November 1st marks the first anniversary of Apple TV+, the video streaming service initially announced by Apple on March 25th 2019, before launching to around 100 countries over seven months later.
So, is TV+ just another streaming service? What should it be known for? How has it evolved so far?
One year on, what actually IS Apple TV+?
Apple TV+ launched to a lot of fanfare only days before Disney launched its streaming service, Disney+. Disney launched with their massive back catalogue. They also had a few new originals, but they were all very low-key, except for The Mandalorian. Disney’s approach was simple; throw an absolutely massive amount of content online, charge a low price and get lots of subscribers.
HBO also launched their service, HBO Max, this year. It was a strange service that confused a lot of people by being both HBO the channel and also not. They had the advantage of an incredible, high-quality back catalogue but at $15.99 and only being available in America, their reach was limited.
The other big players, of course, are Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. Netflix releases many new titles every week with an extensive back catalogue. Hulu has a substantial collection of TV catchup and originals but is, like HBO, restricted to America. Amazon isn’t that far behind, but their Prime TV service has never been anything more than something to get people onto the shopping site. Not that it doesn’t have some great content.
Then there’s Apple.
In the March 2019 announcement, Apple called TV+ ‘the new home for the world’s most creative storytellers’ and ‘unlike anything that has ever been done before’ and don’t forget ‘not just another streaming service’. They brought massive stars Jennifer Aniston, JJ Abrams, Reese Witherspoon, Steven Spielberg and yes, Oprah, on stage to talk about their new projects. The $4.99 fee to share across up to five ‘family’ members, with a free year for anyone buying a new Apple device, seemed pretty reasonable.
A false start?
Then came the launch, and the reviews. The Morning Show got very mixed reviews. For All Mankind generally got ok if not overly enthusiastic coverage. People seemed to really like Dickenson though again, not excitedly. The same with Servant. See was believed to be an absolute turkey.
This wasn’t the way you wanted to launch your multi-billion dollar ‘groundbreaking’ service.
Other content - Helpsters, Ghost Writer, Snoopy, movies The Elephant Queen and Hala - all generally got positive, though few, reviews
When you launch something like this you want a huge flagship property to reel people in, Disney+ had The Madalorian for example. TV+ seemed to be pitching The Morning Show as that property, but due to the early, mediocre reviews, it never got much traction. Did you hear many people talking about the actual plot week to week?
So the build-up to Apple TV+ - over two years - felt like a slight anti-climax. A lot of people (mainly due to the one-year free trial) were trying it out, but it seemed Apple, a company known for disrupting almost every market they went into, had come up a bit short. It was met with a bit of a shrug by the public at large.
However, as the months have gone by, and more content has come out, that picture has started to change.
To succeed, TV+ needs to do three things:
1. Produce critically acclaimed content.
After an uneasy but not awful start, the launch shows grew well. The mediocre ones - The Morning Show and For All Mankind - gained momentum and focus to become very good shows, though The Morning Show retained some flaws. Aniston and Billy Crudup produced lauded performances with Crudup later winning an Emmy.
Hala was a great film but in a problem that TV+ frequently showed during the year; it didn’t get much attention from Apple’s PR.
Apple followed them up with a very mixed bag of content. Amazing Stories, Truth Be Told and Home Before Dark were very average at best. While Little America, Visible: Out on Television, Trying and Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet were all good to excellent, gaining sometimes rave reviews.
Later on, though, Apple settled into a groove. Central Park, Long Way Up, Boys State, Beastie Boys Story, Greatness Code, Tiny World, Letter To You and Greyhound all proved to be solid entertainment. They also added new and classic Fraggle Rock. Then, of course, there was Ted Lasso. Everyone loved Ted. More on him later.
Apple now had a good run of acclaimed shows, most recently with Tehran, a show almost entirely with subtitles and no big names.
2. Produce content with a buzz that will bring in the masses.
The initial launch had a lot of buzz, though most of the promotion for individual shows seemed to be focused on The Morning Show. After that, the hype machine died down, and new releases were mostly lowkey, except for Greyhound.
