Don’t be fooled by Apple TV+’s slow start

Apple TV+ is in its infancy, entering this world about three months ago, and already you can find critics saying it doesn’t have much of a chance of amounting to anything and that it should just go ahead and give up. One can only hope they don’t go around telling toddlers the same thing.

Part of me wants to dismiss this reaction as typical disdain for Apple—the dogged belief that the folks in Cupertino couldn’t possibly pull another rabbit out of their hats. But I’m especially weirded out because it shouldn’t be that surprising that a new studio would have to spend a little time getting on its feet, no matter how much cash it has for a crutch. Again, it’s barely been three months. 

Apple certainly wouldn’t be the first streamer of original content to have a slow start. Consider Amazon Studios, which in 2013 produced two shows called Alpha House and Betas, neither of which rang many bells when I asked a few people about them. The situation got a little better in 2014 after Transparent won a couple of Golden Globe Awards, but it wasn’t until 2015 that Amazon really took off with hits like The Man in the High Castle. Amazon had a leg up on Apple because it already had a well-known library of licensed streamable movies viewers could also access, but it’s the company that most resembles Apple in terms of how its original programming came about. For all that, I barely remember a tenth of the fanfare I saw for Apple TV+ when Alpha House and Betas dropped.

Ticking down

Anyone who’s familiar with Apple should be familiar with its multiple tales of delayed success. It’s not uncommon for its products to dominate industries after rocky starts. Just take the Apple Watch. In 2015 you could find Fast Company publishing a story with the headline, “Why the Apple Watch is Flopping” only a couple of months after the wearable’s release, complete with assertions that it had “failed to disrupt the larger wearable marketplace.” So much for that. Last August, Security Analytics released a report saying Apple now commands a stunning 46.4 percent of the world’s smartwatch market. Granted, it took a couple of marketing shifts and some product tweaks, but it happened.

Or more to the point, think back to 2015, when almost everyone was dunking on the newborn Apple Music. Fortune scoffed at Apple’s report that 11 million people had signed up for the free trial. The Verge reported that most streaming executives weren’t worried about Apple Music. After all, one said, Apple was a ridiculously long way off from Pandora’s 80 million listeners. Today, just five years later, Apple Music has a whopping 60 million subscribers. Far from saying Apple Music doesn’t pose a threat, Spotify is actively trying to curb Apple Music’s expansion (and, one might argue, with good reason). Much as with the Apple Watch, though, Apple had to learn a few lessons to get to this point.

I also don’t buy the idea that Apple was looking for massive paid subscriptions straight out of the gate. Apple had to have known it wouldn’t attract a lot of paid subscribers with such a tiny starting library, and I also have no doubt that this is the real reason why it chose to give buyers of new Apple devices an entire year of Apple TV+ for free. This is Apple testing what it can do and what viewers want. It’s Apple seeing if can win awards, which was always one of its clear goals— and it came darn close with The Morning Show at this year’s Golden Globes. It’s Apple showing would-be showrunners what its budgets are capable of and that it isn’t as restrictive as some of them might imagine. (Let’s not forget, after all, that The Morning Show features as much cussing as a Scorsese film and See gave us at least two masturbation scenes.) It all suggests that Apple is expecting the profits to come later.

Apple

It’s okay, Jennifer. The Morning Show gets a second season.

A plus for the plus

Could Apple TV+ be better? Absolutely. Nothing would lead millions of more viewers to embrace Apple TV+ quite like the introduction of some “nerdy” high-production fantasy or science fiction series—from an existing popular franchise. These are the shows that almost always get people talking; they’re the shows that churn out the memes. Shows like See and For All Mankind prove that Apple grasps this basic concept, but it should have tried to tackle some existing properties instead of new ones.

That approach worked for Amazon with shows like The Expanse (originally on SyFy) and The Man in the High Castle (which was based on a 1982 novel by science fiction writer Philip K. Dick). It worked for Netflix with The Witcher. And, of course, it worked for HBO with Game of Thrones and Watchmen. Apple doesn’t really have much of anything like that right now, but fortunately Amazing Stories is coming in March, and sometime in the future, we’ll get a 10-episode series based on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books.