Prime time and late night are usually filled with journalists like Barbara Walters and white comics. But come June, the fledging African-American cable network Aspire wants you to have choices.
Which is why the network, owned by NBA legend Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, announced last week that it would premiere Exhale, a new nighttime gab fest featuring five women of color. Journalist Angela Burt Murray, comic Erin Jackson, web sensation Issa Raye, Rene Styler, and actress Malinda Williams were tapped to host the hour-long talk show, on which they will chat about everything from relationships and child-rearing to natural hair care. This fall will also see the return of late-night favorite and Johnson’s good friend Arsenio Hall. Queen Latifah will have a daytime show.
“Aspire is about giving the audience what they haven’t been seeing when they turn on their television sets,” said Johnson. “We’re offering them what’s missing in programming. The people in our community are consumers and they deserve to see themselves when they turn on their television sets.”
While several talk shows such as The View on ABC and The Talk on CBS have featured women of color, including Whoopi Goldberg, Sherri Shepard, and Sheryl Underwood, oftentimes the look and feel of those shows leaned heavily toward mainstream topics and issues, rarely seeing topics through a more diverse lens, such as asking why depression rates and unemployment are higher in black neighborhoods. Aspire hopes to change many of the standard TV expectations by featuring five black women with varying looks, styles, attitudes, backgrounds, and ages. One host rocks a neatly cropped afro while another former network anchor says she released her “TV bob” years ago in exchange for a more natural look.
“I think you can compare it to The View in that we are a group of women sitting around talking, but it ends there,” says actress Malinda Williams, who starred on the show Soul Food. “[W]e’re not that heavily focused on entertainment or celebrities at all. We are mostly talking about real issues facing real women daily.” Williams points out that she candidly discusses her two failed marriages with a divorce judge during one show and hopes her brutal honesty about her past relationship mistakes and regrets can truly benefit the viewing audience. The network predicts the audience’s age will range anywhere from mid-20s to late 60s.
“Any issue I had about discussing my marriages or personal life on air, I got over before I started filming,” said Williams. “I liked the idea of being on a show that was just like being in my home with my girlfriends just talking about stuff. I’ve been preparing for this role all my life.”
Rene Syler was equally well prepared for her hosting duties. From 2002 to 2006 she co-hosted the Early Show on CBS, a slot currently filled by Charlie Rose and Gayle King. She was fired from the show shortly before undergoing a preventative mastectomy and sank into a deep depression that she shares with viewers on one episode of the new program.
“It feels good to be able to say things that you know really resonate with others,” says Syler. “I was fired from that job and others have been fired before so I talk about that and how that felt on the show. I didn’t want to get out of bed for days and I know others have felt that way too in their lives. That is what is so good about this show is that it is giving women some insight into what to do when you’re depressed. We don’t always talk about those issues as black people.”
Syler will also discuss being the daughter of two breast cancer survivors, her decision to have a preventative mastectomy because of her family’s history and women’s worst nightmare, losing her hair to another illness. “I think that is the beauty of this show and the group of women on the show,” said Syler. “Everyone has a different background, a different story, a different look, and a different point of view but it all works and comes together for a great show that’s not like anything out there right now.”
Hoping to gain the attention of the 30-and-under crowd, Aspire hired digital media whiz Issa Raye, the young mind behind the wildly popular web series Awkward Black Girl. Raye says she hopes viewers will tune in to witness women of color exchanging words of support and encouragement as opposed to the usual reality-show mayhem seen nightly on cable television.
“This is going to offer everyone an alternative to seeing black women not getting along or at each other’s throat all the time,” says Raye. “This show has women of all ages offering support and advice to one another … We may not always agree but we talk about it. That’s what adults do.”