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With a $4.99 Price Point, Apple Just Fired the Latest Shot in the Streaming Wars

With no IP or shared universes in its arsenal, Apple TV+ is playing its only trump card, resetting the streaming market before it even takes shape

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s something contradictory about Apple’s long-awaited entry into the streaming content arms race. On the one hand, a trillion-dollar company parachuting into a capital-intensive industry practically demands a series of financial and logistical flexes, together snowballing into a grand entrance literal years in the making. On the other, for an effort that enlists everyone from Oprah to Steven Spielberg, the buildup seems weirdly ad hoc. For example: The service now known as Apple TV+ is less than two months away, and we only just got a premiere date and price point.

Here is what we now know, courtesy of Tim Cook and today’s Apple announcement: TV+ will premiere November 1. It will launch with just a few marquee titles, including Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherpoon’s Morning Show as well as Dickinson, a comedy starring Hailee Steinfeld as a young Emily Dickinson, and For All Mankind, a space race drama from Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore. And it will cost $4.99—for those who don’t already have a year thrown in free with a new Apple device, that is.

Frustratingly, there’s a lot we still don’t know. Apple clarified (read: “clarified”) that some of its shows will largely air week-to-week, like soon-to-be-competitor Disney+, while others will release all their episodes at once, like binge pioneer and preexisting competitor Netflix—but not which titles will deploy which release strategies. And considering how many projects Apple had previously teased, including an anthology series from Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani as well as a thriller from Octavia Spencer, just a couple of premiere dates hardly counts as a major disclosure. The secrecy of big tech companies remains an awkward fit with Hollywood’s gossipy, information-fueled economy. It’s like we’re all characters in Jason Momoa’s fantasy epic See, stumbling into a landscape we can’t fully grasp. By the way, that got a new trailer too:

But the biggest takeaway from Apple’s latest trickle of information is the cost, or relative lack thereof. Disney already made waves by declaring its service would set users back just $6.99 a month by itself, and $12.99 bundled with ESPN+ and Hulu. Compared with Netflix’s current but gradually increasing rate of $9 to $16 a month, the move was widely understood as a ruthlessly competitive form of price gouging. A company with a near-monopoly on the imaginations of everyone under the age of 16, Disney probably could have charged desperate parents a premium to appease their children with Moana, Frozen, and Marvel’s entire back catalog, not to mention a raft of original content to come. Instead, Disney+ intends to appeal to families’ taste and budget—at least for now. And the only company that can afford to outbid the biggest name in entertainment is an even bigger name from an entirely different sector.

Of course, Apple doesn’t have the Avengers in its back pocket, making $4.99 more of a necessity than an added bonus thrown in out of corporate benevolence. But as Disney+, HBO Max, and NBCUniversal’s still-untitled service loom on the horizon, Apple is undercutting the market before the market can even take shape. The experience of consuming television in 2019 is increasingly defined by watching massive corporations attempt to one-up each other for a small slice of your leisure time, and Apple just made the most extravagant bid yet.

The irony is that even a dirt-cheap (and for some, nonexistent) sticker price still may not be enough to garner TV+ the audience it wants. Apple can afford to sink funds into glossy productions unlikely to earn back its budgets from $5 subscriptions, but it can’t buy the time already dedicated to the latest Netflix binge, or reserved in advance for Hawkeye—potentially starring Apple’s own Steinfeld, no less. Apple is trying to launch a prestige network without IP or a shared universe into an entertainment landscape defined by both. Its only trump card is money. So for now, it’s doubling down.