After several years in the rumor mill, Apple officially announced its new original content streaming service Apple TV+ at an event last March, at a media event packed with celebrities and famous faces … but with almost no trailers of the shows themselves. With millions of users set to take advantage of Apple’s free one-year trial offer, Apple debuted TV+ on November 1st, 2019. And priced at $4.99/month, Apple undercut Netflix, Disney, and every other streaming service.
However, many questioned whether a service that launched with 8 shows and no back catalog could compete. So how has TV+ fared six months on?
A far departure from the sideshows of Planet of the Apps and Carpool Karaoke, Apple kickstarted TV+ back in 2017 by hiring highly-regarded executives from Sony to lead worldwide video programming. As the weeks and months rolled on, we started to hear about the various projects that Apple was signing. A morning news drama with the likes of Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, a sci-fi anthology series from Steven Spielberg, a Ron Moore-led alternative space timeline drama, and so on.
Apple’s strategy was clear: pay big money to hire household names to spearhead its originals. However, there were reports that Apple was interfering with the productions and merely hunting family-friendly titles with wide appeal. There was also show-runner turbulence as Jay Carson quit The Morning Show and Bryan Fuller departed Amazing Stories, the latter wanting to create a darker sci-fi show but Apple and Spielberg were looking for something more aspirational.
Unlike all its other competitors in the space, Apple did not use its pile of cash to acquire a library and fill out a back catalog of a thousand of hours of shows. In a very Apple fashion, they invested in new and original content only. This was risky: Apple had to drum up buzz for entirely new franchises, and therefore its service, from nothing. It was quite literally starting at zero.
When Apple was finally ready to launch Apple TV+, it had eight shows and one movie to show for it: The Morning Show, For All Mankind, See, Dickinson, The Elephant Queen, Helpsters, Ghostwriter, and Snoopy in Space.
Apple had opted to concentrate entirely on these original shows. It arranged lavish premieres and hosted countless weekend parties to get critics and Hollywood media on its side. But, when it finally came down to the embargo date, the critical response to Apple TV+ was not good.
TV reviewers wrote off The Morning Show as a samey and egotistical affair, See was laughed at for its ridiculousness, For All Mankind was deemed overwrought with family drama rather than space antics, and Dickinson’s anachronistic approach was controversial. The service was the culmination of billions of dollars in investment. Yet, out of the initial slate, The Elephant Queen documentary was the only Apple Original to achieve more than an 80% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
At least, that was the critic’s take. 9to5Mac readers, and the general public more widely, largely enjoyed the content. I sure did, on the whole. The critical reviews simply did not match the audience reception. That’s not to say there weren’t a couple of misfires, but it didn’t seem like Apple was completely barking up the wrong tree … by any means.
The launch slate also squashed the idea that Apple was laser-focused on family-friendly content. If anything, the shows were criticized for being too over the top; overwhelmingly gratuitous profanity in The Morning Show for instance.
People that were predisposed to laugh at Apple’s entrance into Hollywood had got the ammo they needed from the critical reception, though. Even six months on, that whimper of a launch remains an asterisk on any TV+ coverage from pundits.
The later Morning Show review from The Guardian
It’s also unfair to say that critics unilaterally panned Apple’s efforts and that it was all the bias of ‘anti-Apple’ reviewers. One thing that transpired is that Apple had only screened the first three episodes of The Morning Show for the embargo. I think anyone would agree that the first three episodes of the drama are not its finest hours. As the season went on, critics opened up to The Morning Show’s mature and twisting storyline. But of course, the negative reviews had long since been published. (In the wake of the initial condemnation of Apple’s premier show, the company quickly released all ten episodes to press, before changing its mind and withdrawing them again. That was a mess.)
From the general public’s perspective, the main issue with TV+ was not the quality of the content, but the quantity. The November 1st launch really boiled down to four flagship shows for adults, a wildlife documentary, and three kids shows. As most people trying out TV+ will already subscribe to Netflix, they naturally come to the Apple TV app with Netflix-level expectations.
The problem is the TV app misleads them (amidst countless other issues). Due to Apple’s arrogance in intermingling originals with $3-per-episode iTunes Store content, most users don’t understand the service. Here’s what happens in the mind of a typical user:
They get a popup on their phone that says they qualify for a free year of Apple TV+. They click the banner and it takes them to the TV app, an app they probably have never launched before. They see a Watch Now screen packed with content — Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, Star Wars, Modern Family, all the newest movies — and then they get asked to subscribe and enjoy 1 year of Apple TV+ free. They can’t wait to watch everything, and it’s only $5 a month!
