the industry

Can Apple Become the Google of Television?

The tech giant isn’t just making TV shows. It wants to be your streaming home page.

Illustration: by Martin Gee
Illustration: by Martin Gee
Illustration: by Martin Gee

In his 2011 biography of Steve Jobs, author Walter Isaacson described how the Apple co-founder planned to conquer TV. “I finally cracked it,” Jobs told him, describing his vision for an Apple-branded television set that would do away with complicated remotes for cable boxes and DVD players and replace them with “the simplest user interface you could imagine.” That Apple-branded TV never happened, but Apple has remained committed to making a mark in television, as evidenced by this Friday’s launch of Apple TV+, its long-promised and well-funded streaming service focused wholly on original content and powered by a user interface designed to make good on the Jobs vision of decluttering the TV-watching experience. Like all things associated with the Cupertino-based tech giant, Apple TV+ arrives with lots of hype and plenty of promise, but also one big question: In a world where every major entertainment conglomerate is also looking to succeed in streaming, how will Apple stand out?

While Apple is no stranger to competition, it’s jumping into TV as the medium undergoes its biggest transition since the cable revolution of the 1980s. The next six months will see the creation of no fewer than four new streaming-video platforms, each well-funded by huge corporations looking to grab back the attention of audiences who fled broadcast and cable networks in favor of on-demand services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video. The debut of Apple TV+ will be followed 12 days later by the arrival of family-friendly Disney+, while spring 2020 sees the launch of WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s advertiser-supported Peacock. (There’s also a short-form video streaming service called Quibi planned for April, but that’s a whole other story.) Apple TV+, however, is more than just a splashy new product from the company behind iPods and Macbooks. It’s the deployment of a major combatant in what’s been dubbed the “streaming wars,” an overly dramatic shorthand used to describe the fierce fight for relevance in TV’s brave new nonlinear world.

While this tsunami of streaming services are certainly in competition with one another — for talent, for acclaim, for your attention — their endgames aren’t at all the same. Netflix is looking for nothing less than total global domination: It wants all the subscribers, in all the countries, and as much of your screen time as it can gobble up. Meanwhile, HBO Max, Peacock, and the combination of Disney+ and Hulu represent the best efforts of old-school media companies to transition from the world of linear TV to a new era in which consumers watch on-demand through subscriptions.

And Apple? The company is clearly serious about competing for shows and talent. In 2017, it recruited Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, well-respected Sony Pictures TV executives who helped shape hits such as Breaking Bad and The Goldbergs, to lead its video efforts. And it’s spent hundreds of millions to attract big names such as Oprah Winfrey (Oprah’s Book Club), Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston (The Morning Show), Steven Spielberg (Amazing Stories), and M. Night Shyamalan (Servant) to the service. As a result, it is not agnostic about how Apple TV+ programming is received: It wants series such as The Morning Show and Dickinson to find big audiences, and certainly cares very much whether its shows end up on critics’ year-end lists or compete for Emmys and Golden Globes. (That many of its new shows are drawing mixed reviews this week is certainly not optimal.)

But Apple’s definition of success won’t be measured simply by how many eyeballs it attracts for its new shows over the next year or two, or even how many people sign up for the service. It doesn’t just want to make enough good programming to get people to pay a $4.99 monthly subscription fee. Instead, a key part of its overall strategy is to use its flashy originals as a billboard for Apple’s bulked-up TV app. Much the way Google moved early in the internet age to establish itself as the dominant power for web search, Apple wants to become the home page for video — the place people go to discover, buy, and watch everything streaming, anywhere, whether it’s a show, a movie, or a network. And while it hasn’t said so yet, many experts think the company’s bigger plan is to combine several or even all of its media-centric offerings — music, gaming, news, photo storage, TV — into one big monthly subscription bundle, assuring Apple gets your money even in years you don’t buy a new iPhone or laptop.

None of this is to suggest the Apple shows are beside the point, or that their creative success is irrelevant. But Apple saw an opening “to do video in a different way than others,” as Erlicht explains it. “There was also an opportunity in the user experience and user interface to fill a gap that was missing.” Erlicht says the TV landscape has “become a little bit of the Wild West,” with consumers forced to constantly switch between apps, retype passwords and credit card numbers, and scroll through endless menus just to find a particular program or movie. “We’re looking to simplify the viewing experience,” he says. Much the way Jobs wanted to do away with multiple remotes and tangled wires for physical TV sets, Apple wants its TV app, powered by the TV+ subscription service, to make streaming as simple as the old days of channel surfing.

