The Upgrade

What Apple Needs for TV+ to Succeed

A-list talent alone won’t cut it

WeWe used to wonder if Apple would make an actual TV set. Instead, it became a TV studio. Before Netflix, Apple would have seemed like an unlikely content creation house. Back in 2013, Tim Cook told journalists Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, “We never felt we needed to own content. We need access to great content… We don’t have the skill to produce and direct.”

That has clearly changed. Apple has hired major talent to produce, direct, and star in a cluster of original programs. On Monday, the company held its equivalent of the network upfronts in, naturally, the Steve Jobs Theater on the Apple Park Campus in Cupertino, California. The parade of A-list talent explaining the premise of each of their shows would have fit nicely in any network’s annual advertiser preview.

Apple TV+ isn’t a television, but it is Apple’s big and ultimate TV bet. The company will sink at least $1 billion into fresh content, and it has attracted stars like Oprah Winfrey with a pitch you might sum up as “think different — about TV.”

One thing that struck me during Cook’s introduction is how he characterized the streaming platform as something more than just television, as if it had a higher purpose than merely attracting eyeballs. The stars certainly seemed to buy it. When Aquaman’s Jason Momoa asked audience members to close their eyes and listen to what I thought was an ASMR session, he quickly pivoted to a discussion about the way blind people experience the world. His and Alfre Woodard’s show is a postapocalyptic tale in which the majority of survivors are blind.

Apple understands the hurdles it faces in trying to beat Netflix. The big red streaming platform pours billions more into its own original shows and movies, which are overtaking licensed content, and it has built a formula for must-see TV. One complaint I have with Netflix is that because it dumps entire series onto the platform all at once, a lot of it gets lost or missed. Apple didn’t say if it would handle things more like, say, CBS All Access and dribble out one weekly episode at a time.

My guess is that in its desire to meet Netflix on its playing field, Apple will go the binge route. Not unlike Netflix, Apple will do what it can to help audiences discover new TV+ offerings they might have missed. Its TV app update will rely heavily on A.I. and machine learning to analyze your viewing habits and present homegrown Apple TV+ content that you might like.

And you may not be tethered to physical Apple TV hardware. Such is Apple’s streaming mania that it has done what was once unthinkable and is delivering its updated Apple TV app on other platforms, including Roku, Amazon Fire, and several lines of smart TVs. If Apple decides to follow suit with its Apple TV+ programming, this will position its subscription-based service right next to Netflix, which is obviously exactly where Apple wants to be. But simply being there is not quite the same as “arriving.”

All those Apple-produced shows, from Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories to Jennifer Aniston’s The Morning Show, can’t just be good — they have to be incredible. Or at least one of them has to be Apple’s Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, or Handmaid’s Tale.

A single must-see, water-cooler hit will alter Apple TV+’s fortunes. FOMO will drag people kicking and screaming behind the Apple TV+ paywall.

But there will be far more misses than hits. This is show business, where the hit rate is alarmingly low. “Peak TV” means we have far more platforms and flexibility, but it also means it’s difficult for a small show to rise up and get noticed. What kind of conversations will go on at Apple Park as Jason Momoa’s show fails or when Jennifer Aniston realizes no one is talking about her program?

I also don’t think Apple adequately answered the sex and violence question. I’m not saying Apple TV+ must include lots of R-rated content, but when you ask people to pay a monthly subscription fee for content, they expect certain options. It’s clear Apple has the kids covered with the new Sesame Street–flavored, coding-infused Helpers, and the rest looks like solid middle-of-the-road, broad-appeal fare. If Apple says no to nudity and polices blood flow, its streaming option could come off as lifeless and out of step. Artists want the freedom to express themselves. Those who appeared on stage, however, sounded quite comfortable with the Apple way.

On the other hand, we caught only glimpses of Apple’s new shows. There was not one completed trailer — just one giant trailer for everything. We also don’t know how much the service will cost.

Most people I spoke to expect Apple to charge $9.99 per month for Apple TV+. That would undercut Netflix’s $12.99 monthly subscription. Even if Apple came in at $4.99, it has to beat Netflix and Hulu on content, not price.

Personally, I’m happy to be done with the endless speculation about an Apple TV set. Apple’s focus on software, frictionless channel access, and streaming content is the right place to be.

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

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