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Welcome to the Age of the Unbundle: Apple TV+ Joins the Fray of Streaming Services
March 27, 2019  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

For all the familiar tropes trotted out at this week’s Apple TV announcement — “This year, we’re taking it to the next level;” “we think you're gonna love it;” “we can’t wait to see what you’re going to do with it;” “available later this year;” and that familiar Apple standby, “one more thing. . .” — the one trope you didn’t hear was, “What does all this mean?”

So, what does it mean?

Apple’s announcement that it’s getting into the streaming wars comes on the heels of Disney’s announcement that it has taken over 21st Century Fox’s entertainment division — and the library of TV and movie titles that go with it — and is ramping up its own streaming service, sooner rather than later. To that end, Disney has said it will no longer license titles to Netflix, and Netflix, for its part, has said it no longer has any interest in bidding for Disney and Fox titles, even if it could.

CBS, arguably the most stable and profitable of the major broadcast networks, has rolled the dice on its own streaming service, CBS All Access. And while no one at Disney will say so it out loud, it’s becoming clear that Disney-owned broadcast network ABC is falling lower on the company’s list of priorities, somewhere between the Star Wars franchise and what next to do with the Marvel Comics universe.

Apple trotted out Steven Spielberg (below) and Oprah Winfrey (above) in its parade of celebrities, never minding the fact that — so far — Spielberg’s TV productions have paled in comparison to his iconic films, and Oprah’s output — and her impact on the culture — hasn’t been the same since she retired The Oprah Winfrey Show in May 2011.

And that, in a nutshell, explains the real challenge facing Apple.

It’s about the content, not the pipeline. It’s easy to forget now, but in the most recent era of market domination by the major Hollywood movie studios, Japanese electronics giant Sony Electronics bought Columbia Pictures for a then-heady $3.4 billion in 1989, assuming it would be easy to mimic the financial success of hit movie franchises like Fox-owned Star Wars and Paramount’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sony’s Japanese executives made a near-fatal miscalculation: They assumed producing the content was the easiest part of the process. There would be a handful of successes, but there were many costly flops. Finding the next Star Wars proved elusive, and not as easy as it looks. Today, Columbia — makers, in their heyday, of film classics like On the Waterfront, Lawrence of Arabia, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind — is barely known as a brand name; its official name is the more corporate Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group and Sony Television.

The industry has changed in television as well as film. Ironically, there is more media consolidation, not less, as even Rupert Murdoch — former owner of Fox’s movie and TV divisions — has tacitly admitted he can no longer compete with the deep pockets of Silicon Valley.

Apple, not just the dominant tech firm but arguably the world’s biggest, most profitable company period, must be taken seriously, by virtue of its name alone.

Looking beyond the slick, glossy surface of sizzle reels and big-time celebrities at the Apple event, the big takeaway from Monday’s Apple TV announcement was the muted reaction from industry rival Netflix.

Netflix has nothing to prove: It has already established itself as the giant of streaming services, not just in North America but, more tellingly, across the entire globe. Not even Amazon, with its vast resources, has been able to take them on, beyond a handful of award-worthy, must-see programs. From Netflix’s point of view, Apple climbing into the streaming game at this late stage must seem a little like the Japanese taking over a Hollywood movie studio assuming they’ll be able to teach the Americans a thing or two about how to run a successful entertainment business, and nearly losing their shirts in the process.

For all the glamor and glitter — something Apple does very well at its product announcement events — Netflix already knows something that Apple is about to learn: The real power today lies with the creative artists who physically make the movies and TV shows we all love to watch. Even as the Writers Guild of America fends off the greedy, grasping hands of the big talent agencies, who want more and more of the ever-expanding pie, showrunners and TV creators will tell you this has never been a more exciting time to be producing TV shows. For the first time, possibly in the history of the medium, Netflix and Amazon have shown the way for a narrowly targeted TV program like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to be both award-worthy and financially successful, despite an audience that’s a tiny percentage of the vast audience that tunes in to see The Big Bang Theory every week. Orange is the New Black doesn’t have to be as big as NCIS to draw a crowd, and jumpstart a conversation on social media. Netflix doesn’t — and probably won’t — divulge its audience figures, but it’s a safe bet many more viewers watch Gotham every week than stream Stranger Things. It’s clear, though, which of the two is considered the hipper, hotter show, and it’s not hard to imagine that, asked which they would prefer to watch, most viewers would pick Stranger Things — even if they haven’t seen it.

This is the world Apple has suddenly decided to join. The assumption that Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey can draw a crowd based on name alone is a dangerous assumption to make. Next month, the biggest TV event of the year — arguably the biggest TV event of the decade — will be the return of Game of Thrones for its final season, on HBO. And yet, it may be hard to remember now but when Game of Thrones first aired, its biggest and arguably only star name was, wait for it, Sean Bean.

Apple’s TV announcement was notably short on detail — another Apple signature. When exactly will the streaming service be available; what exactly are the new shows; who exactly is starring in them, and what exactly are they about? How much will the service cost? Will the new service be free of the technical glitches that plague so many Apple software updates — a fact that rarely if ever comes up at Apple events but is constantly on the mind of Apple users who rely on laptops, iPhones and Apple Music to live their day-to-day lives.

Apple did announce a handful of broad strokes: A Spielberg-produced, updated version of Amazing Stories; an immigrant-based anthology series called Little America; and a presumed breakfast program, called The Morning Show, fronted by Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Steve Carell (all above).

Starting a successful streaming service from scratch, though — as Amazon has learned — is not as simple as trotting Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg out on stage before an adoring public.

Netflix didn’t respond, because they didn’t have to. They have the Kevin Spacey-free House of Cards to think about, and Stranger Things 3 on the horizon. It’s all about the content, not the tech.

Following Apple’s announcement, the all-things-technology site TechRadar asked breathlessly, “Apple TV Plus vs. Netflix: Could Apple Eclipse its Biggest Rival?”

No, is the short answer. Not in your lifetime, anyway.

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Interesting info I hadn't considered until now and wholeheartedly agree that it's the content that matters. Kind of like comparing superficial appearances & what's inside someone's heart & mind. On the aside, I couldn't not comment on Netflix's new short series I just finished watching, The Candidate. This is one of the best shows I've seen in a long time and I've seen a lot...well, by typical standards. I can't compete with the TVWW staff.

The quality, cinematography, acting, writing and direction are all top shelf. If you enjoy learning about foreign countries (Mexico) and like edge of your seat, suspense thrillers & murder mysteries you will love this. I'm keeping close tabs on the director for future endeavors.
Mar 29, 2019   |  Reply
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