Apple TV+ Is Doing Better Than You Think

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Apple TV/YouTube

Have you met Ted? No, not that Ted: The Jason Sudekis–led comedy Ted Lasso, which has emerged as one of the buzziest new TV shows of the last few months. Since its low-key debut last August, the Apple TV+ comedy has been slowly working its way into the zeitgeist, winning fans via word of mouth and this week picking up major Golden Globe, SAG, and WGA nominations. Its quiet rise is the latest in a series of tiny triumphs for Apple TV+, which debuted to all sorts of skepticism from media analysts and critics back in late 2019 — and has just kept chugging along, building an ever-expanding library of really good shows and movies.

No, Apple TV+ isn’t stealing away millions of subscribers from Netflix or Disney+, nor does it dominate the daily discourse around pop culture and TV the way those streamers do. (More on why that doesn’t really matter later.) And yes, the fact that Apple has kept millions of users on free trials for over a year is a sign that the service is taking time to take off (the pandemic hasn’t helped). But during its first 15 months of existence, Apple’s TV platform has established an impressive track record for turning out consistently good — and sometimes great — programming for subscribers, despite offering a much, much smaller overall offering compared to the big guys in the space:

In addition to its aforementioned Globes nominations, Ted Lasso also just snagged three WGA Awards noms and seems very likely to be a major player at this fall’s Emmy Awards. While critics haven’t been universal in their praise, the show’s Rotten Tomatoes score stands at an impressive 90 percent and Apple has already renewed the show for two more seasons.

While “TV” is in its name, Apple’s streaming platform is also off to a splashy (and fast) start with its film slate. Both On the Rocks and Wolfwalkers earned Globes love, and Apple let leak to the trades that its Justin Timberlake starrer Palmer delivered the service’s best-ever weekend of usage. Its upcoming slate is star-studded, and includes the acclaimed drama CODA, which swept most of the major awards at this year’s virtual Sundance, as well as Killers of the Flower Moon, which reunites Martin Scorsese with stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.

Dickinson, a critical hit when it launched in 2019, returned last month for a second season to even more acclaim (it’s at 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. The coming-of-age period comedy isn’t aimed at as broad an audience as many other Apple shows, but that’s actually a good thing: Streamers, like cable nets, need shows which superserve smaller segments of the population. Dickinson is exactly the kind of show you could see on HBO or FX (and it has the Peabody Award to prove it). It was renewed for a third season before its second season debuted.

The Morning Show divided critics early on but seemed to build momentum as its first season unspooled and got a ton of buzz by the time of its finale. More importantly, it managed to get a slew of Emmy and Golden Globes nominations during its first season, with Billy Crudup taking home the Supporting Actor Emmy.

Though they don’t get quite as much attention, Apple TV+ shows Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, Central Park, and Little America are all at 90 percent or above on Rotten Tomatoes. More importantly, they’re all completely different kinds of shows, demonstrating the breadth of the streamer’s growing library.

While not the same as viewing figures, data aggregator Parrot Analytics says the oft-mocked Jason Momoa epic See and the Chris Evans-led thriller Defending Jacob are both connecting with audiences. Over the past three months, they have ranked among Apple TV+’s five most in-demand shows, generating five to six times as much interest among global audiences as a typical TV program. (After a slower start, Lasso is now earning the most buzz of any Apple original, both in the U.S. and around the world, per Parrot.) On top of that, space drama For All Mankind was recently renewed for a third season even before its second premieres later this month.

At this point you might be wondering if this week’s Buffering is actually a paid advertorial for Apple TV+. I assure you there are some caveats ahead! But when you take a minute and break down exactly what Apple has pulled off on the programming front so far, I do not think it is hype to suggest it has been spending its billions wisely. If this were 2010 and Apple had launched a cable network instead of a streamer, I am pretty sure there would be stories in the Hollywood trades raving about the flashy upstart giving HBO and FX a run for their money. In fact, Apple’s opening salvo actually reminds me a lot of what happened with AMC back in the mid-aughts, when a celebrated run of prestige television prompted a THR story calling the network “HBO’s Nightmare.”

