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Apple TV Plus: Nearly Six Months in, Is Anybody Watching?

(Image credit: Future)

Netflix has what we used to call a “water-cooler” hit with Tiger King. Disney Plus, which just expanded to Western Europe and India, reported its 50 millionth subscriber this week. And almost every TV critic in America is kicking the tires on mobile-first streaming service Quibi.

But as consumers, stuck at home—and in all too many unfortunate cases—out of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, buzz doesn’t seem to be occurring at Apple TV Plus. 

Even before social distancing changed viewing patterns, there were downer indicators. In early-February, Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi told Bloomberg that the service, a free year of which is given out to purchasers of iPhones, MacBook Pros and other Apple devices, is “failing to resonate.” He said that fewer than 10 million users had signed up, despite Apple’s aggressive gratis-for-12-months promotion. 

Sacconaghi’s projection was preceded by an Ampere Analysis suggestion in late-January that 33.6 million U.S. consumers actually had signed up for Apple TV Plus, but few of them are paying. 

In early March, mogul Barry Diller told the Byers Market podcast that Apple “is still not in it with both feet... They've put some capital in, but relatively little. They're not making a major effort. ... They haven't decided yet."

Related: Is It Already Too Late for Apple TV+?

Jump forward about a month—and a major societal shift—later, and the outlook doesn’t seem to be improving. 

Earlier this week, writing for Decider, streaming media analyst the Entertainment Strategy Guy laid out the circumstantial evidence in a compelling way. Start with Google Trends, which paints a rather damning picture. Since around mid-March—right after NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s landmark decision to suspend his league’s season triggered a cascading series of events that largely confined everyone to their living rooms—interest in both Netflix and Disney Plus is way up. Apple TV Plus, however, has remained flatlined. (See graphic.)

(Image credit: Google)

Streaming analytics firm Antenna, meanwhile, said that Apple TV Plus subscriptions only grew by around 10% in the first week of the pandemic shutdown, the lowest of any major SVOD service. 

Launching Nov. 1, just under two weeks before Disney Plus exploded out of the gate, Apple TV Plus (or Apple TV+, as it’s officially styled) started out with eight original series, highlighted by The Morning Show, a dramedy about a daily network TV production starring Jennifer Aniston, Steve Carrel and Reese Witherspoon. The sci-fi series See, featuring Alfre Woodard and Jason Momoa, also received heavy promotion. 

Touting 17% revenue growth for Apple services in the fourth quarter, Apple CEO Tim Cook told investors that Apple TV Plus got off to a “rousing start.” But both The Morning Show and See had middling receptions by critics, evidenced by their respective 61% and 43% Rotten Tomatoes scores

The Way of Seeso?

And any consumer buzz for these series seemed to get drowned out over the holiday period by The Mandalorian, the breakout Disney Plus hit original, and the Martin Scorsese feature film The Irishman, which debuted to huge audiences on Netflix. 

Apple had high hopes for the Steven Spielberg-produced ensemble-themed Amazing Stories. But debuting March 13, right around the beginning of the pandemic viewing spike, the decidedly PG-rated Amazing Stories—which would seem to be a prime candidate for lockdown family viewing—hasn’t produced much in the way of magic, either with audiences or critics. The latter have scored it with an aggregate 42% on Rotten Tomatoes

For its part, Apple TV Plus has shunned the licensing of library product, meaning that even if it had breakout hits, it wouldn’t have anything like, say Marvel or Star Wars franchise films, to bridge the gap between them. 

Further, content tempo has been slow, with only one or two shows premiering each month since launch. 

Does this mean that Apple will give up after spending a reported $6 billion on content to join the streaming wars? Probably not, said Entertainment Strategy Guy. 

“Even if their own streaming service fails (Apple TV+), they’re still heavily invested in Apple TV (the device and service to sell TV subscriptions),” he explained on Decider. “As for their streaming and their new shows? Something has to give; either they make a lot more shows and buy a library or Apple TV+ could go the way of Seeso.”