EMPIRE STATE OF MIND

Apple is hoping “Foundation” can be its “Game of Thrones”

Apple is trying to expand its streaming base.
Apple is trying to expand its streaming base.
Image: Apple
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Eight months after launching, Apple TV+ is still searching for the series that can help it stand out against the throng of streaming services jockeying for viewers’ money and attention. Enter Foundation.

Apple debuted the trailer for the extravagant sci-fi series at its developers conference on June 22. Based on the 1951 book series of the same name by prolific American writer Isaac Asimov, Foundation tells the story of the fall of a vast far-future Galactic Empire. If the trailer looks a bit like HBO’s “Game of Thrones in space,” that is very much intentional.

The cerebral series introduced readers to “psychohistory,” Asimov’s term for a fictional scientific field that can predict the futures of large populations. In the series, a psychohistorian predicts the demise of the Empire and comes up with a plan to reduce the length of the dark age that will inevitably follow. Modeled after the fall of the Roman Empire, Asimov’s story influenced a number of significant sci-fi works of the 20th century, including Star Wars and Dune.

A streaming service is only as successful as its content is good. So far, very few of the original TV shows on Apple TV+ have received the type of attention from viewers and critics that the company would like—especially given how much it has invested in the platform.

Apple TV+ only has about 10 million subscribers, Bloomberg reported in May. Of those, only 5 million are “actively” using the service. Meanwhile, just 10% of the Apple users eligible for the streaming service’s free year-long trial have taken advantage of the offer, according to Bernstein Research analyst Toni Sacconaghi.

Disney’s streaming service, Disney+, which launched in the same month as Apple TV+, has five times as many subscribers. Some of that is surely due to the existing base of Marvel- and Star Wars-branded content available on the service from day one. (Apple launched it service with only a few original shows and no library of licensed content.) But Disney also struck gold immediately with its series The Mandalorian, which became a global hit. A show like The Mandalorian can not only drive sign-ups to the platform, but it can also convince users to stay there, providing hope for more content of a similar quality.

None of Apple’s original shows have broken through in that way. The talk-show drama The Morning Show has performed relatively well, according to third-party data firms, but not at the level needed to be the linchpin of the service. Apple’s first attempt to replicate the global success of Game of Thrones was the dystopian fantasy drama See, which was a colossal bust with both viewers and critics.

Foundation marks attempt number two. It is by far Apple’s most ambitious series to date—a geopolitical story spanning thousands of years that requires a Thrones-esque budget. Asimov’s work was one of the first projects Apple developed—a signal of where its priorities are. Beyond Foundation, Apple is developing several other big swings, including an adaptation of Terry Gilliam’s 1981 film Time Bandits. It has also been on the losing end of a few bidding wars over blockbuster projects, like JJ Abrams’ next show, which ultimately went to HBO.

Unlike Disney, Apple doesn’t own any intellectual property of its own, so it is forced to find its next big series through trial and error. And unlike HBO, which earned its viewers trust as a reliable source of quality content over many years, Apple is trying to do all that immediately. It took HBO a long time to build enough cultural (and financial) capital to attempt a show like Game of Thrones. While Apple no doubt has the money to do so, it is not yet widely understood to be a trusted source of TV. Making original content is a very different game from selling phones.

Apple is likely to continue throwing money at the wall until something sticks. If and when that happens, it may be exactly what the company needs to grow the streaming service toward its true potential. When Foundation debuts in 2021, we’ll know if Apple is any closer to that goal, or if there is still a long dark period ahead.