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What Will Apple’s Streaming Service Look Like? Five Burning Questions (Column)

As the streaming wars continue to unfold—with Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu preparing to stake their respective claims at the Emmys Sept. 17—the great unknown remains what role Apple will play in an increasingly pitched competition. The world’s first trillion-dollar company has made plenty of waves with their announced programming, thanks to deals with high-profile creators like Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, and M. Night Shyamalan. But a few titles, loglines, and well-known names are all that’s so far known about the TV plans of a company that generally operates in secrecy whether revealing a new iPhone model or a new entertainment platform.

Here are a few of the biggest questions about the tech giant’s foray into streaming—ones that executives across the business may well be asking as they wait to see just how a new, deep-pocketed player disrupts an already-unstable industry.

  1. How important are A-listers to the service?

Apple has stayed in the headlines without airing content (aside from its “Carpool Karaoke” spin-off series) in part by providing fans famous names to salivate over; the as-yet-untitled series starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston and set in the world of morning television is but one example, among a litany of projects toplined by boldfaced names. Major stars can help any series cut through the clutter—and streaming behemoth Netflix, preparing to release the Emma Stone/Jonah Hill drama “Maniac,” knows this as well as anyone—but some of the biggest zeitgeist hits of recent years, including “Stranger Things” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” have been created by unheralded producers and featured casts with recognizable faces but no megastars. Would Apple be open to a pitch from whatever passionate unknown is 2018’s answer to the Duffer Brothers? And what has been Apple’s pitch to top stars to convince them to hop onboard a brand-new service? It can’t just be about the price tag (surely Netflix’s pockets are as deep), or their willingness to order multiple seasons right off the bat (a concession streaming competitors surely would have made, too). There’s a halo to Apple’s brand, even if as yet untested as an entertainment platform. 

  1. What will be the genre mix?

While Netflix’s content traverses all genres, Hulu has leaned on politically-tinged drama, at least so far; Amazon is working to build out its supply of bold genre fare that can travel worldwide. Apple’s announcements to date, including, most recently, the project “Losing Earth,” based on a splashy New York Times Magazine article, have seemed to indicate a heavy emphasis on drama. Exceptions include a comedy from Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) and an animated series from Loren Bouchard (“Bob’s Burgers”). Drama tends to work well on streaming, with serialized plotlines helping to enable binge viewing; so will it dominate the Apple slate? And what role will unscripted television play in Apple’s future? The company’s only two programs to have aired so far, before this full-scale relaunch, have been music series “Carpool Karaoke” and now-concluded competition series “Planet of the Apps.” Netflix has seemed to crack the code of unscripted programming on streaming with “Queer Eye” and “Nailed It”—will Apple seek to emulate that success?

  1. What is the launch strategy—one show at a time, or a shock-and-awe campaign?

Netflix, the dominant force in streaming, effectively launched by releasing three high-profile shows—”House of Cards,” “Orange Is the New Black,” and the revival of “Arrested Development”—over a span of six months in 2013. It was an opening bid for viewer attention that was more precise and thought-through than the far quieter kickoffs of Hulu and Amazon’s original programming—and one that stands to be outdone soon by Apple. It takes much more than three shows to make a dent in today’s vastly more crowded marketplace. In order to convince viewers to add yet another subscription—and in order to compete with Netflix, which is no stranger to both the element of surprise and to the volume game—it would stand to reason that Apple will make an aggressive opening gambit. On the other hand, they may not need to: Apple has so many loyalists, folks who are predisposed to follow the company wherever it leads, that they start with an advantage that, say, Hulu did not have.

One more factor when considering what the Apple launch will look like: The simple, pragmatic reality of the business. Putting together any television show is fraught; putting together as many as Apple is all at once means that, according to the law of averages, there will inevitably be bumps in the road. Already, the Witherspoon/Aniston series has switched showrunners, and Kristen Wiig has exited a planned series based on the work of author Curtis Sittenfeld. Apple has an outsized ability to fund programming generously, but simply because of the size of its slate and the ever-increasing frequency with which shows fall through, it’s not hard to wonder if at least a few announced programs won’t ultimately make it to air.

  1. What is Apple’s “brand”—or does it have one?

Hulu merges provocation and popcorn, with edgy dramas that still have a heavily bingeable element; Amazon, attempting to build out a set of tentpole dramas, is increasingly steeped in genre. And Netflix’s brand is its absence of a brand. What role Apple will play here remains to be seen, even as the company already has one of the strongest brands out there—standing in the consumer’s mind for a sort of hip-adjacent, accessible-yet-premium luxury product that’s both practically built and vaguely futuristic. How does that set of associations translate into television? Apple programming is a small part of a huge corporation, and serves the company best by being on-brand; though anything is possible, it’s hard to imagine, say, the carefree raunch of “American Vandal” as an Apple product.

Also of note: Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon all have as part of their value proposition that subscribers will get access to catalog TV programming as well as new originals. This has the effect of brand dilution, perhaps—for some, Hulu is more closely identified with “30 Rock” reruns than it is with “The Handmaid’s Tale”—but also helps encourage subscribers to come and stay aboard. What role, if any, will acquired content play in Apple’s service—and if it’s curated to only include Apple-produced programming, what sacrifice in potential subscribers does that make for a gain in brand ID?

  1. How will people watch?

As a technology company, Apple has done as much as any other entity to change the way entertainment is consumed. And the launch of a content strategy would seem like an opportunity either to push the company’s own Apple TV device or to introduce new tech. But there’s been no clear answer on which way the company is leaning. One thing that does seem certain, however, is that whatever ends up being the company’s platform will have a simpler user experience than its competitors, which all have their own issues. For true believers in the Apple experience, the company’s ecosystem is a comfortable place to spend hours; presuming that the viewing platform is as sleek as the rest of their suite of products, Apple is ahead of the game. After all, convincing viewers to spend as much of their free time as they can with you is the ultimate goal of the streaming wars.

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