Apple may be over a decade behind in the streaming service game, but the tech company is clearly determined to prove a late start won’t slow it down. While Netflix cautiously tiptoed into creating original content in 2013 with an initial slate of just three shows, Apple already has some dozen projects in the works for Apple TV+, which it teased Monday in a sizzle reel of heavyweights like Steven Spielberg, Damien Chazelle, Octavia Spencer, J.J. Abrams, and M. Night Shyamalan.
But as CEO Tim Cook tearfully closed Apple’s keynote by telling Oprah Winfrey “I’ll never forget this,” he seemed sure to be the only one. For all the money Apple has poured into creating Apple TV+, the service still appears deeply confused about what it wants to be.
Apple’s reasons for getting into streaming now — after numerous previous attempts — are fairly transparent. With sales of its major moneymaker, the iPhone, stalled, the tech giant is looking to diversity its offerings with a new subscription model, particularly as Apple Music continues to flounder behind Spotify. In fact, Apple has been laying the groundwork for Apple TV+ since about 2015, and the Hollywood trades have reported on major deals with Reese Witherspoon, Brie Larson, Ronald D. Moore, and yes, even Oprah, over the past year.
To those watching these developments closely, the run-up to the Apple announcement on Monday was exciting; I’ve celebrated Apple getting the rights to Pachinko, and I’m intrigued by the promise of a comedy about Emily Dickinson as well as, of course, the return of Oprah. But while there is always a bit of a confusion during the giddy period of rumors and speculation before a big launch, Apple TV+ seemed no closer to having figured itself out on Monday.
To start, there is the branding. Even the name of the service, Apple TV+, is awkward and uninspired, drawing an unfortunate mental comparison to the failed Google Plus. And while Apple already has the set-top box called Apple TV, Apple TV+ is an apparently unaffiliated subscription service that doesn’t require the use of Apple hardware.
Then there are the strange visuals with which Apple chose to introduce Apple TV+, including a background of angelic clouds and sunbeams that wouldn’t be out of place promoting a Christian television network. The intro video, in which Spielberg proposes giving the product a Big Bang-like reveal, also suggests something divine about Apple TV+. The heavenly imagery recalls a Wall Street Journal report from last year, which said Apple was telling producers it “doesn’t want gratuitous sex, profanity, or violence” in its programming, further distancing it from premium providers like HBO, which take the three as its bread and butter.
Embed from Getty ImagesWhat, then, is Apple TV+ most like if not a premium provider of edgy content like HBO? The Wall Street Journal reported that internally Apple TV+ is being referred to by employees as the “Netflix killer,” although the service as it exists now hardly seems to be anything of the sort. For one, its offerings will be far more limited than Netflix’s, which introduced more than 300 pieces of original content last year. And while Netflix’s driving philosophy is to create a little bit of something for everyone, Apple TV+ seems to have no similar initiative, offering instead a strange and disconnected grab bag of dramas, comedies, and documentaries, including, inexplicably, a 10-episode series about “the world’s most extraordinary homes.” In fact, Apple TV+ had its first bust before it even launched, with Dr. Dre’s original show Vital Signs, which was “green-lit back in 2016 and now presumed dead,” Vulture writes.
Apple TV+ might be closest, then, to YouTube Premium, particularly as Apple is looking to offer subscribers third-party add-ons like Showtime and Starz, and live television, including sports (a price for Apple TV+ has not yet been announced). But YouTube Premium offers a cautionary tale for Apple TV+; on Monday, the service canceled its two biggest original series in an apparent indication that it’s abandoning service-exclusive content, The Verge reports. YouTube’s defeat in the sector, on the same day as Apple TV+’s launch, just goes to show how intensely competitive and risky original content is in 2019. Even Amazon Prime, the only service to truly rival Netflix, has famously struggled to find its footing — and Jeff Bezos’ streamer still has far more depth than what we can expect from Apple TV+ at launch.
As exciting as the run-up to Monday’s keynote had been, the announcement of Apple TV+ has left me more bewildered than anything. It didn’t help that the company offered suspiciously little in the way of teasers and trailers. I’d be hesitant to subscribe right away; as much as I love many of the creators who have signed on to the service, there is still too much uncertainty about where, exactly, Apple TV+ wants to go. As much as I welcome the opportunity to discover more shows this fall, I can’t help fear Apple’s foray is simply for the sake of having a streaming service at all.