When Apple announced that they would be launching ten original series this year, the biggest question was where? Given their multiple options, what would the distribution platform be?
They could do the obvious and launch them on Apple Music, but unless they’re also looking at a major interface overhaul, a couple of TV series isn’t going to save that struggling site, which lags behind Spotify 47% to 19% with the millennial audience. They could launch it on iTunes, but those one-off transactions don’t give them any recurring revenue. Or they could launch a brand new TV app, but does anyone want yet another subscription app, especially one with only 10 series?
There’s a fourth option though, one we think Apple should seriously consider: launch an app across all their devices and give the shows away for free.
Call it a billion dollar marketing campaign that works across iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Macbook and iMac. One that could conceivably be recouped in a few years via syndication and overseas rights deals.
The original programming would give Apple products a huge feature advantage over their competitors, while restoring both their cool factor and their premium status, renewed justification for the higher prices Apple charges for their products.
Success would rest largely on whether the shows turn out to be buzzworthy, the sorts of series people talk about and go out of their way to let the world know they’re watching. That’s the toughest part of the equation, but Apple’s made a very smart move there, bringing in two top executives, Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, from Sony Pictures television, guys who have overseen hits ranging from Breaking Bad and The Crown to The Goldbergs and Sneaky Pete. (As regular readers know, one of our favorite shibboleths is the foolishness of tech companies in not hiring people with TV experience to oversee their TV or TV-like efforts. So we were very pleased to see that Apple has seen the light.)
Giving their programming away for free makes sense too, because if distributed by traditional means, Apple’s new service is far from a sure thing. While the billion dollars budget Erlicht and Van Amburg have been given is indeed a whole lot of money, Apple’s ante is nothing compared to the $6 billion that Netflix is spending, the $4.5 billion Amazon is spending or even the $2 billion that HBO is putting up to buy up the best of the best from the studios that are actually producing them.
And, as we mentioned earlier, getting people to spend ten dollars a month on Apple Music is bound to be an uphill battle, especially as the OTT market gets more and more crowded and even upscale consumers and TV fanatics are starting to balk.
In addition to the massive amount of free publicity Apple would get from this move (and they would get a truly massive amount), they’ll also get something of even greater value: data.
By distributing the programming to billions of people worldwide (or even just to hundreds of millions in the U.S.A.) Apple gets to track their viewing behavior and use that information to (a) obtain new customers and retain existing ones, (b) drive tune-in, (c) make better viewing recommendations and (d) make better programming decisions.
While Apple has been adamant about safeguarding user privacy, viewing data that lets them know which shows are popular with younger iPad users so as to recommend those shows to them does not seem at odds with Apple’s privacy standards—it’s not as if they’re providing that data to advertisers or anyone outside the Apple ecosystem, which is where the bulk of consumer privacy concerns arise.
Free TV can easily be a long-term play for Apple too, the thing that sets their ecosystem apart from all other ecosystems. That means continuing to spend the big bucks on original series, so that the offering becomes even more impressive.
Apple can also, if so inclined, look at providing some version of the app to non-Apple users for a fee. So that Android users would pay $10 or $15 a month for something Apple users still got for free. If the demand for just one or two of Apple’s series is high enough, it would be easy enough to sell those subscriptions, which would also be a way to cut down on the inevitable piracy.
With $250 billion in cash reserves, Apple can do pretty much anything it wants to in terms of television. After years of sitting on the sidelines, giving away their programming for free would be the sort of bold, in your face move that Apple has been known for.
Think big, Tim.