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Apple TV Plus Chiefs on Building the Ambitious Video Venture From Scratch

When Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg relocated to Apple in 2017 after more than 15 years at Sony Pictures Television, the first thing they did was set up a whirlwind series of meetings with writers, talent agencies and studios.

To launch Apple into the extremely competitive original content marketplace, Van Amburg and Erlicht knew they would need the support of, and even a few favors from, the creative community. But somewhere around day five, the pair hit the pause button on those meetings and booked flights to Apple’s Cupertino, Calif., headquarters instead. The execs realized they had much to learn about Apple and its larger ambitions before they could create what would become Apple TV Plus, which bows Nov. 1. In their first extensive interview as heads of Apple TV Plus, Erlicht and Van Amburg detail the process of building Apple’s bold video venture from scratch.

“This has been more than two years in the making,” Van Amburg says. “We’ve all been working so hard to do the best work of our lives. We’re anxious to begin to share that.”

One of the first things they had to wrap their heads around was that they were no longer working for a Hollywood studio. The traditional factors that had defined their options as studio chiefs for so long — budget deficits, international sales, syndication potential, et al. — no longer applied. Now, the guiding principle was to build a service worthy of the Apple brand that also harnessed the power of digital media. The result is a collaboration between many departments.

“We spent a lot of time at Cupertino getting to know all of the various division heads who were going to be critical to our success,” Erlicht says. “We spent a good chunk of [the first] few months flying up to Cupertino multiple times a week, figuring out how what we’re doing on the entertainment side fit in with everything else at Apple. We knew we needed to make [Apple TV Plus] feel seamless for the company.”

Apple TV Plus is the centerpiece of the tech giant’s efforts to expand in the video arena with a subscription offering that aims to provide one-stop shopping as a content-navigation service, a bundler of third-party cable and digital channels, and its own slate of originals.

The service is one component of the TV strategy, but there’s no doubt Apple’s effort will be defined by the response to the first slate of shows that carry the Apple imprimatur. Leading off the inaugural lineup of four scripted series is “The Morning Show,” the high-wattage drama starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell that’s set behind the scenes of an a.m. TV news franchise in turmoil.

The quality time that Erlicht and Van Amburg spent in Cupertino helped instill in them the Apple ethos of prizing innovation as a means to foster better and stronger communication tools, as enabled by iPhones, iPads and the like.

“The guiding word is ‘humanity,’” Van Amburg says about the brand that Apple TV Plus aims to build. “All of our shows have something to say about the relationships we have with each other and with the world. The common denominator of all the creative people we’ve gotten into business with is ‘Wow, they really know what they want to say with this show, and they’re desperate to say it.’”

The seasoned TV executives are no strangers to high-stakes launches and creative fliers. They’re the ones who championed a drama about a high school chemistry teacher turned meth magnate, which yielded the “Breaking Bad” juggernaut. This time around, however, the scorecard for success is entirely different. In etching the creative template for Apple TV Plus, Erlicht and Van Amburg have had to rely more than ever on their gut instinct about what constitutes distinctive TV.

“There’s no piece of data on Nov. 2 that in any way, shape or form can change the course of what we’ve been doing,” Erlicht says. “What I’m most excited about is that the world is going to be able to see what we’ve been doing. And they’re going to see a user interface that will change the way the consumer watches video. It’s a real experience.”

Apple TV Plus is a different animal from its major streaming competitors in that it does not come with a deep library of content. For $4.99 a month, subscribers will be able to count on at least one fresh series or original movie per month at the start.

“We’re going to have a bigger slate in the first year than we thought we would, and we will be bigger in year two than year one,” Erlicht says.

While the media world girds for the dawn of the streaming wars — with Disney, Apple, WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal joining the fray over the next six months — Van Amburg and Erlicht are ready for an even more intense battle once their creation goes public.

“The natural inclination is to feel that Nov. 1 is the finish line,” Van Amburg says. “But actually, Nov. 1 is the starting line.”

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