Magic Mandate

Congress compels Comcast to give Earvin “Magic” Johnson his own cable channel

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• February 22, 2012 5:00 am


National Basketball Association legend and prominent Democratic donor Earvin "Magic" Johnson is set to launch a new network that will be carried on Comcast Corp. cable after pressure from Democratic politicians to "diversify" cable lineups.

Johnson’s Aspire network will launch on June 30, according to the Los Angeles Times. It is the first of 10 new networks—the majority of which are owned by African-American and Latino businessmen—that Comcast will launch by 2018, per its agreement with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Justice to "diversify the cable landscape."

The commitment to the new networks came in 2010 as a result of pressure placed on NBCUniversal by Rep. Maxine Waters (D., Calif.) during the company’s $14 billion merger with Comcast.

In February 2010, Waters asked then-NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Zucker, "Is there some assumption that black programming is not profitable?" Waters offered to help arrange meetings for Zucker with African-American producers. Waters also alleged in a hearing that a Comcast representative had called her with the implicit offer of a payoff in exchange for her support—an accusation that Comcast denied.

Johnson made a proposal for one of the cable networks immediately after learning that Comcast was taking submissions. "We wanted to be the first one," Johnson said to the Times.

Given the political nature of the network’s creation, Johnson was in a prime position to realize that goal. Johnson has donated more than $80,000 to Democratic candidates, committees and PACs since 2007, including $51,200 to the Democratic National Committee and $11,900 to President Obama, according to a database maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Aspire will be led in partnership between Johnson and the family-oriented GMC TV. The financial terms of the agreement between Johnson’s group and Comcast were not disclosed.

Waters’ crusade to insert diversity-based programming into the terms of the merger gained enough publicity to warrant a parody of the congresswoman during the 2010 season of the NBC sitcom "30 Rock." Even after the FCC released its 279-page review and approval of the merger in January 2011, which included Waters’ diversity-programming mandate, the California congresswoman was not satisfied.

Waters said, "I do not believe the American public can have much confidence in Comcast-NBCU’s commitment to launch 10 new independent channels when current networks have had so many challenges negotiating reasonable carriage terms with the cable giant."

Waters is no stranger to controversial government interference in private business operations.

The congresswoman was embroiled in a House ethics investigation after she allegedly set up a meeting between Boston-based OneUnited Bank and regulators to help the bank. Waters’ husband, Sidney Williams, was a member of the bank’s board of directors between 2004 and 2008. In 2001, OneUnited, then known as Boston Bank of Commerce, merged with the Founders Bank of Los Angeles, of which Magic Johnson was a co-owner. In December 2008, OneUnited received $12.1 million from the U.S. Treasury Department; it was the weakest U.S. bank to receive TARP assistance.

Aspire will be based in Atlanta and will initially reach 11 million Comcast households. Johnson said he will not personally choose the network’s programming.

This marks Johnson’s second, non-basketball foray into television, following his low-rated FOX talk show "The Magic Hour," which lasted for four months in the summer of 1998.

Published under: Comcast, FCC, Maxine Waters, Media