Cable provider Comcast announced Tuesday that it will carry four new channels, each headed by a minority owner – Mr. Johnson, Mr. Combs, director Robert Rodriguez, and Spanish-language TV veteran Constantino “Said” Schwarz.
When Comcast acquired NBCUniversal last year, it made an agreement with the FCC to diversify the cable landscape. The four new offerings were chosen from among 100 proposals. Johnson’s “Aspire,” scheduled to start this summer, will be the first to launch, followed by Combs's "REVOLT" in 2013, and Mr. Rodriguez's "El Rey" the year after. The fourth, “BabyFirst Americas,” will be aimed at infants, very young children, and their parents.
The four channels will need to carve out their own niches in a minority media landscape already dominated by BET (Black Entertainment Television) and Univision, analysts say. Big, recognizable names and good intentions are not enough. Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network, launched last year, is struggling, for example.
“These are commercial enterprises which have to collect eyeballs, so they are going to need content to draw them in,” says Len Shyles, a professor of communication at Villanova University in Philadelphia. “People will be drawn to the big names to check it out, but the cache of Magic Johnson and Sean 'Diddy' Combs will only last so long.… If the programming is crummy, it won’t work. It’s a pretty simple formula.”
Johnson says Aspire "will be a network that encourages and challenges African-Americans to reach for their dreams and will appeal to all generations."
He says he is still searching for a chief executive, and that he will not have much involvement with programming. “I’m not going to be picking shows. That’s not what I do,” he said.
"Images abound on mainstream TV of gang violence and 'gangsta' culture, reinforcing negative stereotypes that fuel racism and erode black self-esteem, especially among the young," he says in an e-mail. "Television teaches people who they are and what they could become. Young people forget, or never knew, the transformational impact of the series 'Roots' or 'The Cosby Show.' Johnson is to be applauded for recognizing that America is not – yet – post-racial."
Aspire also could provide an outlet for programs or films written, produced, and directed by African-Americans, Johnson has said.
“With today's technology it's easier than ever to produce films yet, when it comes to African-American filmmakers, unless you're Tyler Perry or one of the select few 'pop' culture filmmakers, there's almost no way to get your film on television,” says Jasmyne Cannick, African-American community activist in Los Angeles, in an e-mail.
For his part, Combs appears to envision REVOLT as a sort-of MTV for the social-media age – reinventing the nexus of music and television.
“REVOLT is the first channel created entirely from the ground up in this new era of social media,” said Combs in a statement. “We’re building this platform for artists to reach an extraordinary number of people in a completely different way."
"REVOLT will be live, like all great moments in television history," he added. "REVOLT will also be immediate, like today’s social networks. We know it was a highly competitive process and we want to thank Comcast for this opportunity to truly change television with REVOLT.”
Success is harder than ever to predict, given how rapidly the TV landscape is changing, says Porter Bibb of for Mediatech Capital Partners.
“The broadcast environment is fragmenting, with far more networks than the average viewer could watch in a lifetime,” Mr. Bibb says. “Zeroing in on specific demographics with specific content may have worked 10, 15 years ago, but advertisers today have too many other options for ads that the advertiser knows reach a target customer, since he has to click on the ad to see it.”
Others agree that the networks will have to do something unique and compelling to draw viewers.
Says Ms. Cannick: “If these networks are going to succeed they are going to need to think outside of the box and come to the table with fresh ideas and not regurgitate or duplicate what their counterparts are doing, only with black faces.”