Can Apple TV Plus start earning its keep?

This month, the free ride is over for millions of Apple customers who have been getting Apple TV Plus — regularly priced at $4.99 per month — at no charge. Some haven’t been paying for Apple TV Plus since the streaming video service debuted in November 2019. The tech giant in recent weeks has been sending email notifications to customers whose free-access promos have finally expired that they’ll start getting billed in July.

In a bid to jump-start Apple TV Plus — and boost device sales — Apple has offered one year free to buyers of new iPhones, iPads, Apple TV set-tops and Macs. The company extended the free-streaming offer several times, but as of this month it expects Apple TV Plus users to start paying.

And starting July 1, new buyers of products like iPhone or Apple TV 4K will qualify to get only three months free of Apple TV Plus.

The question is: How many of the free riders will Apple TV Plus be able to retain? Apple hasn’t disclosed how many Apple TV Plus subscribers — paid or non-paid — it has signed up. In the fourth quarter of 2020, an estimated 62% of the service’s base were on free promotional offers, per Wall Street analyst firm MoffettNathanson.

Overall, as of the end of March 2021, Apple said it had 660 million total subscribers across its family of paid services, which includes Apple Music, iCloud, Apple TV Plus, Apple Arcade and Apple News Plus. On the earnings call with analysts, CFO Luca Maestri claimed Apple TV Plus set an all-time quarterly record but didn’t provide details.

Meanwhile, in a bid to drive more subscribers (and viewing) for Apple TV Plus, Apple cut a deal with Roku for a dedicated button on the device maker’s newest remote control, which first went on sale in April. That sits alongside buttons for Netflix, Disney Plus and Hulu at the bottom of the $30 Roku Voice Remote Pro.

To be sure, Apple may have determined that the free one-year Apple TV Plus offers were successful as a loss-leader to fuel device sales. But now it wants Apple TV Plus to generate revenue in its own right, to buttress its fast-growing services segment.

At $4.99/month, Apple TV Plus is cheaper than other subscription VOD packages like Netflix, Disney Plus or HBO Max. But compared with rivals, it has a far smaller lineup, currently offering 71 original series, films, documentaries and specials — all original productions, with no licensed library content.

With COVID production delays in 2020, Apple appeared to hold off on the decision to end the free-streaming promotions until it had a critical mass of content on Apple TV Plus that was worth paying for. And through the end of 2021, the company has queued up programming it’s hoping will convince people is worth five bucks per month.

Coming later this month is Season 2 of “Ted Lasso,” the breakout fish-out-of-water comedy starring Jason Sudeikis, who won a Golden Globe for his turn as the relentlessly upbeat small-time Kansas college football coach hired to coach a English Premier League team, despite having no soccer experience whatsoever. Season 2 premieres Friday, July 23, on Apple TV Plus.

Set to debut July 16 is “Schmigadoon!”, a musical comedy series executive produced by Lorne Michaels, starring Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key as a couple who take a backpacking trip to reinvigorate their relationship — when they discover a magical town in which everyone is living in a studio musical from the 1940s. Docuseries “Watch the Sound With Mark Ronson” (July 30) centers on the award-winning producer and artist and his collaboration fellow hitmakers including Paul McCartney, DJ Premier, Charli XCX, Dave Grohl and Questlove.

Other Apple TV Plus originals coming this summer: “Mr. Corman” (Aug. 6), a comedy-drama series written, directed, produced by and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an artist who finds himself teaching fifth grade at a school in the San Fernando Valley; “CODA” (Aug. 13), the Sundance Grand Jury Prize Award-winning film about a teen who is the sole hearing member of a deaf family; Season 2 of “Truth Be Told” (Aug. 20), an anthology drama series starring Octavia Spencer and Kate Hudson about America’s obsession with true-crime podcasts; and Season 2 of “See” (Aug. 27), a dystopian drama starring Jason Momoa and Dave Bautista.

Then in September comes the second season of Emmy-winning drama “The Morning Show” (Sept. 17), starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell and Billy Crudup, and “Foundation,” David S. Goyer’s adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s iconic sci-fi book series of the same name starring Jared Harris and Lee Pace.

The fall lineup includes Todd Hayne’s documentary feature “The Velvet Underground” (Oct. 15); sci-fi drama series “Invasion” (Oct. 22) from Simon Kinberg and David Weil; and “The Shrink Next Door” (Nov. 12), a limited series starring Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell, based on the true story of the bizarre relationship between a psychiatrist to the stars and a longtime patient, adapted from the Wondery/Bloomberg Media podcast of the same name.

Will the cadence of new Apple TV Plus programming be enough to prompt customers to pay up? Apple is about to find out.

Pictured above: Jason Sudekis in “Ted Lasso”