The Big-Budget TV Race Apple Can’t Afford to Lose

Yinchen Niu/Variety Intelligence Platform

Now that it has an award-winning comedy in place with “Ted Lasso,” Apple TV+ has its sights set on its next big programming challenge. 

The brand may not be synonymous with big-budgeted event-TV programming, but Apple is moving more aggressively to offer the kind of broadly appealing sci-fi epics that, in success, can become cornerstone franchises. 

Last week’s premiere of Apple TV+’s newest series “Foundation” marks the latest sign of those ambitions for the Cupertino-based streamer. The combined budget for two episodes of “Foundation” amounts to more than some feature films that the series’ showrunner David S. Goyer has worked on, Goyer told THR in late July

Moreover, Apple will soon unveil another big-budgeted TV project with the Oct. 22 debut of its sci-fi series “Invasion,” which was recently described as a “$200 million series” by one of its stars. 

Special effects-heavy, big-budgeted TV can play well to global audiences. The quintessential examples from recent decades include AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and ABC’s “Lost.”  

Even if just one of them clicks with viewers, “Invasion” or “Foundation” may help give Apple TV+ the growth boost it could really use 

Apple TV+ currently only counts around 40 million subscribers, with nearly half being paying customers, The Information reported earlier in September. And the service told the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) it had less than 20 million subs in the U.S. and Canada as of July, per CNBC.  

Meanwhile, Disney+, which launched the same month as Apple TV+ but in fewer markets, reported 50 million subscribers less than five months after rolling out (with 8 million subs coming from Hotstar). 

Moreover, just 10% of U.S. adult respondents said they used Apple TV+ in July, the same percentage who said they used the ad-supported tier of Peacock (which launched nearly six months after Apple TV+), per YouGov.  

Between “Lasso” and a drama that has also gotten some traction in the awards circuit, “The Morning Show,” Apple TV+ has been more prestige focused. But its creative aperture is bound to widen if it’s true that Apple is planning on doubling its output and debuting a TV series or movie weekly in 2022, per The Information.  

Apple TV+ has swung and missed before with the sci-fi genre: The service launched with the Jason Momoa starrer “See,” which debuted a second season last month. But S1 of the title, reportedly a $15 million-per-episode series, wasn’t particularly loved by critics. "See" has also been viewed by far fewer TVision panel members than titles like “The Morning Show” and “Ted Lasso.” 

“Foundation” and “Invasion” could also potentially pair well with a sci-fi film Apple TV+ is unveiling in November with Tom Hanks, “Finch,” in which he attempts to survive a post-apocalyptic world. 

But it’s unlikely that Apple retreats from greenlighting expensive TV series completely even if the new series are duds. Apple had over $34 billion in cash and cash equivalents as of calendar Q2

Moreover, its streaming rivals are continuing to push heavily on their own big-budgeted TV projects it doesn’t want to be overshadowed by. The first season of Prime Video’s “Lord of the Rings” series that’s dropping in September 2022 cost $465 million to produce, for example.  

Marvel TV series like “WandaVision” and “Loki” are steadily hitting Disney+ and sport budgets that are comparable to Marvel films (around $100 million-$150 million), Variety reported in 2019. “Hawkeye” will premiere as the next MCU show on Disney+ on Nov. 24.  

Meanwhile, Netflix is dropping S2 of “The Witcher,” which Variety Insight pins as a $10 million-$15 million-per-episode series, on Dec. 17.  The streaming service also recently picked up an additional season of sci-fi “Manifest,” which became a hit after cancellation at NBC, which is trying for another sci-fi epic to kick off the fall season with “La Brea.” 

Additionally, HBO Max has a wealth of IP it can turn into big-budgeted TV. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” prequel “The House of the Dragon” will drop in 2022, for example.  

The list goes on. That's why content budgets of major tech and media companies aren’t expected to shrink any time soon.  

Because Apple is facing so much competition with marquee projects, it may only become more aggressive in trying to acquire another studio like A24 or Legendary for reinventable IP, rather than focus more on lower-budgeted fare if “Foundation” and “Invasion” don’t generate buzz.