Apple Taps Sony TV Chiefs to Lead Programming Push

Sony Jamie Zach Executive Suite - H 2013
Annie Tritt

Sony Jamie Zach Executive Suite - H 2013

Sony Pictures Television co-presidents Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg announced their departure on Thursday and will exit the independent studio for Apple when their deals end in August.

Apple is poised to shake up the original programming space.

Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, who late Thursday announced their upcoming exit from Sony Pictures Television, have been tapped to run video programming at Apple. The move signals a significant push into original programming at the tech company best known for making iPhones and MacBooks.

Erlicht and Van Amburg, who were promoted last year in the wake of SPT chairman Steve Mosko's abrupt exit, will join Apple later this summer as co-heads of video programming and will report to senior vp internet software and services Eddy Cue. Erlicht and Van Amburg, who were in the midst of fierce renegotiations with Sony, remain under contract with the company until Aug. 31. (A transition plan is not yet in place at Sony TV, though Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Tony Vinciquerra will work with current staff in the interim.)

Hollywood has been breathlessly anticipating Apple's entree into original programming for years and got a taste of what the company has planned June 6 when it released its first original series, Planet of the Apps. A spinoff of The Late Late Show With James Corden’s popular Carpool Karaoke segment also is scheduled for August. (Still to be determined is Apple's first scripted series, Vital Signs starring Dr. Dre.) But the consensus among the entertainment industry's creative community has been that Apple wouldn't become a serious buyer until it had installed a head of programming.

Erlicht and Van Amburg, who will continue to be based in Los Angeles, are expected to jump start that buying process for the world's most valuable company. They will work closely with Apple Music executives Jimmy Iovine, Larry Jackson and Robert Kondrk and will oversee all content for the company, including the acquisition of original documentaries. Apple is beginning to test the waters in that space with Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, a documentary about Sean "Diddy" Combs that will be released June 25 on Apple Music and July 7 on iTunes, as well as Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives

To date, Apple has positioned its original series as part of an effort to turn Apple Music into a cultural destination for music, documentaries and shows. The service, which has 27 million subscribers, remains much smaller than Swedish competitor Spotify with its 50 million paid members.

Cue, who has been coy in the past about Apple’s Hollywood ambitions, is said to have met Erlicht and Van Amburg several months ago and, during the course of many meetings, determined that they would be the right people to shepherd the company’s original programming strategy.

"Jamie and Zack are two of the most talented TV executives in the world and have been instrumental in making this the golden age of television," Cue said in a statement announcing the news Friday. "We have exciting plans in store for customers and can’t wait for them to bring their expertise to Apple — there is much more to come."

Erlicht and Van Amburg's departure creates a gaping hole for Sony Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Entertainment. The duo, who joined Sony TV in 2005, oversaw programming and production for the independent studio as well as worldwide television as the company shifted its focus from film to high-margin television. The television unit comprised 90 percent of Sony Pictures Entertainment's overall income in 2016.

The announcement arrives a month after Erlicht and Van Amburg completed multiple rounds of negotiations with the broadcast networks for tough renewals for shows including NBC's Timeless and ABC's The Goldbergs.

Erlicht and Van Amburg are highly respected in Hollywood and are known for fighting for content — something which is said have impressed Cue. The pair most recently refused to accept NBC's decision to cancel freshman drama Timeless and, through a fierce and rapid round of negotiations that included giving up part of the show's ownership, were able to get the network to reverse its decision and renew the show for a shortened second season. Erlicht and Van Amburg also were able to find new homes for programming including Community (NBC to Yahoo), Unforgettable (CBS to A&E) and Damages (FX to DirecTV), to name a few. They're currently trying to do the same for slave drama Underground after WGN America exited the scripted business and canceled the critical favorite, as well as ABC's passed over The Goldbergs spinoff.

The duo's move to Apple comes as business for an independent studio like Sony TV has become increasingly challenging in an era of dwindling viewership where networks are placing a bigger priority on owning content than ever before. Sony TV is the only studio that does not have direct ties to a broadcast or cable network. This upfronts season, Sony TV saw three of its nine pilots score series orders — down two from a year ago — with all of them co-productions with the network's studio sibling. 

On the cable side, Erlicht and Van Amburg have relationships all over town after producing current and former hits including AMC's Breaking Bad and its spinoff, Better Call Saul; Netflix's The Crown and Bloodline; FX's The Shield, Rescue Me and Justified; NBC's The Blacklist; and Amazon's Sneaky Pete. They have been able to lure top showrunners — like Vince Gilligan, Shawn Ryan, David Shore and Adam F. Goldberg — to sign lucrative overall deals with the studio. 

"It will be an honor to be part of the Apple team,” Erlicht said in a statement. "We want to bring to video what Apple has been so successful with in their other services and consumer products — unparalleled quality." Added Van Amburg: "Apple has a relentless focus on delighting customers with their products. We will bring that same intention to Apple’s programming and we could not be more excited about what lies ahead."

The hires send a clear signal to Hollywood that Apple plans to make a concerted push in the original programming space with Van Amburg and Erlicht now having access to Apple's purse strings. The company, which has an $800 billion market cap and $257 billion cash stockpile, is now better armed to emerge as a rival for deep-pocketed Netflix and Amazon. Netflix and, to a lesser extent, retail giant/streamer Amazon, have dramatically disrupted the television landscape with buying sprees that will see the respective companies spend $6 billion and $4.5 billion on originals alone in 2017.