It’s About to Get Real for Apple TV+

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo

This story first ran in Buffering, Vulture’s newsletter about the streaming industry. Head to vulture.com/buffering and subscribe today!

Apple TV+ is about to take off the training wheels.

Since the computer giant’s streaming service launched back in November 2019, the company has been wooing potential subscribers by offering them a full year of TV+ for free whenever they bought an iPhone, iPad, or other major piece of hardware. And when the first of those free trials were set to expire last fall, Apple generously decided to extend them — not once, but twice. But now, the days of cheap and easy Apple TV+ are apparently over.

Earlier this week, Apple quietly confirmed it was changing the terms of its free trial. On its website, the company is now telling consumers that as of July 1, buying a new Apple device will only entitle them to three months of TV+ gratis, rather than a whole year. What’s more, the millions of TV+ users who’ve been freeloading off of Tim Cook’s benevolence for so long — like me — will apparently not get another reprieve when those original 2019 free trials run out next month. Apple hasn’t officially said anything, but given how much advance notice the company gave before those previous extensions, it is looking like they won’t be doing so again. If that happens, consumers will finally be forced to decide whether TV+ merits its sticker price of $5 per month.

There’s obviously a risk that TV+ is about to lose a big chunk of its subscriber base. But whatever happens, shortening future trial offers, and ending the ones which were extended, is a strong hint that Cook and his exec team believe their fledgling streamer is ready to start fighting for customers without a safety net. While some analysts scoffed at the extra-long trial period, I think it demonstrated (again) Apple’s willingness to sacrifice short-term revenue for a longer-term play. Fact is, every other major streamer (and most cable networks) built their subscriber base on the back of library shows, and then expanded through originals. Apple knew it couldn’t expect many people to pay for just a handful of unproven titles, so it wisely decided to basically give the service away for free while it let audiences get acclimated to its offering.

But with its two-year anniversary just around the corner, TV+ now has multiple known quantities, and they’re shows many people really like. Ted Lasso is a social-media sensation that could soon turn in a strong Emmy performance, while space drama For All Mankind has a similarly passionate chorus of online enthusiasts and TV critics behind it. The Morning Show, which Apple execs have groomed to be the platform’s signature drama, got a mixed reaction early on — but had many critics singing its praises by the time its first season ended. Comedies Dickinson, Central Park, and Mythic Quest also have passionate fan bases, while industry sources who’ve talked to Apple execs say insiders there insist Jason Mamoa’s See is actually a global hit. Sure, there are still no old movies, and just one old TV series (Fraggle Rock). But the service does now have a decent, if small, content library — of its own originals.

Will this be enough to get people to pay just two dollars less per month than what Disney charges for the ad-supported level of Hulu, a service stuffed with tens of thousands of hours of viewable content? I’ll be honest: I don’t know. And given Apple’s historic insistence on saying virtually nothing about how TV+ is performing, unless or until the company suddenly decides to close the service down — or fire its top execs — we may never fully understand how things are going at the streamer.

That said, I suspect there actually is a core audience for what TV+ is trying to do. At a time when all the other major streamers are falling over each other to add more and more and still more content — even the once-picky HBO brand has been Max’d — there may be an upside to taking a relatively curated approach. You can’t turn on Apple TV+ every night and find something new to watch, but lately, there’s a good chance it will have at least one interesting thing worth checking out every month or so. You also don’t have to worry about scrolling through a million different shows trying to find something to watch, only to quit in frustration a half-hour later.

Also, let’s get real: Apple’s TV slate is modest only by recent industry standards. After just 18 months or so in existence, TV+ currently offers more than 55 scripted, unscripted, and kids shows. And based on the regular press releases it sends out, it will be home to a couple dozen more big projects, including some big movies, by the end of 2022. Five or ten years ago, that sort of output would have given TV+ one of the biggest slates in television. As one top agent told me a few weeks ago as I was doing research for another story, “They have all the money in the world, and they spend it to make good stuff. They’re fulfilling their side of the bargain.” With the extended trials about to end, Apple is about to find out if audiences agree.

It’s About to Get Real for Apple TV+