… So, they press the button and in their minds have subscribed to ‘Apple TV’, so they click on the Search tab, type in their favorite show, see that it shows up, click on it, and get presented with a buy/rent panel and a link to find the show on Disney+ or Netflix.
The Enjoy Apple TV+ screen does say that your subscription lets you watch Apple Originals, but nobody reads that too closely. And with the likes of Netflix or Amazon Prime or whatever, people are used to the idea that you have a streaming service of shows with some exclusive originals in the mix too.
So I have Apple TV free for a year but I have to buy or rent the movies. If this makes sense then wtf is the subscription. Paying to be able to pay to be able to watch movies??
— henreeezy (@hezreeeny) April 2, 2020
So what can I watch on apple tv+? Seems like all the movies and shows requires rental, buying or more subscriptions. Oh pay for apple tv+ subscription then pay more to watch something. Kinda dumb.
— Mary Oh ∞ (@maryoohhh) February 5, 2020
Why my phone telling me I got Apple TV for free but I gotta pay for the movies? What’s the point? @AppleTV
— Na.🦋 (@pr1ncess_na) December 21, 2019
What the TV app onboarding and UI fail to do is to delineate what is TV+ and what isn’t. I expect many people cancel their subscription the moment they see a ‘buy this movie’ screen, without ever even watching a single one of Apple’s shows. Moreover, people are left with the impression that you have to pay $4.99 a month for a service just to give you the right to pay $5 to rent a movie. In the typical case, people opening the TV app think the store is a feature of the subscription.
I have a TweetDeck search column for ‘Apple TV’ and I see hundreds of tweets fly past every week that are people complaining how much of a ripoff TV+ is because you subscribe but still have to pay for the movies. It’s a huge problem and something Apple needs to resolve promptly; a redesigned TV app better be part of iOS 14, because iOS 14 will be released right around the time everyone’s free year trials start expiring. It’s crunch time.
Of course, there is still a big portion of people that do understand the proposition and simply expect Apple to have more on offer. 8 shows clearly are too little. They could be the best shows ever to grace a television screen, and people aren’t going to subscribe to that.
But naturally, that’s why Apple is still investing in content. Apple launched the service with the promise they would release something new every single month. Six months on, they boast an original content library of 30 shows and have largely maintained the quality bar. Audiences have praised comedies like ‘Mythic Quest’ and the just-released ‘Trying’, the ‘Home Before Dark’ and ‘Defending Jacob’ dramas, and Apple’s first major theatrical release in ‘The Banker’.
Critics have also responded positively to several of Apple’s releases, including the ‘Little America’ anthology series, the ‘Beastie Boys Story’ documentary, and M. Night Shyamalan thriller ‘Servant’. Aniston even took home a Screen Actors Guild award for her role in ‘The Morning Show’.
Permit me to suggest this movie to you: The Banker pic.twitter.com/2oXgVVWjGD
— B h a d o o s k y (@BhadmusAkeem) April 30, 2020
‘Amazing Stories’ was originally billed as a flagship show (Spielberg was the first famous face on stage at Apple’s March services event) but it missed the November 1st launch, debuted in March with half the number of episodes as originally ordered, and the stories were middling at best.
TV is hard and you are never going to be always right, but Apple has shown the seeds of success. TV+ remains a small service, with the number of active users proportionate to the small size of the library. However, it seems like it is on a good track. If Apple keeps up the pace of new content, they will top 100 titles next year and that puts them squarely in line to become the new HBO. (That is if it can improve the experience of actually navigating and using its app.)
The next big test for the service will be coming up at the end of the year when the first of the free year trials end and Apple begins to release the second seasons of its premier shows. Will people come back to watch The Morning Show season two? It will also be interesting to watch if any of these second seasons push Apple’s content into the public zeitgeist.
Despite Apple’s brand power, it was unrealistic to expect any of Apple’s content to make a huge splash out of the gate. It takes time to build an audience, people have to learn what ‘Apple TV+’ even is. But this fall, Apple will have a decent slate of shows and movies, around 50 titles total, combined with much wider distribution of the TV app on smart TVs and meaningful public awareness of what Apple TV+ is.
Even if Apple TV+ remains a small player in 2021, there’s no doubt that Apple is in this for the long term. Apple has signed countless producers and show-runners onto multi-year deals, including the likes of ex-HBO boss Richard Plepler. The results of these deals are still to come to fruition in the months and years ahead. TV+ doesn’t have to be a runaway hit anytime soon. Apple certainly has the money to be patient.