Aspire was founded in 2012 by NBA Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson as one of four independent, minority-owned networks selected for broad distribution by Comcast as part of the Federal Communications Commission-imposed conditions on its acquisition of NBCUniversal. Now owned by UP Entertainment after Johnson divested his majority ownership in 2019, the network continues to focus on promoting and reflecting Black culture and urban lifestyle through original and acquired programming. Leading the charge is UP Entertainment Senior VP of Multicultural Networks and Strategy Angela Cannon.
Formerly UP Entertainment VP of national accounts, content distribution and marketing, Cannon was part of Aspire’s original launch team and now oversees day-to-day management and oversight of Aspire TV along with FAST channel aspireTV Life. Cannon will also manage an original programming slate that includes the G. Garvin Live! cooking show, the Side By Side with Malika and Khadija Haqq talk show, as well as dedicated HBCU content and Black filmmaker-produced short films.
Cannon recently spoke to Multichannel News about the network’s anniversary and its evolution, as well as its strategy to remain competitive in a very crowded television marketplace. An edited version of the interview appears below.
Multichannel News: A decade ago Magic Johnson launched Aspire TV in an effort to bring more content to African-American viewers watching cable television. Has the network lived up to his aspirations?
Angela Cannon: Absolutely. I was fortunate to be one of the people that actually worked in tandem with Mr. Johnson to conceptualize what Aspire is what we wanted it to be. At that time, we really wanted to make sure that it was a place to represent positivity across Black culture, Black images, Black family and Black affluence. What we've been able to do is shine a lens into what's possible, particularly for our young Black and Brown kids. Mr. Johnson said early on that he wanted a television station that reflected his experiences when he was growing up, where the family was sitting around the TV and everybody was able to enjoy, laugh, fellowship and bond together. What we’ve been able to do 10 years later is exactly right in line with what we said we were going to do, and in fact, even better.
MCN: The television landscape has changed significantly over the past decade. Has Aspire effectively maximized its reach across platforms in an effort to reach its target audience?
AC: We're continuing to build our distribution and our reach. Aspire right now is still ranked number one in affinity within Black lifestyle networks, and we continue to bring in audiences with above-average home ownership, income and education, so in that regard I’m happy with our position. Can we continue to expand our brand? Absolutely, which is what we’ve done with aspire TVLife, our first FAST channel, which is dedicated to cooking, fashion, travel and design. We’re really trying to make sure that we’re in those new, developing distribution pockets where we’re seeing Black audiences. I think everybody in this industry right now is looking at the rise of streaming. We're making sure that they have the content that our viewers want to watch – whether it's snackable content on their mobile phones, on our FAST channel or on linear. Whatever it may be, it is my job to make sure that Aspire is sitting where it will be most beneficial not only to us as a company but also to our viewers, our advertisers and distributors. I’m really excited about where we’re going.
MCN: Has the industry become more accepting and inclusive of content created for and by people of color since Aspire’s launch or has it remained stagnant with regards to diversity both in front of and behind the camera?
AC: Ten years ago I think it was really more about trying to stake our claims. When the [Comcast] diversity initiatives came out, the networks that launched with Aspire TV were saying that we deserve a place on your cable lineup so that multicultural audiences can see themselves represented. With everything that’s happened over the past two years with COVID and with [the death of George Floyd], now you’re starting to see Black content in particular becoming more relevant across platforms. Is there room for more growth? Absolutely, because you still don’t see us as represented behind the cameras, and we’re still not represented enough in the executive rooms where they’re making the decisions. We’ve made some strides, but there are still some headwinds to tackle and to continue to grow.
MCN: Where do you want to take the Aspire brand over the next year?
AC: I think you'll see Aspire available in way more places … there are so many different things that we could do with this brand. We hear every day from our consumers that they love it and they want more. So in addition to the FAST channel that we have now, maybe we can get into other spaces like SVOD or additional offshoots. From a content perspective, we have really great partnerships, not just with our advertisers and our distribution partners but also with talent. We’ve done partnerships with chef G. Garvin to be our culinary expert, and he's going to help us build out our food network. We're also working with other celebrity leaders to do the same type of partnerships. We want to be authentic and true to our culture, and really represent us in a positive light, and showcasing all that we can do with all of our skill sets and in all of our glory. We're excited to bring that to viewers with more productions in development. We have a lot coming down the pipe, so we're excited about that. ■
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.