Why Apple Making TV Shows Is a Bad Idea


If you’re excited by the news that Apple is potentially considering joining Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and other digital entities by producing original movies and TV programming, ask yourself this: What would the perfect Apple-produced TV show look like? Would it be a smart, emotionally tempered program about the effects of technology in modern life, like AMC’s Humans meets Black Mirror? Or a rollicking, addictive swords-and-beheadings drama like Game of Thrones? Or a grisly horror rampage like The Walking Dead, or a bonkers potboiler like Scandal? If Apple is, indeed, looking to get into the original-content business — this Variety report points to “preliminary conversations in recent weeks with executives in Hollywood” — it’s worth wondering just what kind of content Apple would be looking to produce. This is Apple, after all, not some streaming-video service you’ve only vaguely heard of. We know all too well what a quintessential Apple gizmo looks like: fetishistically sleek, brilliantly conceived, obsessively crafted, and instantly indispensable. Now, does anyone out there truly believe that Apple can achieve that level of success with a TV show?

Making original content might make perfect sense for Apple from a bottom-line point of view: Being able to produce the show you watch, design the software you use to watch it, and build the gizmo you watch it on is the kind of vertical integration that would make the robber barons proud. And as both Netflix and Amazon have shown, the future belongs — or, at least, this week’s iteration of the future; last week’s having belonged to people who design wearable computers that hover over your eyeballs — to the people who make, and not just deliver, the content. Charging people $10 a month to allow you to show them someone else’s TV shows is yesterday’s thinking, but charging them $10 a month to hook them on content only you can provide is a future to get excited about.

From a brand point of view, however (which is also a business point of view), making original TV has little upside for Apple. Unless, of course, they can do what they’ve done with nearly every previous product they’ve developed: make a single dazzlingly innovative TV show that finally convinces the rest of us hapless late adopters that we really want to watch TV after all. This approach worked for the iPod (maybe I do need an mp3 player), the iPhone (and a smartphone!), and the iPad (and a tablet!!), and may yet work for the Watch. The overall genius of late-period Apple — that is, the Apple of Steve Jobs’s second coming; the one that dominated the '00s with its colorful iMacs and ubiquitous white earbuds and life-altering pocket computers — has never been to create some brand-new thing we didn’t know we wanted. It’s been to wait, hold fire, and then unleash the perfect iteration of an already-existing technology, in such a way as to convince the holdouts (and everyone else) that this gizmo was essential all along.

This is impossible to do in TV. For starters, there’s too much TV already, and there’s no one left who needs to be convinced to watch it. If anything, we’re watching as fast as we can. Second, Apple is certainly not going to redefine content the way it redefined music players, smartphones, and tablets, unless it’s been hiding some kind of genetically engineered Weiner-Whedon-Kohan clone in cryogenic freezing. The TV-content game has always run on a spaghetti-at-the-wall model, all the way back to the days of rabbit ears — and nowhere is this more true than for the digital entities who’ve so notoriously disrupted the TV market. Netflix shocked the world by producing two — count 'em, two! — outstanding, award-worthy shows, House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. But it’s also produced or affiliated itself with a whole bunch of shows that aren’t nearly so popular or prestigious or memorable. (Funny how rarely anyone talking about Netflix mentions Lilyhammer.) Amazon has produced a handful of truly startling, original shows — well, one, actually, which is Transparent — and a whole bunch of other shows you didn’t watch and can’t name. And these companies will keep making shows, and keep failing, and hopefully occasionally succeeding, and all that may well work out great for them. But this approach couldn’t run more contrary to the mystique of Apple, which has never been a “keep failing, and hopefully occasionally succeed” kind of operation. Apple doesn’t put out 12 different smartphones all at once and hope that one of them catches your fancy. It puts out one revolutionary, magical smartphone. That’s what makes Apple Apple.

This points to another challenge facing Apple, if it starts making TV and movies. Apple is, to say the least, famously concerned with quality control. The entire cult of Jony Ive is built in part around his infamous videos describing obsessive attention to details that normal humans wouldn’t even register. How does that translate to creating content? It doesn’t. In fact, the digital entities that have succeeded in television — the Netflixes and Amazons, that ones that make Apple’s entry even seem plausible — have all followed the exact opposite approach. They brag about how hands-off they are, and how they cede total creative control to their talent. This not only gives them a valuable bargaining chip when dealing with marquee talent — I’m sure Woody Allen has never been tempted to make TV for NBC — but it’s also the reason that some of their shows succeed spectacularly while many of them fail in spectacularly innovative ways. This is closer to Apple’s app model, by which independent producers create content for Apple’s devices — or, for that matter, the iTunes model, by which every artist becomes a producer of content for Apple’s machines.

But how does Apple make the tricky transition from distributor to producer? You might imagine the company opening its inexhaustible coffers to lure some topflight talent and giving them carte blanche to do whatever they want. Apple would, presumably, bank on being able to be to content production what it is to personal-computing hardware: the ultimate prestige company. But it’s hard to out-prestige HBO, which has, not incidentally, run into its own issues by giving top-shelf talent free rein. Apple will basically be jostling for the same talent and ideas that every other content-producing entity is currently fighting over. There would certainly be some appealing prestige to being produced under the Apple imprimatur — until, of course, the first show tanks. Then we’d suddenly be living in a world in which Apple is dumping out a few very good, and several just okay, and a whole bunch of pretty bad TV shows, just like everyone else.

Which raises the final point: Apple isn’t Netflix. It’s not Amazon. It’s not Google. It’s Apple — a vaunted brand-position built on an extraordinary run of product excellence, canny marketing, and good fortune. This veneer is already threatened by the enormous pressure to repeat its past successes. Google can get away with flops like Google Glass and Google Plus — not to mention whatever bad TV shows it eventually gets around to producing — because its brand is mostly known for being huge, not unerringly excellent. Amazon can get away with making crappy shows because it’s Amazon, it contains multitudes, it will still sell you Tide, and the fact that it managed to make even one great TV show felt at the time like watching a dog learn how to talk. Holy smokes, honey — look what Amazon did! Apple, by contrast, has been dazzling us for nearly two decades precisely because it hits the bull's-eye pretty much every time. In TV, just one bull's-eye can make a career, but thinking you’ll never not hit the bull's-eye is insanity. “There’s the hope that Apple — which generally has excellent institutional taste, from product design to ads — could produce some truly incredible, entertaining content,” says one enthusiastic Apple-content advocate. Well, yes — that’s certainly the hope. But the chances that Apple will succeed in astounding us with TV shows and movies that are somehow magically better, smarter, and more successful than anything else that’s already out there is virtually nil. If Apple wants to compete in the realm of making original content, it has to be prepared to fail, often and repeatedly, and even when it succeeds, to be content with basically making stuff that’s just as good as what everyone else is doing. And that’s something that Apple, in its current corporate iteration, has never been prepared, or eager, to do.