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Is Apple TV+ for Real Yet?

The service this week earned its first Oscar nominations and dropped a highly anticipated release from the Russo brothers. Still, it feels very much on the outside of the primary streaming competition.

Apple TV+/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s been a roller coaster of a week for Apple TV+. We’ll start with the good: On Monday, the streaming service earned its first Oscar nominations—one for Irish animated film Wolfwalkers, and one in the newly merged category of Best Sound for the Tom Hanks war epic Greyhound. Two isn’t a ton; Netflix, for instance, led the field with 35, and Amazon Studios earned 12. But it’s a foothold, one Apple can build on in less chaotic award seasons to come.

On the other hand, there’s Cherry. An adaptation of Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel and the first post-Marvel project from directors Joe and Anthony Russo, the film is a statement from the Russos and Apple both. Spider-Man himself, known in plainclothes as Tom Holland, stars as a veteran struggling with PTSD and an opiate addiction who turns to robbing banks, making Cherry a grab bag of capital-i Issues. It’s intended to mark the Russos as serious filmmakers and Apple as a place to find serious films. Unfortunately, Cherry may be a little too ambitious, with harsh reviews knocking its erratic pastiche of genre homage as too unfocused to do the story justice.

This mix of highs and lows feels on brand for Apple TV+. Nearly a year and a half after its launch, the service feels like an outlier in a field that’s rapidly expanded even in its short lifetime. Owned by a tech company rather than an entertainment giant, Apple TV+ doesn’t have the massive vault of IP driving Disney+, HBO Max, Peacock, or Paramount+. Nor does it enjoy the head start that allowed Netflix to build a subscriber base with leased catalogs before going all in on originals, or that allowed Amazon to experiment with gimmicks like a virtual pilot season until it found an equilibrium. And at just $5 a month—not including free trials, many of which are still ongoing—Apple TV+ is priced like an add-on rather than a full-fledged cable alternative. (For context, that’s on par with the ad-subsidized tiers of Peacock or Paramount+, but much less than comparable ad-free services like Netflix or HBO Max.)

Consequently, Apple has largely avoided the headlines that come with seismic moves like WarnerMedia ditching movie theaters in favor of HBO Max. But that doesn’t mean it’s been totally quiet on this particular front of the Streaming Wars. Let’s check in with some recent developments for Apple TV+, and how they affect the entire field of play.

Oprah and Meghan and Harry … and CBS

Of the many prelaunch deals Apple made to show it meant business, one of the biggest was with Oprah. The broadcaster has since debuted a stand-alone, televised version of her famous Book Club as well as The Oprah Conversation, an interview show whose guests have included Mariah Carey and Barack Obama. Oprah is also producing a docuseries on mental health for Apple TV+ with Prince Harry, a project delayed by the pandemic but prominently plugged in her landmark interview with Harry and his wife Meghan Markle.

That interview, Oprah’s biggest in years, didn’t air on Apple TV+. The prize instead went to CBS, who paid Oprah’s production outfit Harpo a reported $7 million for the two-hour sitdown—and was rewarded with over 17 million viewers and exorbitant ad rates willingly paid by legions of pharmaceutical companies. There are understandable reasons the exchange didn’t air on Apple TV+; Meghan and Harry themselves have a deal with rival Netflix, and Harpo no doubt wanted to maximize exposure, which would make a broadcast network without a paywall the obvious choice. It’s nonetheless an awkward look for Apple. What’s the point of signing someone like Oprah if they’ll just take their biggest work somewhere else?

One Year Free, and Then Some

When Apple TV+ first launched, Apple pressed its advantage as a multitrillion-dollar company with cash to burn and merchandise that moves, giving away free subscriptions along with sales of hardware devices. (Think of it as a better-conceived version of the infamous U2 debacle of yesteryear.) The idea was to value audience over revenue so original series and films would have a chance to prove their worth. The company bet that after a year, subscribers would like the service enough to pay for continued access.

But Apple has now extended that “yearlong” free trial twice: once last October, and once again in January. The trial is now set to expire in July of this year, meaning that Apple will have handed out over 20 months of free content in the name of exposure. That figure may sound dire, but Apple is Apple, and the pandemic’s effects on production are about as extenuating a circumstance as there is. Social distancing has greatly slowed the output of the product that’s supposed to be the service’s selling point, and if you’re able to eat the cost of extending a free trial until the pipeline has a chance to clear out, why wouldn’t you?

Awards Bait, Taken

Incredibly, the Oscars are just the icing on the cake of what’s proved to be a successful award strategy. Feel-good soccer sitcom Ted Lasso won big at the Golden Globes, with Jason Sudeikis earning the show an added publicity boost with a widely memed, potentially stoned performance on Zoom; last year, flagship title The Morning Show broke through at the Emmys, winning a Supporting Actor statue for Billy Crudup—the best performance in a very uneven show. Awards aren’t the same thing as eyeballs, but they’re an important way to garner buzz and flex the muscles of Apple’s A-list talent pool. In the absence of hard ratings, they’re one tangible piece of proof Apple’s doing something right.

The advantage of a relatively small slate of originals, paired with Apple’s bottomless pockets, is that Apple can put all its firepower behind a select few titles, which then have a decent chance of breaking through the noise. (Netflix, by contrast, has to pick and choose its favorites.) It’s doubtful that either Oscar nod will result in an actual award, but this year’s group gives Apple a base to build on in future years. Awards are, frankly, an easier and smaller target than an undertaking as massive as building a streaming service from scratch. They’re nonetheless a noteworthy accomplishment, and something to keep an eye on as Apple gathers steam.

An Uneven Archive

When it first debuted, Apple TV+ was a confusing proposition: just a handful of original series that didn’t add up to a coherent brand. Almost a year and a half later, that’s starting to change. The second seasons of both Dickinson and For All Mankind have received a hero’s welcome from fans drawn to their defiant quirkiness (spider dances! guns on the moon!). Ted Lasso is already renewed for not one, but two more seasons; ditto Central Park, the Loren Bouchard musical that’s already weathered a voice casting controversy.

But Apple TV+’s output still feels a bit all over the place, a natural pitfall of populating your archive one show at a time instead of coming in with a leased catalog or a stuffed vault of studio releases from decades past. (More on that strategy in a moment.) That’s especially pronounced when it comes to its films, which range from niche productions like documentary Boys State or Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks, to concert films like Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry and middlebrow dramas like Palmer, the Justin Timberlake vehicle that was the first Apple release to get the now-customary “ambiguous bragging without real numbers” treatment from its platform. It’s a milestone of sorts, but it still feels notable that one of Apple’s two Oscar-nominated films was only snatched up after the pandemic decimated theaters.

A (Tentative) Change of Course

To fill in the gaps in its still-sparse original lineup, Apple announced a major pivot last spring: It acquired all 96 episodes of the original 1980s run of Fraggle Rock. Granted, the acquisition feeds directly into a planned reboot of the series, which will be a full-blown original. But at the time, the move felt like a tacit admission that Apple might need more than its own productions to entice subscribers, especially with the pandemic slowing down production for what was at the time the foreseeable future.

Since then, Apple announced a similar deal with the Peanuts franchise. Just as the partnership with the Jim Henson Company includes both new series and licensed material, its arrangement with Canadian studio WildBrain encompasses both classic holiday specials and new projects like The Snoopy Show. What first looked like a major reversal, then, is more of a half-step. Apple hasn’t bought any major outside shows that won’t pair with original productions, meaning that vertical integration remains the cornerstone of its big-picture goals. To get there, though, it’s populating its shelves with some pretty sizable placeholders.