Here’s how it works: When Apple TV+ customers head to Apple’s TV app to check out the first three episodes of The Morning Show this weekend, they’ll find not only the company’s original series but a very slick interface geared toward surfacing not just TV+ originals but all the other shows and movies available to them on the services they either subscribe to directly (think Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Britbox) or have access to via a cable subscription (FX, Discovery, CNN). If you watch Apple’s new space drama For All Mankind, for example, the TV app might suggest you check out Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 through one of your streaming subscriptions (in this case, Starz or Hulu). With a single click, the TV app will switch you over to the rival streamer, log you in if necessary, and start playing the movie. You can also add shows from dozens of streamers — including Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and starting next month, Disney+ — to Apple’s version of a Netflix queue, called Up Next. (Ironically, you can’t add Netflix shows to this queue: The streamer won’t let Apple incorporate its content into the TV app, though users can still hunt for Netflix fare via voice or text search, and the app will then take them to Netflix to watch.) “Instead of having to navigate your way around and start to manage other apps and hunt and peck for something that you want to watch, it’s all in one single ecosystem,” Van Amburg says.

Apple isn’t the only company trying to suck you into their TV ecosystem: Amazon’s Fire TV offers a somewhat similar form of content aggregation, even pulling in over-the-air signals if you have the right device. Cable companies such as Comcast and Cox also offer their own advanced programming guides that blend in content from a few streaming services. But Apple’s bet, as it has been for decades, is that its design and user experience will be superior to what rivals offer.

Apple has had a streaming device (also called Apple TV) for playing iTunes downloads and outside services such as Hulu since 2007; it launched its own dedicated TV app in 2016, a bit before the company got serious about originals. But earlier this year, the company’s television ambitions took a sizable leap when Apple gave the TV app a major upgrade — and, crucially, made it available outside the company’s own hardware. While you previously needed an Apple device to use the app, it’s now available on Roku and Amazon Fire devices as well as select Samsung smart TVs. “That’s a big game-changer, in our opinion,” Van Amburg says. “Now we have the footprint that covers all the screens.” Apple did something similar when it rolled out its Spotify competitor Apple Music back in 2015, making it available to Android users a few months after it launched. Doing so from the start of Apple TV+ was a big deal: It signaled that the company wants to compete broadly for streaming users, not just for those who have Apple products. Also, the big stars and producers working on Apple’s shows probably wouldn’t have been excited about working for a platform unavailable to tens of millions of consumers.

In another big change, the TV app revamp introduced something called Apple TV channels, which lets users subscribe to services such as HBO Now or CBS All Access using their existing Apple accounts — and opened up a huge new revenue stream for the company. Every time a consumer chooses to sign up for a subscription service such as Showtime or Shudder through Apple TV channels, Apple gets as much as a 30 percent commission from each sale, according to industry insiders familiar with how it works. While these outside streamers obviously don’t love the idea of sharing their revenue, dozens have decided it’s worth it because such deals result in more folks signing up.

Amazon was actually the first major player in the channels space: It started selling subscriptions to other streaming services back in 2017, and by most accounts, it dominates the business. That means Apple is playing catch-up here, as is Roku, the other major platform that wholesales outside streaming services. But even though Apple is late to the add-on subscriptions game, the launch of the new, widely distributed TV app and the debut of TV+ originals could help it grab back some of the revenue it’s been losing to Amazon, argues Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist and former Amazon Studios exec who writes regularly about the streaming wars. “Even modest share growth can produce enormous value,” he says.

Apple’s channels strategy also helps answer one of the most frequently heard questions (and criticisms) of TV+: How does the service expect to succeed without a back catalogue of movies or TV shows? After all, every major video service launched in the Netflix era has offered consumers some form of library content. (Even NBC’s short-lived Seeso had old episodes of Saturday Night Live and Monty Python.) But as much as outside programming can attract subscribers, big conglomerates such as WarnerMedia, Disney, and NBCUniversal are now reclaiming their libraries in order to launch their own streaming platforms. “Libraries are becoming more and more fractured by the day [and] aggregated libraries are going to cease to exist in the very near future,” Erlicht says, arguing Apple can thrive even without a big tentpole classic such as Seinfeld or The Office. “The reality is, it’s quality original programming that drives viewing patterns and drives these services.”

Instead of investing hundreds of millions to borrow shows from other companies, Apple is betting it can serve consumers better by focusing on originals — which helps keep the overall subscription fee to a relatively modest $4.99 per month — while also using TV channels so viewers can stream the content they want from other platforms. Ball says the success of Amazon’s channels program “has shown that not only do customers like subscribing to multiple à la carte services, they prefer to do so through aggregated experiences,” such as Amazon’s Prime Video.

