Aspire will be made in the coming weeks, Siegel said, but programming for the 24/7 network will fall in three principal categories: movies (including features, docs, short films and independent pics); comedy and arts; and faith-based programming. Original programming is targeted for launch day.

A microcosm of Aspire’s programming intentions will come early on with a series of short network IDs and interstitial segments, grass-roots in nature.

“The brand is as much about celebrating the contributions African-Americans have made to African-American culture, as to American culture,” Siegel said. “It’s going to be even more about the next generation of creators and leaders — and that is Magic’s passion — to create new and unique opportunities for the African-American creative community and be a window for the world for new voices, new vision.”

Though confident about Aspire’s mission, Siegel acknowledged the considerable effort it would require, particularly in the area of carriage deals. In other words, no magic in this arena.

“Gaining distribution in the cable and satellite world is one of the most difficult propositions in the business,” Siegel said. “We don’t have the ability to leverage a sister network that’s a broadcast network that can get leverage because of retransmission consent. We have to go see every single cable operator and every single market, and we have to prove to them over and over again that this is going to be a high quality network through research and experience that their African-American subscribers are absolutely going to want to see and demand from them.”

Now eight years old, GMC has a reach of 52 million homes with an eye toward passing the 60 million mark this year. Johnson has been on record saying that Aspire would start with a Comcast-infused base of 11 million homes this year.

“It is fast, but that was one of the things that we promised Comcast, that we can be up and running in four months if we have to,” Siegel said. “We are working night and day and adding new people and pushing our team here to build this new network, but we’ll be on the air by June 30.”

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