Critic's Notebook: Apple's Big TV Presentation Tells Us Little About Apple's TV Plans

From Oprah to Spielberg to Reese, Apple's splashy event was big on stars and short on details about when the company's original programming slate will premiere, how much it will cost and more.
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Reese Witherspoon (left) and Jennifer Aniston at the Apple TV presentation

Twice a year, the Television Critics Association meets for a press tour, an opportunity for every broadcasting, cable and streaming entity to take the stage and exhibit their wares and present the state of their business to a room filled with hundreds of TV critics and reporters. In my capacity as TCA president, I like to tell anybody who will listen that the press tour is still the most imaginable bang for the networks' buck and they generally treat the event as an opportunity to break news, announce premieres and present first-look trailers for whatever projects we haven't seen.

But inevitably, owing to ongoing contract negotiations or clearances or production logistics, somebody will let the opportunity slip by and be like, "Yeah, we don't have a premiere date" or "We're waiting on a renewal" or "We wanted to have a trailer for you" and then a few weeks later, they'll send out a press release with the information the hundreds of reporters would love to have had when we were a captive audience. When that happens, all I can think is, "Come on! You had your platform! Why would you not use it better?"

Ultimately, that's also all I have to say coming out of Apple's grand TV presentation Monday morning. Apple had a great opportunity to thrust itself into the forefront of the streaming TV conversation, to briefly steal the spotlight from the Netflixes and Amazons of the world, to usurp the buzz from yet-to-be-birthed services like Disney+ and whatever WarnerMedia is doing.

It would be my assessment that Apple's presentation did none of that. But who am I kidding? They probably didn't need to. I watched the Apple presentation on my AppleTV as I took notes on my MacBook Pro and dithered around with my iPhone. Several of these devices may be a little outdated, but they serve as a general confirmation that I'm probably going to gravitate toward whatever disruption, faux or genuine, Apple provides next. Plus, I'm a TV critic, so I'm going to have to review whatever dozens of new shows Apple chooses to unleash. So I guess Apple wasn't selling to me or my colleagues on Monday morning, anyway.

What specific information was unveiled?

Well, we learned actual tangible details about the new Apple Card, including three different tiers of how it will provide me with cash back. Just like Discover Card! We learned about how many magazines will be part of Apple News Plus' subscription magazine plan, as well as how much it will cost. Because this was all a sales pitch, the 100-minute-plus event earned loud cheers following practically every sentence, with the biggest roars for Apple not selling your data to advertisers — It's Apple, why would they need your data for anything more than Apple purposes? — and a credit card that doesn't require a signature. That titanium card looks exactly like Magnises, Billy McFarland's much-maligned scam credit card for wealthy millennials. Whee!

We also found out that the TV app, available on all Apple platforms, will be getting an upgrade in May. It will soon be available for Roku and other non-Apple devices and will be able to bundle many of your cable and streaming options — Netflix need not apply — in a way that has felt increasingly inevitable since people started cutting the cord and accumulating a disparate cacophony of individual services that will surely be more expensive than cable ever was very soon if it isn't already.

Apple TV Plus will get a new interface, one that looks reasonably cool and basically identical to Netflix's interface in many ways, right down to echoing some of Netflix's most annoying features — like those trailers that start blaring automatically if you linger on an image for too long, or the automated "Skip Intro" option that often keeps me from knowing who wrote and directed episodes of TV and will further render the opening credit song a tragically lost thing of the past. Oh, and there will be recommendations, courtesy of an algorithm or curated editors or something. You know who already provides such recommendations? Your friendly neighborhood TV critic. Also? Netflix, I guess.

But what else? There had been some speculation that Apple, which has been deep in production for months on some of these originals — years, if you think we're ever going to see the series Dr. Dre produced for Apple — might be able to get one or two of these shows into the Emmys conversation by premiering them by the end of May.

Nope! "Fall," the Apple bigwigs said.

Oh. All of them? Some of them? September? October? November? Will episodes be premiering all at once or occasionally episodic?

Dunno. One might surmise that Amazing Stories, The Morning Show, See, Little America, Little Voice and Helpsters will be leading off, since those were the shows that had their stars — Reese! Kumail! Big [Bird]! — trotted out. Those are only a small proportion of the Apple shows that have been announced, though.

I guess we'll be watching the shows through the Apple TV Plus app, and that's an answer we didn't have previously.

But how much will this cost? That feels like a major question. Heck, I'd go so far as to say it was probably the most major of the questions I wanted answered from this presentation. No dice.

Maybe they're still trying to figure out how many shows will be part of that "fall" rollout, and maybe if the answer is "two or three," the price point will come in lower than if the answer is "five or 10"? These feel like the kind of things you would want to have some estimate on if you knew you had an event scheduled in front of hundreds of in-person reporters and millions of people streaming.

So maybe Apple just wanted to feature the original properties themselves, so that you built up sufficient appetite that you'd be prepared to pay anything once the time is right?

Nope. Apple brought its stars and creatives out to talk about their shows. Period. Like dancing about architecture, this was talking about TV. One star after another came out and said they couldn't wait for us to see what they've been working on, which is exactly the time you want to have juicy clip packages ready.

Nah.

At the very end, after all the talking, there was a single sizzle reel with basically no dialogue and an overbearing score. It all convinced me that Apple's new shows are definitely real things that have filmed at least five seconds of footage apiece. And nothing else. I'm not less interested in any of these shows. But I'm not an iota more interested, either.

Apple chose to sell a big picture that was composed mostly of lists of names, a comically pompous black-and-white intro driven by A-list talent who would have been able to get TV deals at any of 100 currently existing places. What brought them to Apple? Well, money, I'd assume. And space. But what do all of their assembled names tell me about what the Apple television brand is going to be?

Dunno. From the name — yes, putting "Apple" in front of everything and "+" afterward is mighty forward-looking — to the so-established-they're-probably-behind-the-curve represented talent, this was Apple in its "We're making a small step forward in a familiar marketplace that you'll lap up because we're Apple" mode and not "We're Apple, so we're taking a bold leap forward into the unknown" mode.

And that's fine! It's what Apple does. I just excitedly tuned into the presentation hoping that the myriad rumors floating for years might coalesce into tangible and actionable details. I volunteered to write something about the presentation on that assumption.

Instead, I guess I'll have to wait for Apple to come to the TCA press tour this summer. There will be hundreds of reporters and critics waiting eagerly there and everybody already jokes about the sea of Apple products in the room. We can't wait to see you.

Bring details!