There’s another way Apple may use its TV service to drive revenues at the company. For more than a year now, Ball has made the case that Apple should combine several of its subscription services — music, video games, photo storage, and now premium TV — as one big package. “I think Apple TV originals are fundamentally going to be part of a mega Apple services bundle,” he says. “That’s ultimately where the value is going to come from.” Ball and other analysts argue that while TV+ originals might “generate a little more revenue,” a company as big as Apple doesn’t need to play small ball. “But their overall ecosystem improves with every additional thing, many of which consumers would value but don’t get,” Ball says.

He points to Apple’s iCloud storage as an example of a service that on its own might not have mass appeal, especially since companies such as Google and Amazon offer storage for free. “My mother and father run out of space on their iPhoto all the time,” he says. “iCloud would be great for them, but they just can’t imagine paying for cloud storage.” But if iCloud, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, and an Apple Music subscription were all bundled together for a competitive price, it could convince current Apple users to sign up — and maybe even prompt folks who have other devices to switch over to the Apple universe.

Ball’s forecast may already be coming true: Using the Instagram feed of Dickinson star Hailee Steinfeld, Apple said on Thursday it would bundle TV+ with Apple Music, but only for college students, who’ll be able to get access to both for just $4.99 per month.

Media analyst Rich Greenfield of LightShed Partners agrees that Apple’s long-term goal, like many of its rivals, is to get consumers to be more loyal to their particular corner of cyberspace. “Every one of these tech companies is trying to keep you in their ecosystem so they can monetize you through whatever their primary method of monetization is,” he says. “The longer you spend in the Apple ecosystem, the more loyal you are to Apple, the more devices you buy, the more you spend. It’s all a virtuous circle for Apple.”

While analysts and investors such as Greenfield and Ball take a rosy view of Apple’s TV plans, some in Hollywood have pushed a different narrative during the two-year lead-up to this week’s TV+ launch. There have been stories suggesting Apple was micromanaging its showrunners or that it only wanted family-friendly programming. Several projects, including The Morning Show and Spielberg’s reboot of his 1980s anthology series Amazing Stories, had to deal with creative turmoil, including showrunner changes. And Apple’s decision to not acquire any major programs or movie libraries has prompted all manner of warnings that consumers won’t spend money on such a small content offering.

It would be naïve to argue that Apple TV+ hasn’t had setbacks the past two years, and also before Van Amburg and Erlicht joined. “When you are specifically trying to create new, big, ambitious shows, of course there are sometimes going to be issues, be they production issues, be they personnel issues. We’ve not been immune to that,” Van Amburg admits. And when Apple made a change in showrunners or other staff, Erlicht argues, “It’s been for the betterment of the show.”

But a top Hollywood agent with clients who’ve worked on Apple shows says his experience with the company hasn’t been the disaster he’s heard described in press reports and by other Tinseltown insiders. “Everyone talks about some of these shows as clusterfucks,” the agent says. “Have they had their bumps and bruises on The Morning Show? One-hundred percent. But in terms of the production process, every show at every network has problems all the time. No shows are easy. No executive is perfect. Would I rather be at Apple than ABC? One-hundred times out of 100.”

Indeed, The Morning Show writer–exec producer Kerry Ehrin says her experience with Apple was the opposite of what she’s read in some reports. “No one believes this when I say it, but they were great,” Ehrin told Vulture’s Maria Elena Fernandez. And while she can only speak to her own work with Apple, “they did not constrain me,” she says. “When I read in the paper the thing about them being super-invasive and that they wanted everything G-rated, I was like, Who is that? That was not my experience.”

Given the long and very public buildup to this week’s TV+ debut, the flurry of negative stories surrounding the service was probably unavoidable. It also doesn’t help that so many in Hollywood are wary of their new corporate masters: Netflix and Amazon have pumped billions of dollars into the showbiz economy, but not without radically disrupting just about everything about the way TV gets made, while AT&T has blown up HBO and much of the old Turner Entertainment empire in preparation for next year’s launch of HBO Max. So of course, some in the town are viewing Apple with suspicion, even if Van Amburg, Erlicht, and most of their top creative team are longtime TV-biz veterans. Like Netflix before it, Apple has barged in and tossed around huge sums of money to get the shows and stars it wants. That rankles rivals who either can’t keep up or have to scramble to compete. (There’s also been plenty of exaggeration in media reports about just how unprecedented Apple’s spending has been: Witherspoon and Aniston may be pulling down $1 million and change for every episode of The Morning Show, but they’re also exec producers of the show — and Jerry Seinfeld was paid $2 million per hour of Seinfeld back in the 1990s.)

