New York Times: A Cable Start-Up Lands 3 Big Brands
April 24, 2012
By STUART ELLIOTTPublished: April 24, 2012
A START-UP cable channel led by Magic Johnson, the basketball star turned businessman, is getting an early vote of confidence from several large marketer clients of a major media agency.
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Magic Johnson has been preparing for Aspire’s debut. “So far, knock on wood, we’re off to a good start,” he said.
The channel, named Aspire, is scheduled to make its debut on June 27 with family programming aimed at African-American viewers. Among the initial advertisers on Aspire, which is being promoted with the theme “Our past. Our now. Our next,” will be three clients of Universal McCann, part of the Mediabrands division of the Interpublic Group of Companies: the Chrysler Group, L’Oréal USA and Nationwide Insurance.
Those marketers will receive exclusivity on Aspire through 2013 in the categories of domestic automobiles, beauty products and insurance. They will also receive perks that include a chance to have Mr. Johnson appear at events for customers and employees and to have their brands integrated into programming on GMC TV, formerly known as Gospel Music Channel.
GMC TV, majority owned by InterMedia Partners, is handling tasks for Aspire that include advertising sales; Mr. Johnson is a minority owner in GMC TV and a majority owner in Aspire. InterMedia and Mr. Johnson have done other business together, involving companies like Vibe Holdings and Inner City Broadcasting.
Aspire is one of four minority-owned channels that the Comcast Corporation agreed to broadly distribute on Comcast cable systems between now and January 2014. The deal was among pledges made by Comcast to the Federal Communications Commission and Justice Department so it could be approved to acquire a majority stake in NBCUniversal from General Electric.
The deals with the Universal McCann clients are among several that are closed, or close to being completed, as the introduction of Aspire nears, said Mary Jeanne Cavanagh, executive vice president for ad sales in the New York office of GMC TV. She said she expected to complete at least $10 million in advertising agreements by the premiere in seven to 10 categories that would also include beverages, distilled spirits, domestic beer, fast food, pharmaceuticals, retailing and telecommunications.
Aspire is among scores of cable channels and broadcast networks — along with many media outlets outside the realm of television, like Web sites — that are getting ready to present themselves to marketers in what is known as the upfronts, so named because the sales take place ahead of the start of the fall TV season.
Aspire will compete for black audiences with channels and networks that include BET, Black Heritage Network, Bounce TV, Centric and TV One. It will be the second cable channel recently started by a celebrity, after OWN, from Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications, which has traveled a rocky road since its introduction in January 2011. “Have I had sleepless nights? Yes, at the beginning,” Mr. Johnson said by phone. “I looked at what Oprah was going through and I said, ‘Do I really want to do this?’ ”
Although “there’s no question it’s a big challenge, a big undertaking,” he added, “I feel really good about it” now. (He also said he hoped that Ms. Winfrey was “able to turn it around,” describing her as “a role model for me as a great entrepreneur.”)
Mr. Johnson says he has enjoyed his work for Aspire, including visits to media agencies to discuss the channel and its plans to provide programming for an “underserved” audience.
“My learning curve has been great,” he said, laughing, “but I am so happy I went through the process. I always want to learn.” Mr. Johnson praised the partnership with GMC TV in helping sign the initial advertisers, saying, “So far, knock on wood, we’re off to a good start.”
Ms. Cavanagh, for her part, said, “We knew we had something with Magic Johnson,” adding how she was “fortunate to take him to major agencies in New York” on sales calls that were notable for the visual contrast the pair offered.
“I’m 5-1 on a good day,” she said, “and he’s 6-9.”
The name of Mr. Johnson’s channel is meant to evoke a goal to offer its viewers programs that are upbeat and inspirational.
“We responded to the positive intent, the positive messaging, the more aspirational images of the community,” said Yin Woon Rani, North American president for Universal McCann. “It’s right from a business standpoint and right from a community standpoint.”
“Magic brings credibility because he’s so focused on being a role model,” she added.
“Aspire came to us early in the sales cycle,” Ms. Rani said, and “we saw the possibilities and the potential almost immediately.”
“The African-American target is so central to so many of our clients,” she added, “particularly those who signed up” as the initial advertisers.
While in New York, Mr. Johnson — who also recently led a group that agreed to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers — helped promote a Broadway play, “Magic/Bird,” that is focused on the relationship between him and Larry Bird. The play is also promoted on the section of Mr. Johnson’s Web site, magicjohnson.com, that is devoted to his company, Magic Johnson Enterprises.
A central plot point in “Magic/Bird” concerns the filming of a Converse commercial in 1985 by Mr. Bird and Mr. Johnson. Three decades later, Mr. Johnson owns a channel that sells commercial time.