Aspire TV, the entertainment network launched by Earvin “Magic” Johnson, is taking on a larger mission than just identifying its next hit TV show. As important as that is, Aspire recognizes it is uniquely positioned to take advantage of strong trends within the media industry: Black TV viewers want more black lifestyle-focused programming, and that type of programming is more popular than ever. Melissa Ingram, Vice President and Channel Manager, is leading the charge to make sure black viewers and their needs are front and center.
Philip McKenzie: What's been the most significant shift you've seen in the perception of African American programming in media?
Melissa Ingram: That story begins with the genesis of the Aspire brand promise, "See yourself here." A year and a half ago, as a black independent network, we made it a mission to think about what type of power we had via our programming. We found our viewers were hungry not only for more content but authentic content to the black experience. Knowing how important it is for people to see themselves positively reflected in media, we felt Aspire could play a central part in forging that connection. Luminaries such as Oprah Winfrey, Sterling K. Brown and Spike Lee have all cited the importance of inclusion and representation to their perspective when growing up. Combined with the increasing demand for diverse stories in media, we knew Aspire could be the home for the black viewer while allowing us to manifest our mantra of “Eat, Live, Shop, Play and Dream.” We instinctively knew there was a void. Our research and our viewers confirmed it, and we were well poised to step in and deliver.
McKenzie: Tell me more about the Aspire programming promise of "Eat, Live, Shop, Play and Dream."
Ingram: Last year we created a black lifestyle research study to ask our viewers what they felt was missing from their programming options. We then used that research to frame Aspire's programming. We want Aspire to reflect the values, attitudes and interests of the black audience. We looked at Nielsen data and nearly half of Black Persons 25-54 tune in to lifestyle programming (cooking, home design, business competitions) a month.* Now we had to determine how many were satisfied with their current options and felt it reflected their perspective. That is where the opportunity was; viewers liked what they had but wanted to see more of themselves and their experiences. We intentionally wanted to reflect that back to our viewers. We wanted to inspire the audience to eat well, live well, shop with a purpose and, finally, play and dream big.
McKenzie: It seems like there is more to the concept of representation than just having African American-fronted programming.
Ingram: People want to be connected to their experience, and although I might enjoy lifestyle programming it doesn't mean my experience is being reflected. There is a nuance that is essential to creating programming that will resonate deeply with the African American audience. I often use myself as a test case because I am in the demo and I know it makes a difference when a show manages to hit the mark on cultural relevance and representation.
McKenzie: Tell me about Butter + Brown and why it has been so successful.
Ingram: Butter + Brown initially established their success on Issa Rae's YouTube channel before we started to develop the show for Aspire. We felt very strongly that the two stars, Leslie Antonoff and Seth Brundle, would perfectly personify what we aimed to accomplish with Aspire as we were building out a black lifestyle destination. They have amazing energy and we knew the flavor they provided would be entirely unique. It is a show that challenges assumptions, which I feel is very important. As a mother, I often think what the world could be like if there weren't engrained assumptions as to the diversity of the black experience. Brown + Butter is now a part of that conversation. Both hosts are HBCU grads and have a way of talking and relating to one another that makes people feel like they are hanging out with friends. That rapport between the host and audience is heavily reflected on our social media accounts. We are educating and entertaining -- and the response has been overwhelming.
McKenzie: Why do you think that the industry has been so slow to recognize and develop programming focused on African Americans?
Ingram: The success of films like Girls Trip and Black Panther has certainly made the industry sit up and pay attention. It is obvious that the appetite for these stories and their subsequent influence is only growing. General interest entertainment companies were not well positioned to understand these trends because they were not familiar with the market. I remember discussing Butter + Brown with production companies and they simply didn't get it. There was a lack of faith that a show that didn't sound and feel like what they were accustomed to would find an audience. That sentiment has been pervasive throughout the industry and is shifting very slowly.
McKenzie: How important is building a team that can recognize these opportunities?
Ingram: Having a diverse team, and the incredible support of UP TV, has made all the difference in the world. The Aspire staff consists of thirteen people of color and twelve of us are women. Our brainstorming, our ideation and our vision are all in service to our core audience. We know if programming will resonate with our audience because this is actually our lived experience. This is content for us, by us.
McKenzie: How do you stay successful in a constantly shifting media landscape?
Ingram: You have to remain laser focused and committed to your purpose, brand promise and your audience. We have to understand their interests, values and attitudes. We have to go where they live, and we accomplish this with partnerships with the American Black Film Festival, Blavity Summit and One Music Fest, just to name a few. We aren't only on their screens, but we are with them on the ground as they experience their lives.
McKenzie: What is the impression that you most want your audience to have when they think of Aspire?
Ingram: Aspire lives at the intersection of black culture and lifestyle and we are expanding how we see ourselves and each other by celebrating, reflecting and sharing authentic experiences of black culture and urban lifestyle. We want to enrich our community and inspire others – empowering our viewers to not just eat but to eat well; not just live but to live their life, as you only have one; not just shop but shop with a purpose; not just work hard but play hard, and most important, not just to dream but to dream big!
* Source: Nielsen, 4Q17 (9/25/17-12/31/17) monthly avg. Reach Black P25-54, 1 min. qualifier (COOK, DLC, DIY, FOOD, FYI, HGTV, TRAV).
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