Additionally, Apple’s failure to provide content to expand the TV+ experience was conspicuous. They have millions of users on Apple Music and Apple Podcasts. They control the app that actually shows TV+. Yet nothing further than 2-minute interviews appeared on show pages.
One of the strangest instances was Central Park, an actual musical containing at least three songs per episode, but which didn’t have the music available after each episode. A full album is now available.
The music from On The Rocks by Phoenix is also still not available on Apple Music.
Little America has already recorded podcast content which hasn’t appeared either.
These, at the very least, seem like easy wins for Apple. They have access to the platforms, why not make use of them?
Then there was the app. We all know this story. It’s a terribly messy experience. The thing is, Apple is shooting themselves in the foot. By mixing all their content in with other apps and to-purchase content, the typical consumer didn't know what they could watch as part of TV+ and would often give up before discovering it. This sort of thing was egregious. The one thing Apple had a track record for - software - they are failing at.
3. Cultivate a ‘Tone of voice’.
What should TV+ be known for?
This last one is particularly interesting. What should Apple TV+ be known for? What sort of content will you find on TV+?
HBO Max, like HBO, is known for critically acclaimed, award-winning TV. Disney+ is known for family entertainment and huge franchises. Netflix is known for having so. Much. Stuff. No matter your taste.
Apple’s model seems to be aiming for HBO Max. Focus on quality, not quantity. Additionally, as it’s inaugural year has gone on, a trend in the content seems to be appearing.
It started first with Little America, the anthology series about real-life American immigrants. This was a show that showed true human spirit. A beautiful series that, co-creator Kumail Nanjani stated, was turned down from all other platforms.
It continued with Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, Trying and Central Park; which all brought diverse, different stories with rich characters. On the factual side, Oprah started her book club but then, in the wake of the George Floyd killing, pivoted to essential conversations about race in America. Then, Visible: Out on Television delivered a gripping, emotional, and eye-opening view of the history of LGBTQ representation on TV.
Finally, this all culminated in the first Apple TV+ series to really build buzz through word of mouth; Ted Lasso.
The show was unexpected. It had complex characters that were often written against type. It had women in positions of power that were real characters, not stereotypes. It challenged cynical views of masculinity, emotions and forgiveness. It was hilarious and often silly (in a good way). But most of all, Ted Lasso had a huge heart.
It seemed to exemplify what shows TV+ wanted to produce; shows with heart, real characters, emotions, and most importantly, stories of inclusion and diversity. Stories that might not get told elsewhere.
Maybe we should have seen this coming. Apple is well known for its efforts, both internally and externally around inclusion and diversity.
What Apple now has to figure out is the balance between blockbusters that draw the eyeballs and great stories that offer new perspectives.
So, what IS Apple TV+?
Apple TV+ is undoubtedly a service with big ambitions. Apple has it as a core part of it’s targeted services revenue. However, they are definitely taking their time. Apple is often known for preferring not to be first to market but best to market. Preferring quality over quantity. While they are not at the consistent levels, they should be in terms of quality; it’s clear that the effort is there. Whereas Netflix seems to greenlight every sort of show, Apple is choosing carefully.
Apple is hiring quality talent both behind and in front of the camera. Martin Scorsese, Jon Stewart, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ridley Scott, Idris Elba and The Maurice Sendak Foundation all have first-look deals. JJ Abrams, Steven Spielberg and A24 all have big deals too. Stars such as Brie Larson, Justin Timberlake, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert DeNiro, Elizabeth Moss, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are due to appear in productions. If Apple is aiming to become the next HBO, they’re putting themselves in a good position.
But that is the future. After an uncertain start, Apple TV+ is now in a place where you will find great stories. Stories that you don’t see every day, that more often than not try to find depth, emotion, vulnerability and frequently joy in people. They might not always be the stories that create memes or trend on Twitter, but that’s not the game Apple is playing. As with their philosophy on creating devices, they’re trying to aim for quality, not saturation. Sure, TV+ is not always successful with this approach, but one year on they seem to be getting steadily, and consistently better.
Integration and extensions with other services could and should be made to make it stand out, but Apple TV+ is a good service. It has room for improvement, but all signs point to those improvements being made.
Now, if we could just find it all in the app a bit easier...