Critic's Notebook: The Clock Is Ticking on Apple Buying a Content Company

Apple's recent moves in the TV business suggest that it hasn't forgotten the importance of acquiring a back catalog.
Screengrab/Timothée Hochet
Apple has ordered both an English-language adaptation of the French series 'Calls,' and the original.

Anyone tracking the goings-on with Apple as it pertains to the TV industry — and with $285 billion in cash sitting around, that should be everybody in the TV industry — must surely have noticed both the very recent burst of activity and the very curious, ongoing lack of activity from the tech giant.

Regarding the former, Apple this month inked its second international project, Calls, based on a French format (and even bought the rights to stream the French version, which is extremely important, as you will see); jumped into the children's programming arena by signing a deal with Sesame Workshop (it doesn't get Sesame Street, but that deal with HBO expires in 2020 and Apple would be poised to snatch it); and then bought its 12th scripted series and 13th overall in Little America, from The Big Sick duo Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.

So, to recap backward — the aggressive, straight-to-series scripted push continues, Apple is now eagerly in the competitive kids arena and it absolutely has plans to be global, along the lines of Netflix and Amazon. That leads to the lack of activity element from above: When the hell is Apple going to buy a content company with a back catalog that would actually make it worthwhile for consumers to buy its fledgling original content?

Don't get hung up on how Apple will stream — you may have noticed it's a tech company — or even what that service will be called or how it will be integrated with iTunes (interesting stuff, sure, but not on the level of how imperative it is to snatch up another company with content).

And, if you're keeping score at home, it's very imperative. Apple can't really think that its legion of brand-loyal customers will also pay somewhere in the vicinity of $9.99 a month for a dozen or so series that might not be all that great, might be a mixed bag creatively or, if you want to be insanely optimistic, even if all 13 are brilliant. Apple can't think people will do that, can it? 

Remember that Disney will have its Death Star streaming service up and running by fall 2019, and people will absolutely be subscribing to that. Netflix isn't going away. Amazon is under new leadership and aggressively seeking to up its game to compete more strongly with Netflix, especially globally. And FX content on Hulu as part of the Disney deal dovetails nicely with Hulu's own expansion of originals — so that's a streaming service that could also see an uptick in subscribers for a service that is already established and arguably must-have.

Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO (whether via cable subscription or HBO Now) are the absolute essentials for TV watchers. You can add in whatever else you might want — Acorn, BritBox, CBS All Access, FilmStruck, Sundance Now, the new streaming options from AMC and FX, etc. So many options in what is unarguably the future of TV. 

So, 10 bucks a month for a dozen shows? Not exactly a hot ticket. Of course, the X-factor here is that Apple is Apple and it does things its own way, with an historic success rate that's hard to ignore. Maybe it sees whatever passes for standard operating procedure in the TV industry as something it doesn't have to play along with, and will launch its streaming service in 2019 as a bare-bones operation that it will grow slowly over time and everybody can like it or be damned.

There are still so many questions surrounding tech logic vs. TV logic when it comes to Apple. But at the moment, it's hard to imagine that the delay in acquiring some other content provider is related to a different operating system rather than a matter of A) Apple secrecy and B) Nobody has sold anything yet, even if it seems that everything is for sale. Apple has been rumored to have been circling Viacom for at least two years but nothing ever happened (and may not ever, but more on that in a minute).

What's interesting about Apple buying the format to the French series Calls is less that deal than the much smaller headline that it's also buying the original French version. Because that's immediate catalog material. Which implies an Apple consumer can sign on to whatever streaming service Apple has and browse ... for other series. Do you think that Apple is just going to leave it at 13 originals and the French language version of Calls?

No. Apple is going to build out. Apple is going to acquire. 

But if you just looked at your watch and thought, "But when — we're halfway through 2018?" then you are not alone. The clock is ticking. Apple has released almost no information about its plans, which is very Apple. The assumption among Apple acolytes is that it will get done, don't worry about it. But if you're watching these mega-mergers happen right in this very instant of court-approved monolith-making capitalism run amok, then you are a little more dubious about where Apple will end up when the musical chairs anthem runs out on their Beats. Will they own Sony? Will they own MGM? Will the CBS-Viacom battle have become defined enough that Viacom is on the market and able to be snatched up by Apple? Is there something else out there that makes sense to Apple — Lionsgate? Are there a series of tiny acquisitions — Crunchyroll? — about to be strung together?

Or will 2019 arrive with no deal made? Maybe the question is, at what month in what year does the real worry begin about Apple's larger vision for its TV brand? If the middle of 2018 seems too early (it's not), is January 2019 about right? March 2019 — a big springtime surprise? Because as Disney's streaming launch looms in the fall of next year, with an endless supply of content that consumers will want to stream, Apple must know that fighting it out in the trenches for original programming and overall deals, as it's doing right now, is only one part of the equation. It needs a robust back catalog to add value.

Whereas a few months ago there was still some real worry that Apple was, in fact, going to rely on its reputation to lure customers to its streaming service — it's Apple and I buy everything Apple — that level of tech cockiness has thankfully given way in this month of June to a more reasonable assumption that, based on Apple's foray into kids and international, it has signaled an understanding that more is better.

It's certainly better — and sounder — business.

Now all that's left is the big acquisition announcement. Right?

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