Apple’s slate currently does not boast a show with the prestige factor of Mad Men or Breaking Bad, and even without hard data, I feel safe contending none of its shows are anywhere near the out-of-the-box phenom that Walking Dead was. What’s more, this isn’t 2010: Streaming and cable TV are two very different business models, and having a handful of hits does not a successful streamer make. But Lasso, Dickinson, and The Morning Show, combined with everything else outlined above, means Apple TV+ has a content slate on par with an FX or AMC or Showtime in an average year. That’s important because the Apple TV+ programming team set out to create a service whose aim was not unlike that of its premium cable predecessors: Subscribe to us, and even if you don’t particularly like every show we program, you will likely find a few you love while being confident most of what we offer will be well-produced and not total pablum. I would argue that so far, they have more than met that goal. And while you can credit the big sums of cash Apple has thrown around to get top talent, spending lots of money is no guarantee of success in Hollywood. Just ask Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Despite the success Apple has had putting together a first-class array of programming, the conversation around the platform has often centered around the strategy behind the service. The tech giant is diverging from the path most big players in the space have taken, opting to build a service made up almost entirely of original content — and skipping the part where it spends billions buying up huge parts of other companies’ film and TV libraries. Naysayers continually contend that in this increasingly crowded streaming universe, consumers simply aren’t going to pay $5 per month for Apple TV+ when for roughly the same price, a Hulu or a Peacock offer much more robust lineups.

Such complaints, I would contend, miss the point: The company is Thinking Different. Sure, it wants hundreds of millions of active global users, and it is certainly competing for audience attention. It will need hit shows to thrive. But unlike a Netflix or HBO Max, it is not trying to get folks to watch TV+ shows every day, or to convince them that its service can replace an entire cable lineup. Instead, TV+ is about getting users to spend more time in Apple’s already massive ecosystem of product and contents, including the Apple TV app and Apple’s new subscription bundles. (I outlined the company’s thinking back in 2019.) This, along with the lack of a giant library of O.P.P. (other people’s programming) is why Apple TV+ costs $5, and not $10 or $15 like other platforms; it is also why the company can be so generous with those free trial subscriptions it has been offering with the purchase of new Apple hardware. Apple TV+, like Amazon’s Prime Video, is not an island; it is a cog in a much bigger machine.

On the Other Hand …

I promised caveats, so let’s look at what may not be working with Apple TV+ so far. Those free trials were only supposed to run for a year, but have now been extended twice, most recently until July. It seems Apple is worried not enough folks would pay even the modest $5 per month subscription cost if the trials were to end right now. That isn’t ideal, but it is also not completely shocking given how the pandemic disrupted Apple’s production pipeline. There would already be a new season of The Morning Show and likely first seasons of several other shows had the ’rona not halted filming for nearly a half year. Indeed, I’m betting Apple’s original game plan called for most of its second seasons of shows to start right around the time the original one-year trials were up. Before it forces millions of consumers to decide whether to start paying for TV+, I think Apple likely wants to make sure the service is operating at full speed — not with a dozen-plus new shows every week like Netflix, but at least with four or five new projects rolling out every month.

Also, for as much success as Apple has had with scripted programming, to date its unscripted offerings have been less impressive. Most of its docuseries have come and gone without being noticed. Feature docs such as Boys State and Beastie Boys Story have made a bit more noise, as did the streamer’s Mariah Carey Christmas special. But relative to its scripted track record, Apple’s non-fiction offerings have been tepid.

More disappointingly, the company’s deal with Oprah Winfrey has yet to bear much fruit. Her six Oprah’s Book Club specials haven’t made a splash, and while her COVID-centric conversations early during the pandemic were valuable and worthwhile, they were more PSAs than vital programming. More recently, Winfrey has done some celeb chats with folks like Dolly Parton and President Obama. But because there’s no rhyme or rhythm to their release, as well as no audience (thanks to COVID), those interviews have not felt like the events they should. I will never count out Winfrey — those who doubted her OWN channel early on were quickly proven wrong — but her deal with Apple hasn’t yet been the tentpole the streamer might have wanted.

More Pluses Than Minuses

And yet despite these challenges, Apple TV+ is succeeding far more than it is falling short. The pandemic obviously made its first full year more challenging than expected, in part because the lack of a huge content library and production delays meant consumers who checked out the streamer’s first wave of release in late 2019 and early 2020 had fewer reasons to return for much of the rest of the year. But those second seasons of Apple shows are now rolling out (For All Mankind returns in two weeks), feature films will soon begin popping up more regularly, and the streamer has huge series projects in the works with the likes of Tom Hanks, Lorne Michaels, Gal Godot, John Ridley, Cary Fukunaga, Paul Rudd, and Patricia Arquette attached in various roles. And as last month’s huge Sundance deal for CODA underscores, Apple remains unafraid of stepping up to land projects it wants.

As noted earlier, such spending does not equal winning. But it sure seems a clear signal the company remains all in on TV+. Whether or not that commitment will eventually translate into success is, of course, the big unknown. There’s a flip side to Apple’s ability to spend lavishly on what is ultimately a small part of its overall business: It could pull the plug on TV+ two years from now and Wall Street would barely yawn. For now, Apple TV+ is doing a lot of what it set out to do, namely making quality shows that are showing signs of resonating with audiences. I have no idea if that will be enough to keep the company in the TV game over the long term.

Apple TV+ Is Doing Better Than You Think