On Monday, Apple confirmed months of Hollywood scuttlebutt by announcing Apple TV+, a foray into original programming that will launch later this year.
To its credit, Apple has a lot of big names on board. Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon will star in a show about producing the morning news. Steven Spielberg is rebooting his 1980s anthologies series Amazing Stories. J.J. Abrams is involved in a couple of shows, and Oprah Winfrey is producing a pair of documentaries—one about workplace harassment, another about mental health—along with a live streaming book club concept. And the list goes on from there.
Missing in this parade of Hollywood talent described in its plans, however, was any kind of through-line describing why Apple TV+ should exist in the first place. At no point did Apple explain why these creators wouldn’t be better off working with, say, Netflix or HBO, or why consumers shouldn’t just drop Apple TV+ after a month of binging its best content.
In other words, Apple TV+ doesn’t have a strong enough hook, which will be a problem if Apple expects customers to pay for it, as is rumored.
Where’s the brand?
Last week, REDEF’s Matthew Ball wrote a strong piece about why Disney+ will succeed with its own streaming service, which is also coming later this year. Ball offered a long list of reasons, but the one that stuck out to me related to branding.
“Apple, Amazon, Netflix and WarnerMedia (which is also launching a corporate SVOD service at the end of 2019) each need to educate consumers on what their brands signify and sell them on their value,” Ball wrote. “...What Disney embodies, offers and represents is not only a simply communicated value proposition—it’s one that’s adored. Everyone loves Disney; all the company needs to do is literally list out which films and series it’ll have and millions will understand Disney+ and want it.”
I would argue that Netflix has a strong brand in its sheer volume of original content, positioning itself as a sort of everything store for anything you might want to watch. Amazon is still trying to define its video efforts, but can at least lean on other Prime benefits to explain the value of its video service. WarnerMedia’s upcoming service will benefit from HBO’s long track record of prestige programming, and CBS All Access banks on its near-limitless supply of digestible sitcoms and crime procedurals.
By comparison, the Apple TV+ boilerplate mission statement could apply to practically any streaming service today. Apple’s website describes TV+ as “a new streaming service where the most creative minds in TV and film tell the kinds of stories only they can,” yet the company has not argued that those creators are being hamstrung by other video services. Apple’s press release says subscribers “will enjoy inspiring and authentic stories with emotional depth and compelling characters from all walks of life,” but doesn’t make the case that rival services have failed to inspire or stir emotions with their own content.
Meanwhile, some sources in Hollywood have griped about Apple’s creative meddling, telling the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal that executives have asked creators to tone down negative stories, avoid controversy, and curb depictions of sex and violence. But rather than lean into those reports—perhaps by arguing the need for more positivity in the world—Apple seems to be dodging them. The result, at least from what we’ve seen so far, is a service without a clear raison d’être.
Waiting for the hook
None of this means that Apple TV+ is doomed, but it’ll have a tough time succeeding strictly on the merits of its content. If there’s a hook for Apple TV+, it’ll likely be the way in which Apple prices and packages the service.
Last October, The Information reported that Apple would give away its original movies and shows to owners of iPhones, iPads, Macs, and Apple TVs. Earlier this week, however, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple will charge for its originals. There’s also been talk of Apple bundling video service with its other subscription offerings, like the new Apple News+, the upcoming Apple Arcade gaming service, or the add-on video channels coming to Apple TV in May.
Apple itself hasn’t announced pricing or packaging for Apple TV+, but it’s not hard to imagine it serving the same purpose as Amazon Prime Video. Even if most people don’t subscribe to Prime’s video-only plan for $9 per month, video is still a valuable pillar in the broader Prime service, which is slightly more expensive (at $13 per month or $120 per year) but includes free two-day shipping, a selection of music and books, and free games through Twitch Prime. Apple TV+ could be a similar nice-to-have benefit in a broader Apple subscription package.
Apple TV+ isn’t launching until the fall, though, and we have lots of other outstanding questions about how the service will work. But from what we saw this week, originals alone will not be enough to make Apple a major streaming player.