Trying to dominate TV is like nothing Apple has ever done before

Oprah introducing her Apple TV+ work.
Oprah introducing her Apple TV+ work.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
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It was only a matter of time.

Apple made its not-so-secret television ambitions transparent earlier this year when it announced Apple TV+, a streaming service that would feature all original content. It’s a big deal when any major global corporation gets into the streaming game—Disney, WarnerMedia, and NBCUniversal are all about to—but an even bigger deal when that corporation’s ecosystem already boasts over 1 billion customers.

As the Nov. 1 launch date for Apple TV+ approaches, here’s what we know: It will cost $4.99 per month (with a seven-day free trial). It will launch with eight original TV series and one nonfiction documentary, and more content will be added each month. It won’t have ads. You can share your account with up to six family members. You’ll be able to download content and watch it offline. And if you buy a new iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac, or Apple TV, you’ll get an Apple TV+ subscription for free for a year.

Here’s what we don’t know: pretty much anything else. Will this stuff be good? What, precisely, is Apple going for other than another way to market devices and diversify revenue streams? Will people care? Can Apple become a true player in Hollywood and cut into Netflix’s streaming dominance? And if everyone in Apple’s dystopian drama See is blind, how do the characters know who they’re killing?

The original content is iffy

Apple is a trusted brand when it comes to selling devices. People are generally willing to pay more for an Apple phone or tablet, because they perceive them as higher-quality products. But the company has no reputation as a purveyor of entertainment. It’s likely that few people will pay extra for Apple’s TV shows until Apple proves that it can actually make good TV shows. The brand loyalty won’t just automatically translate from tech to Hollywood.

That’s one of the reasons Apple priced its streaming service at $5 a month—significantly less than Netflix ($13) and soon-to-be competitor Disney+ ($7). The company understands it has to earn consumers’ trust as a content creator.

So, what to make of Apple’s big debut shows? While it’s hard to say for certain, we think there’s some reason to worry.

At least to start, Apple appears to be competing most directly with HBO and its “premium TV” mantle (as opposed to Netflix and its “something for everyone” model). The company is marketing Apple TV+ as a carefully curated, prestigious offering that has numerous A-list celebrities in its fold (Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Steven Spielberg, to name a few). Apple wants to make it abundantly clear that its content is driven by storytellers.

Its slogan is “Stories to Believe In,” which means essentially nothing, but sounds like it might mean something important. That’s kind of what Apple’s shows seem like also.

See, Apple’s most ambitious drama, about a near-future in which all of humanity has gone blind, is the company’s transparent attempt to find its Game of Thrones. A high-concept quasi-dystopian action-adventure drama series that literally stars a former Thrones cast member (Jason Momoa), See is less a TV series than it is the notion of one. It looks big and important but also a little hollow.

It took HBO more than a decade of building up goodwill before it even dared try something like Game of Thrones. Apple thinks its deep pockets and sheer force of will are enough to launch a similarly ambitious series immediately. We’ll see about that. Apple hired former Sony Pictures Television presidents Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, who helped develop Breaking Bad and The Crown, to oversee original content development. If any of the initial eight Apple TV+ series are half as acclaimed as either of those two, it’ll be off to a decent start.

Apple’s other buzzy original series is The Morning Show, a dramedy about the behind-the-scenes goings-on of an American morning TV talk show, starring Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Steve Carell. That’s a killer cast, and the show’s timely underpinnings (it’s a thinly veined take on the Matt Lauer sexual harassment scandal at NBC, with hints of Fox News and Megyn Kelly) could make it a success.

But the marketing for the show has been all over the place, leaving some critics confused about the tone it’s going for. And at a sky-high per-episode cost—rumored to be even pricier than Game of ThronesThe Morning Show needs to be a hit, or Apple runs the risk of embarrassing itself and alienating future A-listers.

Two more shows to watch out for are For All Mankind, an alternate-history sci-fi drama that imagines a world in which the Russians beat the Americans to the Moon, and Dickinson, a subversive comedy about the poet Emily Dickinson’s teenage years. Both are ambitious in their own ways, but on smaller scales than See and The Morning Show. These are the two shows debuting at launch that look most interesting—even if they prove unpopular, at least they’re relatively original.

The licensed content is nonexistent

Unlike Netflix, Disney+, WarnerMedia, and Peacock (NBCU’s colorfully named upcoming streaming service), Apple TV+ has no library of titles to speak of. When it launches on Nov. 1, it will only have the nine originals. Basically, it’s building out its catalog from scratch.

That’s the other big reason Apple is undercutting all its competitors on price: It will have a tiny fraction of the content that others offer. Whereas the most popular shows on Netflix, for instance, are actually titles licensed from other companies (like The Office and Friends), everything is riding on original programming for Apple—at least initially. It hasn’t yet discussed any plans to buy the rights to outside content for its library. (Though it did recently launch its own in-house studio, which will allow the company to own the distribution rights to the series that the studio produces in the future.)

