How Apple can make its streaming service better than Netflix

Let’s make sure the force is still with you.
Let’s make sure the force is still with you.
Image: AP Photo/George Brich
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For years, Apple has been trying to reinvent the television industry, just as it did to music back in 2003. That was the year Apple launched the iTunes Music Store and convinced a generation of Napster-worshipping consumers to start (gasp!) paying for music again. And now, it seems to finally be happening. On Sunday night, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple is in talks with Comcast to team up for a new streaming-television service that would use an Apple set-top box (most likely, a new version of Apple TV).

According to the WSJ report, Apple wants to usurp a traditional cable set-top box and allow viewers to stream live and on-demand programming, as well as digital-video recordings in the cloud. While the discussions with Comcast are still in the early stages, it’s the best indication yet that Apple will finally offer consumers their best incentive yet to “cut the cord” (i.e. cancel cable service).

Yet while many consumers claim they want to cut the cord, very few actually end up doing so. Which is why Apple will need to go above and beyond simple a la carte offerings if it truly wants to make a splash. Here are four suggestions that would make its new service instantly better than Netflix:

Go go, HBO Go!

HBO has been pressured for several years to make its HBO Go streaming site, which is available only to those who subscribe to HBO via their cable companies, a standalone subscription option. Finally, executives said last month that they’ll be willing to offer such a service as soon as the numbers make sense to do so. Apple needs to strike a deal with HBO for its new service, which will be an ideal way enable people to subscribe to HBO Go without being forced to also shell out for a pricey basic-cable package.

Become the Netflix for current seasons of shows

Apple should use its leverage as the networks battle with studios (and Netflix) over “in-season stacking rights,” the ability to watch all episodes of a show’s current season. For many series, iTunes offers a la carte access to all of a current season’s episodes. The shows’ respective networks, meanwhile, are limited to streaming five episodes per their agreements with the studios that produce each series. (Netflix and Amazon can only air previous seasons, not the current one.) If you’re late to the party and want to (legally) catch up on all episodes of this season’s breakout freshman hits like The Blacklist or Sleepy Hollow, your only option is to go to iTunes (or Amazon or Google Play) and pay $32-40 for the whole season.

That’s way too much. Apple needs to hook binge viewers by reviving the concept of TV rentals, in which customers pay a reduced fee to watch an episode within a 24-hour period (much like its iTunes movie rentals). Apple introduced TV rentals in 2010 (at a reasonable $0.99 per episode) but abandoned them a year later, explaining at the time that that “iTunes customers have show they overwhelmingly prefer buying TV shows.” Given the extent that viewers have embraced binge-viewing in the past three years, it’s time for Apple to give this another whirl, as it will be more widely embraced by binge-loving.

Use The Force

In 2010, Apple finally landed exclusive digital rights to the Beatles catalog. Now, it should aggressively pursue the holy grail of exclusive movie digital rights: the Star Wars films, which still have yet to be released via any digital platform. (Remember, Lucasfilm is now owned by Disney, whose chairman and CEO, Bob Iger, sits on Apple’s Board of Directors.) Using the films to launch Apple’s streaming service, especially as anticipation builds toward the next Star Wars film, due out in December 2015, would be reason enough for many viewers to immediately get on board.

Put the “original” back in original series

Now that Apple is finally building an infrastructure that would allow it to launch an original series, it should proceed with caution while doing so. Given all the platforms scrambling to add original content (Xbox and Sony Playstation are the latest to join the fray), we’ve already reached an oversaturation point in which there are simply too many top-shelf shows to keep up with. The best way to become a major player is to offer innovative programming that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else on TV, the same way that HBO thrived with The Sopranos, FX first announced its presence with The Shield and AMC with Mad Men and Breaking Bad. It’s telling that Netflix’s most-watched original series last year wasn’t the overhyped House of Cards or the return of Arrested Development, but Orange is the New Black, which boasts a rich, unique cast featuring women of all ages, races, and economic backgrounds unlike any other on television. Being great won’t be enough; an Apple original series will need to be peerless.

In other words: Build it, and they will come. Apple always embraces the role of innovator—not follower—and if it wants its upcoming streaming service to succeed, it will need to do so again.