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Star Power, Image Concerns Drive Apple’s Original Content Strategy

Apple has yet to release a single frame from any of the original scripted shows it has ordered during the past year, but the soon-to-be streaming giant is already making a big impact.

Apple has budgeted approximately $1 billion to date on their initial series development slate that will power its push into the streaming video arena. That includes high-profile projects like the Reese Witherspoon-Jennifer Aniston morning show drama, which was Apple’s first scripted series order and was picked up with a two-season commitment in November 2017. The slate also includes an Emily Dickinson half-hour series starring Hailee Steinfeld, and an adaptation of the book “Defending Jacob” starring and executive produced by Chris Evans.

What these and other series have in common — 17 so far, and counting — is the marquee power of the names attached, both in front of or behind the camera.

“You need to come to them totally packaged or with some big IP,” a top TV literary agent told Variety. “It’s like how ‘House of Cards’ started on Netflix, with David Fincher and Kevin Spacey attached. Right now, Apple’s probably not going to take a chance on some unknown talent.”

Apple may be seeking to rival Netflix with an impressive slate of shows, and grabbing headlines with each successive series order. But Apple’s current approach is the exact opposite of the reigning ruler of streaming TV’s early original programming days.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported on a mandate from CEO Tim Cook that original programs tread lightly when it comes to sex, violence and controversy. That’s a tough assignment given the competition in premium TV, where edgy and envelope-pushing is usually taken as a given. A source close to Apple downplayed the strictness of the content guidelines, but the creative community has nonetheless taken notice. A rep for Apple’s video division declined to comment.

When Netflix began producing original series, it thrived on secrecy, often only announcing projects once they had completed production. Apple, on the other hand, has been announcing projects regularly even though it does not plan to launch them until mid-2019 at the earliest. “Right now, they’re in the business of promoting shows without having anything made,” another lit agent said.

Yet despite Apple’s lack of a track record in the scripted series department, stars and creators have not been shying away. The reason for this appears to be two-fold.

First, Apple is coming into the market late, after Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have proven the viability of streaming as a platform for original series. Rolled up in that is the fact that Apple is a very well-known and trusted name in the technology space. Even though the exact details of how Apple will roll out its shows has yet to be revealed, it is believed that episodes (if not full seasons) will be made available to users of Apple devices, ensuring a massive potential audience.

Second, Apple has a robust executive suite made up of highly-regarded industry vets. Sources said that this factor in particular has made dealings with Apple much easier, as many executives they have hired have long-standing relationships throughout Hollywood. Leading it all are former Sony Pictures Television presidents Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, who were recruited to lead Apple’s originals division in June 2017. Their time at the helm of Sony TV saw the independent studio turn out hit shows like AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” NBC’s “The Blacklist” and Netflix’s “The Crown.”

Another agency source said that Apple has communicated they are looking for more grounded shows like “This Is Us” rather than large-scale genre shows like “Game of Thrones.” That said, Apple does have several genre shows in the works, like its Ron Moore space race drama and the Steven Knight series “See,” which is described as “an epic, world-building drama set in the future.” A revival of the Steven Spielberg-produced “Amazing Stories” anthology franchise is also in the works, with “Once Upon a Time” showrunners Eddy Kitsis and Adam Horowitz at the helm.

But for those who are expecting to see boundary-pushing programming like the material found on HBO and Netflix, they will have to keep waiting, at least for now. Apple is said to be focusing on broader, more family-friendly fare at the outset of their originals push.

“Everyone has an iPhone–teenagers, parents, etcetera,” one agent said. “They want to be able to have programming that anyone who has an iPhone could watch.”

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