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Butler: Aspire To Reflect Positive Images Of African-American Community

Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s new cable network Aspire will offer African-American-themed programming that emphasizes faith, family and community, according to new Aspire general manager Paul Butler. I recently spoke to Butler about the Aspire brand and well as the network’s launch plans in a wide-ranging interview that appears below.

TU: How would you describe the Aspire brand?

Paul Butler: Aspire is really about positive images of the African-American community and really presenting African-American culture at its best and broadest. That means really reflecting everything African-Americans have contributed not only to African-American culture but to American culture across different subject matter and disciplines – arts, film, sports and entertainment. Aspire is about showing the African-American culture at its best and broadest. What’s really unique about Aspire is the opportunity to create a platform for the next generation in all of those categories. We’ve been saying ‘our past, our now and our next,’ with a real focus on our next – Aspire will reinforce this notion that history is being made right now and there’s more history to be made. There are great, talented young people, directors, dancers, business leaders and community leaders who are continuing to change the game and really looking for ways to improve the way that African-Americans live and are reflected in popular culture.

TU: When is the Aspire expected to launch and how many subscribers will you be in front of at launch? 

PB: We are launching this summer and working fast and furious toward that launch. We’ll know closer to the launch how many [subscribers] we’ll have and where, but the plan is by the middle of next year to be in 11 million households with just Comcast alone, and we do expect within that time frame that there will be deals with other distributors that will add to that number.

TU: How much input will Magic Johnson have in the overall development and operations of Aspire? 

PB: I think he will be very involved. He is the chairman and CEO and this is his vision … this will be reflective of his brand and an extension of everything that he’s done already successfully in the urban community in terms of extending opportunities to young people and to the African American community, and demonstrating that there’s value in the African American community.

TU: How important has Comcast’s role been in the development and creation of Aspire?

PB: They created the opportunity, so it’s been critical for us to have Comcast in our corner. They’re definitely committed to making sure that their initiative for providing distribution for African-American owned and minority-controlled networks really comes to pass.  Aspire will be the first one they agreed to launch, so they will be watching to make sure this goes well.

TU: How would you position the network’s programming strategy?

PB: I would position Aspire as a positive, family network, grounded in three pillars of the African American community – faith, family and community. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be a G-rated network, but it will be an authentic but positive network. You can be positive and not be preachy, you can be daring and not disrespectful, and you can be enlightening and entertaining. A network can embody all of those things at one time, and I think that’s something that Aspire will definitely deliver. We  want it to be cross-generational and we want it to be authentic – we don’t want it to be gratuitous in any way. We want to make sure we’re reflecting the best of who the African-American community is.

TU: What will the content look like on Aspire? More acquired content than original at the beginning?

PB: Exactly. With any new network, acquisitions provide some familiarity and a connection that the audience knows, and it gives them a reason to watch. So we’ll start with an acquired slate of movies and series. When we announce our slate of acquired series, everything will have a reason and hopefully  the viewers will understand exactly why these particular pieces of programming have been selected and how they enforce the vision of Aspire and what the network is doing in terms of celebrating the achievements of African-Americans. We are working on originals to be announced as well.

TU: You’re launching in a somewhat crowded environment for African-American targeted networks. Are you concerned about being able to break through the clutter?

PB: No, and I think there’s definitely room for more (networks). There’s definitely an appetite for a network like Aspire that really focused on African-Americans at their best and broadest so that we don’t get just the singular vision of what we’ve done and we don’t isolate ourselves from the rest of American culture. So I think Aspire will be unique in that way – I think it will be an incredibly vibrant and high-quality network – everything that we’ve been working on so far will demonstrate that. This is also a network that we want kids and their parents and grandparents to sit down and really expand that bridge to the future.

TU: Are there enough advertising dollars targeted to the African-American community to support the networks?

PB: I think there is. The initial response that we’ve gotten from the advertising community has been encouraging and I think that as we roll out the network and evolve, advertisers will understand the value of what Aspire brings to the table in terms of offering up a positive environment all day and offering that broad range of African-American imagery and contributions. I think Aspire will have unique place in the advertising landscape and offer something that provides more value than what we might see on the other networks that are competing for the same dollars.