And while Apple has forged plenty of positive relationships with artists over the years, the company has sometimes been heavy-handed in using its leverage to force its way on the TV and music industries. Record labels for years railed against Apple for insisting that all singles sold on the iTunes Music Store cost 99 cents. NBC pulled digital copies of its TV shows for a time back in 2007 because Apple wouldn’t let it charge more than $1.99 per episode. Now that Apple is making its own series and movies, it’s no shocker that some in Hollywood are ready to see the company stumble. One TV industry insider, reacting to the flurry of negative reviews of Apple shows Monday, seemed just a bit happy about the development. “Making shows is hard,” the veteran suit told Vulture. “Just because you hire someone who has a great track record doesn’t mean they’re going to produce something great.”

Intramural sniping aside, some analysts think Apple is well-positioned to make a difference in TV, if only because the video marketplace is still very much in the early stages of being reorganized. “The concept of linear TV is fading, and linear TV with ads is fading even faster,” says Greenfield. “So while some people say, ‘Oh, Apple’s late’ — this transition from linear broadcast television to on-demand, especially ad-free TV is still in the pretty early stages. Netflix may be too far ahead to catch, but just because Netflix is a winner doesn’t mean Apple can’t be a winner.”

Greenfield says that despite reports about the rising popularity of cord-cutting, most U.S. homes are still very much attached to a video bundle — and open to a change. “There are still 90 million U.S. households spending between $50 and over $100 a month for multichannel television, and they’re using it less every single day,” he says. “So there is still a massive market, and if you can create the fulfilling content, there’s still a tremendous amount of subscribers and subscriber wallets to capture.” And Ball thinks that Apple’s overall strategy, particularly if it leads to a bigger subscription bundle, is primed to pay off. “What Apple is doing is logical, important, and likely to be a success,” he says.

Apple skeptics focused on production stumbles and early soft reviews may also be ignoring the company’s ability to sell new products to its hundreds of millions of worldwide customers. The trailer for The Morning Show, for example,  amassed about 25 million views in six weeks, while the trailers for all five of Apple’s launch projects have tallied around 100 million views. Apple’s omnipresence in so many homes (and pockets) explains why some on Wall Street are bullish on the prospects for TV+: Wedbush Securities research analyst Dan Ives predicts the service could sign up a whopping 100 million subscribers within three or four years. And even if reviews have been mixed so far, Apple’s originals are still likely to attract sizable sampling. “I think The Morning Show has the potential to be one of the most-watched shows of the next 12 months, simply because 200 million-plus people buy an Apple device,” Greenfield says.

The Hollywood agent with clients on Apple shows also points out that the company has seen its major media moves questioned before, only to end up proving skeptics wrong. “I remember many, many articles talking about what a disaster the launch of Apple Music would be and how Apple Music would never be competitive with Spotify,” he says. “Spotify had far too long a runway, too much of a head start, and it was never going to work. And now look at the numbers. When Apple turns it on, they have an ecosystem that is so large and so powerful. It’s very, very foolish to bet against them.”

For months now, business and entertainment reporters (including this one) have been filing dispatches from the front lines of this bloodless battle, chronicling every announcement — Friends is headed to HBO Max! Saved by the Bell is being rebooted by Peacock! — as if covering the advancing forces of the Allied armies ahead of D-Day. That price is one-third of what WarnerMedia will charge for HBO Max ($14.99), well below Netflix’s most popular plan ($12.99), and a couple dollars cheaper than Disney+ ($6.99) — but it comes with a much smaller library of TV shows and movies. Apple says Sony, LG, and Vizio TVs are in line to get TV app access in the months to come. So far, there’s no word on an app for Android phones. The biggest streamers — Netflix, Prime Video, and Hulu — don’t participate in Apple TV channels, though Prime and Hulu do allow full integration with the TV app (unlike Netflix). Ball says he’s seen reports that Amazon accounts for as much as 70% of third-party digital streaming subscription for some services. Other estimates have been smaller, but point to Amazon owning this space right now. Before the current push into TV, Apple Music filmed a full season of a drama inspired by the life of Dr. Dre, then decided not to run it because it was too dark. While Spotify still has double the number of subscribers worldwide, Apple Music (28 million) earlier this year passed Spotify (26 million) in terms of U.S. subscribers. Apple Music has 50 million users worldwide.
Can Apple Become the Google of Television?