Critic's Notebook: Apple Is About to Unveil Its Streaming Service, Minus the Deep Bench of Shows

Apple Event September 12, 2017 -Tim Cook - Screen shot 1-H 2017
Courtesy of Apple

"It's show time."

That's the title of the invite Apple sent out to people lucky enough to come to its gigantic Apple Park Space Saucer campus and finally learn about what the hell the tech company is going to do in the TV business — complete with a host of celebrities who are in their shows and maybe even Oprah Winfrey. It's going to be a huge deal.

Unless it's not.

Just about a week out from the event, not a lot is known about what will happen. This isn't a traditional TV upfront. It's not TCA. It's that thing that some of us worried might be an indicator of things to come — a tech giant entering the TV business decides to do things the way it does with its tech products, not the way television networks, cable channels and streaming services approach TV. (There's some good and bad in that.) So it's being held in Cupertino, Cailfornia, and not Culver City, more of a logistical headache for Apple stars and content creators like Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, Steven Spielberg, Octavia Spencer, Brie Larson, Jason Momoa, M. Night Shyamalan and J.J. Abrams, and maybe Winfrey, who are all expected to be there on March 25 — but certainly an aesthetic upgrade.

So will Apple lift the shroud of mystery surrounding its TV streaming service? Will we finally be told by CEO Tim Cook something along the lines of "here's where our shows are going to go, here's the name, here's how you access it and here's the cost"?

Yes — Apple hasn't scheduled any other events like this prior to the launch of the streaming service later in the year, so we should get answers, though the answer to arguably the biggest question on that list has probably been on your iOS device for some time now, right under your nose in the "Apple apps I never click on" section of your iPhone or iPad.

Apple's TV app is the odds-on favorite to be your access point to Apple programming. So if you were thinking that they'd rename iTunes or temporarily drop shows a la carte on iTunes or create a video section within iTunes — all guesses people have made over the last couple of years since Apple said it was getting into the TV content game — it shouldn't be too deflating. After all, an app is an app. It's not magic. And sure, if you have ever clicked on your Apple TV app — not to be confused with its Apple TV box that streams video, mind you — there's not much to be excited about. The app doesn't have much going for it, though it's likely to get more intuitive as you use it and after the coming upgrades. It's kind of boring. But it's there. Waiting.

So yeah, that's the odds-on favorite for how you'll get Apple television shows — inside that dull icon on your phone. 

With not much to go on, there are more guesses than facts about the upcoming event. Though it's very likely that this massive announcement will not be exclusively about TV, unfortunately, and will be just as focused on Apple's subscription services (since technically that's what its TV business really is) and thus include plenty of information about Apple's foray into news/magazines, gaming and other services, like cloud storage — plus a ton of eye-glazing information about bundling said subscription services in various ways (and you might even get a number of free months of Apple TV just like you did for Apple Music, which hardly seems like breaking news).

Which is fine, but already there have been stories that are brazenly ignorant about how much content Apple will have (please note for the last time that adding HBO and Showtime, etc., into your Apple TV subscription does not mean that HBO's movies, for example, are Apple's movies); and it's also not news that other content providers are allowing Apple to sell their subscriptions since, well, pretty much every streaming outlet from Amazon to Hulu does this (also it's inconceivable that this has to be explained but if someone subscribes to HBO or Showtime via Apple, those new HBO and Showtime subscriptions don't count for Apple's total). This event can't get here soon enough, it sometimes seems.

Though I've written extensively about Apple as it enters the Streaming Wars (way back in 2017 with excitement when nobody else seemed to care, then with a little more worry a few months later, even ranking it among other potential players by 2018), I also talk about it frequently on my TV podcast because Jason Snell, my podcast partner, is a longtime expert on all things Apple, having run Macworld (where he still has a column) before starting the Apple-specific Six Colors website. So, yeah, he's an expert and he's going to the event. 

As we discussed these issues last week, Snell absolutely believes the Apple TV app will be the source, and there's only a tiny bit of doubt in his mind that the new service will actually be called Apple TV and not something like, say, Apple Video. 

"It's the obvious name," Snell said of Apple TV. "It's already a thing and they'd just be extending it. It's possible they would call it Apple Video or Apple — some word picked out of the thesaurus," he said, but "Apple keeps things simple. Their strategy seems to be everything is called Apple 'Blank.'" Of course, that wouldn't preclude Apple Video, a name that gives the company — which recently starting buying up movies at film festivals and will likely be making their own just like Netflix — a way to tell its customers that the service is more than just TV, but Snell says that's probably overthinking it. "You could send a message that it's more than just TV shows, we've got feature films. Maybe. But I don't know, their app is called 'TV' and it has movies in it. I think they're kind of over it."

Interestingly, Snell sees Apple aggressively working with Roku and likely Amazon (for the Fire TV Stick) so that all of these Apple TV originals will ultimately get seen ("The TV show that you can only watch on your iPhone is not that appealing") even though the Apple TV streaming device is a thing that already exists. "I think that's a barrier for people. It's not cheap. ... They are way more expensive than the competition." (Yes, you could still watch Apple TV on your laptop or desktop, but most data suggests people vastly prefer watching TV on an actual TV and not on their devices, regardless of age). Still, I wonder if Apple will eventually think about reducing the price of its own hardware.

But I digress. Snell and I talked a lot about what could happen next week (that conversation runs from the 12-minute mark to 23:10), but more importantly the thing we've hammered home previously and I've written about a lot before is that Apple really needed to buy a media company with a back catalog of content — which it clearly hasn't yet — and, barring that, will truly be testing the loyalty of its most ardent supporters (of which I consider myself one). With so many other streaming services out there — we'll have a Big Six by the end of 2019 with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple, Disney+ and WarnerMedia — how will Apple price its service if it doesn't have the same amount of content? Why would anyone pay the same amount (or, TV gods forbid, more) for Apple TV when everyone else has enormous vaults? I love most things Apple, but that's a no-go.

Snell isn't convinced Apple will announce the price structure next week, but it's certainly possible. Mostly it seems poised to do what it always does — introduce something shiny and new, this time with extra-added showbiz glitz — and then watch the buzz build in the marketplace.

But what if that buzz is less buzz than faint murmur? Apple has been golden in tech but is entirely unproven in television. And yes, the easy analysis is always "it'll come down to the quality of shows," but will it? Spoiler alert — Apple TV is not going to bat 1,000 in the quality or entertainment department. That's not how it works. So once the reviews come in and you factor out the duds and think about whether the rest will be worth — let's just say $11.99 a month — then the bigger picture will be that vault. Not the vault with all of Apple's cash in it. The vault that doesn't exist yet, with all the added value content of thousands of series, movies, stand-up specials, documentaries, etc.

You know, like the ones the other five have.