Critic's Notebook: Apple and All of Its Money Just Got Real About the TV Business

Eddy Cue, Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht - Split - Getty - H 2017
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When something deemed dangerous and worrisome fails to materialize, people begin to make fun of it. It's a natural defense mechanism that helps them pretend they've beaten "the big bad."

For years, Apple was going to revolutionize the TV business. It never happened. The Apple TV streaming hardware has been good, not great. A rumored television — an actual Apple TV, not something attached to it -— never appeared. Years of talk about Apple one day getting into the content game led nowhere. When its first unscripted series, Planet of the Apps, finally arrived on June 6, it was coolly dismissed by critics (the series is a bland, poorly edited version of Shark Tank). A second series, Carpool Karaoke, spun off from James Corden's popular Late Late Show segment, has been delayed and won't arrive until August.

So much for the revolution, right? Until last week, you could still hear the snickers of anyone still interested enough to show disdain.

Ah, but on Friday things got very, very interesting. Apple poached respected TV executives Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht when Sony Pictures Television didn't move fast enough to keep its co-presidents. The studio they ran presided over the creation of such cable and streaming series as Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Crown, Bloodline, Sneaky Pete, The Shield, Damages, Justified, Underground, Outsiders and network series The Goldbergs and The Blacklist, among others.

Any pretense that Apple is not diving into the television content business just vanished in a very big way.

Getting Van Amburg and Erlicht — signings announced by Apple's Eddy Cue — is a huge deal because now Apple has two proven executives and an eye-popping $257 billion in cash just sitting there. If that's not enough to give Netflix and Amazon future nightmares, then it's definitely going to wake them the hell up right this instant.

There will be no revolution of the TV business by Apple — that opportunity was already lost to Netflix and Hulu — but Friday's announcement nevertheless shakes up the entire industry. I talked about this last week on my podcast with Jason Snell, the Macworld vet who not only is a tech guru but who built a career around covering all things Apple. We geeked out on what a game-changer this could be and how it could happen.

For starters, if you're a writer and creator in the business, even a small portion of the $257 billion in cash that will be earmarked for content looks pretty damned good.

For Netflix and Amazon, it means that — maybe for the first time — neither will be able to get what they want simply by winning a bidding war with HBO or FX. What face does one make when overbidding on a hot TV project turns into an underbid? That Apple money is real.

And while the initial reaction made it tempting to take back my earlier proclamation that the Peak TV bubble was leaking, the reality is that Apple's entry into the business just covers a lot of the damages that will still happen on the lower end of the food chain. Meaning: Smaller cable channels (like WGN American and A&E) will continue to opt out of the pricey scripted game. That's not going to change — in fact, it will likely be accelerated by Apple getting into the business. But $257 billion can cover a lot of lost opportunity.

The biggest impact will be on the big fish — Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Showtime, Starz, FX, Hulu and anyone else looking to land prestige TV vehicles. Apple's money doesn't rule them out, of course, because money doesn't buy success (though it really helps). Apple's buying power threat in bidding wars will force everyone else to be more creative about finding new talent. That's a good thing.

With billions in liquid assets, Apple has money, but the one thing it doesn't have is time. You can make the argument that people have been waiting a long time for what last week's hires kicked into gear, so now they'll want actual content — yesterday. That's how the world of expectations works.

The first decision that Apple, Cue and new hires Van Amburg and Erlicht will have to make — and it would be stunning if it hasn't already been made — is whether Apple is going to be a boutique all-originals outfit or get into the acquisitions game as well (like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu). The latter would get them up and running faster, but would also entail aggressively outbidding the other players on streaming rights to existing properties (and, more worrisome, waiting for those deals to lapse before throwing money at them). Or Apple, no stranger to full-blown, problem-solving acquisitions, could go out and buy something like Acorn or, as Snell said, Crunchyroll or something similar. The point is, now that Apple is in the game, it will need to have lots of content if it wants people to subscribe to its service.

Again, time is the first real problem. "Bigger, better, faster, now" is a world that Apple is accustomed to, but that doesn't mean it can work miracles. (Van Amburg and Erlicht should cancel those summer vacations.)

To make sure the expected splash gets everybody wet, Apple will have to announce a number of deals with big-name creators (J.J. Abrams? Noah Hawley? Tina Fey? David Simon? Jill Soloway? David Chase? Damon Lindelof? — this is an endless list). And those deals will have to be straight-to-series agreements that create content which could be up on whatever service Apple is planning by 2018.

And what will that service be? Snell said it could start in its infancy being tucked into Apple Music like Planet of the Apps and Carpool Karaoke, but we both believe the likely outcome is a separate streaming service integrated into iTunes (maybe called Apple Video?). As Snell noted in our podcast, Apple has already sold hardware to just about everybody on the planet, so with Wall Street demanding more growth, the services industry is the next target (like Apple Music, iCloud storage and photo service). Moving from hardware to content seems logical because it's the next big frontier for Apple. But it doesn't come without risk, precisely because the company is late to the game.

Cable cord-cutting is going to increase while streaming and bundling grow, but nobody wants to pay $7.99 to $11.99 for a subscription service that isn't absolutely loaded with content. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are way ahead. So Apple needs to be in a real hurry here.

Coupled with Van Amburg and Erlicht's swift contractual release — the end of August — expect there to be an air of imminent dealmaking-palooza whenever the duo have lunch or dinner with anyone. Although it's probably too late for Underground and Outsiders to be defibrillated into an Apple catalog, a lot of creators will be wanting their bubble shows or soon-to-be orphaned series from smaller cable channels considered for rescue at emerging moneybags Apple Video.

Of course, that brings up another consideration. Apple has always been an affluent, prestige brand. In his Apple hiring announcement, Erlicht described a desire to bring "unparalleled quality" to the company, which almost certainly means prestige scripted dramas that get people talking and generate Emmy attention. That might preclude loading up a catalog filled with, say, Fuller House-type shows. The new Apple service will likely have to be highly curated and less mass-appeal.

Whatever happens starting Sept. 1, it will certainly be exciting and possibly surreal. After years of talking about jumping into the TV business, a cachet- and cash-rich brand is doing just that. It will be in a race to catch up with everyone else, and that means it will be raining dollars around town soon enough. The ramifications of Apple in the game could be far-reaching — from back-catalog bidding to snaring already busy top-tier talent whose new deals might take them away from focusing on their existing shows to cable channels needing to be especially great at scouting and finding new, affordable writers and creators. Actors, writers, directors, agents, publicists — everybody will want a piece of that $257 billion.

The countdown to scramble mode in the TV business begins now. Strap in.