At the 2020 Television Critics Association (TCA) Winter Press Tour, Apple billed its new Apple TV Plus streaming service as the destination for "creative storytellers."
But can the biggest name in consumer technology get anyone to watch anything these top creative storytellers produce?
Launched on Nov. 1, 2019, Apple TV Plus (or, Apple TV+, if you're so stylistically inclined) has promised the end user a potpourri of exclusive original shows, movies and documentaries. Drama The Morning Show, starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell is Apple TV Plus's signature entry. Despite the mixed reviews, Apple TV+ did manage to snag three Golden Globe Award nominations (including Best Television Series – Drama) and a Screen Actors Guild award for Jennifer Aniston for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series, which for a new streaming service is an impressive feat.
The Morning Show, however, was only one of eight shows (seven scripted and one non-scripted) available at Apple TV+’s inception. Nothing else has been all that buzzworthy. Only about 5% of U.S. streaming homes sampled Apple TV Plus in the latter six weeks in fourth quarter 2019 it was available, according to a poll conducted by market research firm HarrisX for equity research boutique MoffettNathanson. As of April 2020, another HarrisX poll commissioned by MoffettNathanson found that only 7% of streaming homes subscribe to Apple TV Plus.
And there was an immediate obstacle: Disney Plus, which just 11 days after the introduction of Apple TV Plus debuted with an endless well of content from Disney films, Disney animation, Disney Channel Originals, Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel, and National Geographic for $6.99 per month.
Also Read: Apple TV+ Tried by Only 5% of U.S. Streaming Homes in Q4: HarrisX Poll
This same poll by HarrisX found that 23% of the overall market used Disney Plus in December.
Research company Parrot Analytics found that five of the top 10 TV shows on U.S. streaming services in the fourth quarter belonged to Apple TV Plus, led by Truth Be Told, Servant and See.
Even at a lower monthly cost, Apple TV Plus at $4.99 may not be able to adequately compete in this new era of “streaming wars” unless it significantly beefs up its original programming slate. Peacock, from NBCUniversal; and HBO Max, from WarnerMedia are launching in the spring, and both have extensive libraries to rely on.
“What’s really amazing to me is how two of the most revered brands in the world each wound up using ‘plus’ in the title of their streaming services,” noted Mike Tankel, partner/optimist at marketing and development firm To Be Continued. “With Disney, we know the brand, but with Apple we don’t yet know what they stand for in content, at least not at the pop culture level.”
“Given the big stars, big budgets and important stories from its inception, the immediate concern is that we aren’t we talking about the Apple TV Plus shows around the water cooler,” he added. “I know more about the stars, directors and executives Apple has hired than I do the shows.”
With a massive reported 10 million subscribers for Disney Plus within the first day of launching the service in the U.S., Canada and The Netherlands, the subscriber count for the streaming service is estimated to grow as high as 138 million globally by 2025, according to Todd Juenger, media analyst of Bernstein Research.
Since Apple has offered its Apple TV Plus streaming service free for one year to anyone who purchases an iPhone, iPad or a Mac (among other Apple products), the hope is the available content will entice users to eventually pay for a subscription. “It’s a gift to our users,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said on an earnings call one week prior to the launch of Apple TV Plus. “We’re really proud of the content. We’d like as many people as possible to view it.”
But the lack of original content at present, racked with some less than impressive early reviews and the limited initial sampling could certainly thwart the early subscriber estimates for Apple TV Plus.
Bloomberg reported in May that Apple TV Plus is in talks with the major media conglomerates about licensing library content. The news service said that Apple TV Plus has only signed up 10 million users to date, and only 5 million of them are actively using the product. Apple has promoted its TV Plus service by giving it away free for one year to purchasers of iPhones, Macbook Pros and other Apple products.
“If this were 10 years ago, I might have been cautiously optimistic about Apple TV Plus,” noted Rob Russo, president, RNR Media Consulting. “But now there is the over-saturation of streamers, which has to break at some point. There is no key show for Apple TV+ to build itself around, like anything of a Star Trek nature on CBS All Access and Star Wars: The Mandalorian on Disney+. And while you definitely have a household name in Apple, the brand is not known for entertainment.
“I think if you asked 100 people what Apple TV Plus offers other than The Morning Show, I bet most of these people would have no idea,” he added. “Without an immediate library of content to launch the brand and a signature series, there is nothing worthy of note available at Apple TV Plus right now. Unless something breaks out of the gate, I think they could be the first casualty of the over-saturation of OTT.”
Originals to the Rescue?
Limited drama thriller Defending Jacob, based on the 2012 New York Times best-selling novel of the same name, will premiere its first three episodes on Apple TV Plus on Friday, April 24. The series unfolds around a shocking crime that rocks a small Massachusetts town, and follows an assistant district attorney (Chris Evans) who finds himself torn between his sworn duty to uphold justice, and his unconditional love for his son.
Animated musical comedy Central Park from Loren Bouchard (Bob’s Burgers), and executive producers Josh Gad (Frozen) and Nora Smith (Bob’s Burgers), will premiere exclusively on Apple TV Plus this summer.
The revival of Steven Spielberg anthology drama Amazing Stories will launch on Friday, March 6. Documentary Home, which offers viewers a look inside the world’s most innovative homes, launches on Friday, April 17. And Trying, Apple’s first original series from the UK, debuts on Apple TV+ on Friday, May 1. The comedy is described as “growing up, settling down and finding someone to love.”
Two series on Apple TV Plus, meanwhile, have been renewed for second seasons before premiering: Mystic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, which debuts on February 7; and Home Before Dark, which opens on April 3. Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet follows a team of video game developers as they navigate the challenges of running a popular game. And Home Before Dark, which was previewed in a TCA panel, tracks a young girl who moves from Brooklyn to the small lakeside town her father left behind. While there, her dogged pursuit of the truth leads her to unearth a cold case that everyone in town, including her own father, tried hard to bury.
“Traditionally, Apple is a great enabler with amazing user experience. From iMacs to iPhones we are able to do more than we ever imagined. And with the original iTunes, we had access to the music libraries of our dreams,” noted To Be Continued’s Tankel. “So, don’t count Apple TV Plus out by any means. The user experience is wonderful and could be the perfect place to park an acquired library of content...or even an existing streamer. They have the money, they have the smarts, they have the customers, and like much of Silicon Valley, they just think entertainment is a logical next step.”
“But since this looks like an uphill battle, we will just have to wait and see,” he said.
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Marc Berman is editor-in-chief for media-centric The Programming Insider (programminginsider.com), which pioneered the email newsletter format at its inception in 1999. Marc has written for a wide range of publications including Broadcasting + Cable, Next TV, Forbes, Newspro, Campaign US, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. Known as “Mr. Television” at Mediaweek (now Adweek), Marc has appeared on camera on Entertainment Tonight, Extra, Inside Edition and CNN and MSNBC, among other series and outlets. He is a member of The Television Critics Association and The Broadcast Journalists Television Association. And Marc put his TV historian hat on as author of desk calendar Today in TV History.