Critic's Notebook: Apple May Have a Surprisingly Steep Learning Curve as It Enters TV 

Apple CEO Tim Cook - media event at Apple's new headquarters -September 12, 2017 -Getty-H 2017

Apple getting into the TV content business is a juicy story that I wrote about as a major deal back in June and colleague Lacey Rose wrote about this week in detail — but imagine how this story will play out if Apple goes about it all wrong or takes a tumble in the process?

With some major issues right in front of its face, that's not exactly farfetched.

One of the questions raised in Rose's piece about Apple's TV strategy is how shows would be distributed, with Rose quoting Chris Silbermann, managing director of ICM Partners, saying of new Apple content heads Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht: "They need to articulate to the creative community and the industry at large their marketing, release and distribution strategy. Simply, what does it mean to be an Apple show?"

This is a stunning notion given that it seems pretty obvious what Apple is actually going to do in that regard — and that not articulating the strategy to people from whom Apple is about to buy series hints at a reliance on old company habits that simply won't fly as they are transferred from the tech world to the TV world.

Jason Snell, widely considered an expert on all things Apple, having edited Macworld for years and covered the tech pioneer for nearly 24 years (he also runs a burgeoning podcast empire and edits/co-hosts my TV Talk Machine podcast, where we've had lengthy chats about what Apple might do), believes the ultimate landing spot for Apple television content will be a subscription service outside of Apple Music, likely called Apple Video.

As I noted in my critic's notebook in June and as was emphasized by Snell in our podcast, Apple has already sold hardware to pretty much everybody on the planet and the growth opportunities there are limited, but the company is pushing aggressively into the "services industry" — Apple Music, iCloud storage and photo services — where immense growth is available to satiate Wall Street. Its television content, based on a subscription plan, falls directly into the "services industry."

And while Apple's first two television series, Planet of the Apps and Carpool Karaoke, have been tucked into Apple Music out of expediency, a full-blown, separate subscription service (again, likely called Apple Video since it can't be called Apple TV given that's the name of its hardware device and the company isn't big on confusion) will almost assuredly be the home of future content.

So why not tell people that?

Well, it was certainly the key eyebrow-raising element of Rose's story — if for nothing else than because not stating the obvious to people who are pitching content probably means that Apple is intent to fall back on its custom of unveiling new innovations via grand, well orchestrated and well attended press conferences headed up by Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Admitting to series creators that there will be a new, Netflix-like Apple Video launch coming would, of course, leak out and steal the thunder of such announcements that Apple has used successfully for years (and now can orchestrate from its new state-of-everything Apple Park).

Which seems kind of dumb in that it's old-school, or at least a practice that is tech-industry specific and not TV-industry specific. You could chalk this up as Apple being the newbie in town, but if it hints at the kind of hyper-secret and carefully crafted existence its product reveals have enjoyed, well, that won't really fly in the TV industry.

For starters, that industry is in Los Angeles, not Cupertino. And no matter how large Apple is, its TV arm isn't there yet and will need to play ball in the confines of Hollywood and how business is conducted there. That's not to suggest that Apple Video (such a name would also allow it to buy and make movies and documentaries, of course), needs to trot out its goods to the Television Critics Association like everybody else, but Netflix and Amazon and Hulu do and — despite the first two not showing up in July — will likely be back. (And, for that matter, both Netflix and Amazon have suffered a bit in the promotion of their shows by not attending TCA, but some of that is tied to the confounding witchcraft surrounding how much of that content is released and whether either entity is keen on advertising those premieres, which are columns for another time.)

Ah, but there's also an intriguing side note to Rose's story as it pertains to Apple not telling people exactly how shows will be distributed: Some kind of catalog acquisition is likely imminent and could, in some way, change the configuration of the system that's being built.

And yes, some tech analysts have suggested already that Apple could buy either Netflix or Disney — both seem farfetched for many reasons, a minor one being Apple has already hired a number of execs for its TV division and wouldn't need them if it acquired either of those operations (the major issue being why would either Netflix or Disney want to sell, unless the mounting debt of the former is real and burdensome and the standalone streaming plan for the latter is fiction?).

Hulu has also been tossed into the discussion of an Apple acquisition and, despite the difficulty negotiating with multiple owners would entail, seems at least more likely than Netflix and Disney, but ultimately not likely at all.

Apple does buy companies (primarily tech-related, of course) at a fairly regular clip — trying to keep those as quiet as possible. Not only does that history suggest that Apple will indeed gobble up one or more existing content providers, having a back catalog is absolutely essential to Apple Video, or whatever it's called, being successful.

Right now the world of subscription services available to consumers is growing rapidly. And as FX and AMC expand the reach of their non-commercial offerings, those two will be must-haves for TV fans.

All of these offerings — and maybe even Disney's new and massively attractive subscription venture — are either at market or will be before Apple Video. You can't charge consumers $9.99 or $11.99 if you don't have a very, very deep bench of series that add value and urgency to the brand. Currently Apple has two unscripted series and, according to Rose's story, a relatively small batch of series under consideration.

It is, to be blunt, well behind in this race.

It's a little surprising that Van Amburg and Erlicht haven't reeled in any big fish yet, but it's still early. But not so early as to preclude being mildly concerned at the pace. And yes, when you have $257 billion in cash just sitting in a vault, you can be patient. That clock, though — you can hear it tick out in the marketplace.

It's clear that Apple is still wed to ideas that worked for it on the tech side. Waiting for Tim Cook to announce Apple Video in some grandiose display might follow the Apple manual but it doesn't seem to be helping in the bidding wars now underway. Also, say what you will about the mighty club that $257 billion creates, but losing out to Netflix on a deal with Ryan Murphy might have even surprised Apple itself.

The guess here is that Apple will still and with certainty be a major player that dramatically alters the landscape of the television industry. But that doesn't mean that its early-days learning curve won't be unexpectedly more difficult than first assumed.