Disney has Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar, as well as its own back catalog. WarnerMedia has Harry Potter, Godzilla, The Matrix, Dune, DC Comics, and the Lego universe. Apple has… whatever See is supposed to be. Apple develops cutting-edge technology and owns thousands of patents, but it doesn’t own any intellectual property. And IP is what makes Hollywood go round these days.

Launching without a content library is a huge disadvantage, even when you take into account Apple TV+’s lower price. Netflix users—even if they only watch a few shows—know that they at least have hundreds upon hundreds of titles at their disposal, should they decide to try something new. The option is baked into the experience. Apple TV+ users won’t have any options. If they don’t like Apple’s select few original offerings, there won’t be anything else to keep them subscribed.

Apple will, theoretically, build out its library (assuming it renews and/or purchases new shows at a rate faster than it cancels them). But that takes time, and consumers will only stick around for so long when there are so many other streaming options—unless, of course, Apple’s original shows are worth paying for in the interim.

That’s the opposite of how Netflix became successful: by licensing a huge library of content made by other companies to subsequently help finance its own original-TV ambitions. Apple is all-in on its original stuff—without the safety net of a library—in the hopes that it can be good enough, for long enough, to grow into something bigger. It’s not an impossible strategy; it’s just a very different, and difficult, one.

Apple will spin it as a success no matter what. But the truth will be harder to discern

This is inevitable: Apple will brag about how many millions of subscribers Apple TV+ has not long after launch. We know it’s going to have a lot. The company is expected to sell hundreds of millions of new devices in 2020. That’s hundreds of millions of people who will have access to Apple TV+ for free. Many of them won’t sign up for the service (because they don’t want to, they don’t know how to, or they forget to), but even if only a small percentage do, that’s still many million subscribers.

Add that to the consumers who will pay the full $5-per-month fee for Apple TV+, and that’s a large subscriber base. Estimates vary widely, from about 20 million subscribers by the end of 2020 to 120 million. Netflix, for comparison, has 150 million global subscribers. It launched 22 years ago and has been making original content since 2013.

So Apple’s number will be big, but it won’t tell us much. We won’t know for a while (at least another year or two) how many of those subscribers signed up organically because they liked the product, versus how many of the millions of free customers just forgot to cancel. It’s a similar strategy to when Apple launched its Spotify competitor, Apple Music.

Subscriber figures, of course, are just one metric with which to measure success. “Prestige” is another. Can Apple win an Emmy? What about an Oscar? And if it does so, will that help that attract more big-name talent to its service, which in turn draws more subscribers and sells more devices and makes Tim Cook a very happy man? Maybe.

We know that Emmy voters are perfectly happy to give awards to streaming services (as they should be, since most of the best TV is online now anyway), but Oscar voters are still hesitant to do the same, fearing that streamers threaten the sanctity of the traditional theatrical model. To that end, Apple is rumored to be cozying up to cinemas in an effort to ingratiate itself with Hollywood bigwigs and, perhaps, improve its award chances.

A report in The Wall Street Journal revealed that Apple plans to release at least some of its original films exclusively in theaters for a few months before they’re available on Apple TV+. It’s the same strategy Amazon Studios employed when it began producing original content, helping Jeff Bezos and company earn the respect of the industry. This doesn’t have much to do with money for Apple. As the Journal notes, “Apple is more interested in the prestige and brand-building that can come with a glitzy theatrical release.”

So, basically…

Apple just wants to be loved

At the end of the day, Apple wants you to like it. It wants to be seen as cool, like it was when its commercials had silhouettes dancing with iPods. And it wants to be part of the TV party. It’s a little late getting there, so it’s going to show up big and bold and become the center of attention as quickly as it can.

The problem is that making TV isn’t easy. You can’t just throw money and stars at the wall and expect it all to stick. There must be a vision. “Stories to Believe In” is not a vision. “We have Oprah!” is not a vision (though, to be fair, Oprah’s presence is not insignificant).

Apple TV+ has to mean something more. It needs an aesthetic and some guiding principles. Everyone knows what an HBO show is. Everyone knows what it means to “watch Netflix.” Netflix has turned itself into a leisure activity that’s more than just watching television. Both companies have taken years to build their identities, develop customer loyalty, and convince the world’s best storytellers that their platforms are the best places to tell stories.

Apple is already so big and ubiquitous that it won’t need years and years of work in order to compete in the TV landscape. It’s already right there, ready to compete. But to do more than simply compete—to truly succeed in the way that it’s used to doing—Apple can’t be content with being Apple. That’s not good enough for Hollywood. It needs to be better.