Another month, another big Apple virtual presentation featuring whiz-bang hardware and cool software, all working together in beautiful walled-garden concert. It was also another chance not taken to talk about Apple TV+, the company’s streaming venture launched with much fanfare 18 months ago.
At this point, it’s seems better to call TV+ a multi-billion-dollar hobby rather than an actual, competitive subscription streaming service. Even as the company emphasizes its original programming, some of which has already picked up notable awards, it’s not doing enough to make Apple TV+ worth anyone’s $5 a month. Meanwhile, competitors are scaling up and getting serious about the future of streaming.
The opening session of the Worldwide Developers Conference, or WWDC, on Monday featured nearly two hours of rapid-fire unveils of operating system improvements, a game-changing embrace of spatial audio and lossless music, and a timely set of improvements to FaceTime’s usefulness for videoconferencing.
The closest TV+ came to a mention was a single background image, among dozens shown on screen, that featured several Apple products and an image from Ted Lasso, easily the most popular and awarded show in TV+’s 18 months of existence. Though Tim Cook, Craig Federighi, et al, didn’t bother mentioning that the Golden Globe and SAG Award winner will return next month with a second season, at least it lassoed a passing nod during the most-watched event of the weeklong WWDC.
The day after the opening session, Apple did release a supercut trailer showing Ted Lasso and a number of other upcoming TV+ shows. Good for them.
The trailer includes brief bits from Foundation, Invasion, The Shrink Next Door, Schmigadoon!, Wolfboy and the Everything Factor, Puppy Place, and Mr. Corman, along with recent $25 million Sundance pickup, CODA. New seasons of series such as The Morning Show, Ted Lasso, Doug Unplugs, See, and Truth Be Told also got brief mentions, as did images from previous features such as Greyhound and Oscar nominee Wolfwalkers.
The key, though, was the trailer’s final kicker: “Only Apple Originals.”
Apple has, apparently, decided to make a feature out of what many might call a bug. Now, that’s what you do as a marketer, and Apple knows quite a bit about marketing.
But as a post this week by the ever-provocative analysts at LightShed Partners suggests, Apple’s strategy flies in the face of a key approach taken by fellow tech giants in the streaming space, and beyond.
“While none of the tech companies will say they want consumers to be ‘addicted,’ the reality is algorithms, game mechanics and push notifications are all specifically designed to capture as much time per day as humanly possible with the goal of getting users to come back every day (if not every minute),” wrote LightShed analysts Rich Greenfield, Brandon Ross and Mark Kelley.
“The tech giants have many different ways of monetizing time spent spanning advertising, subscription, transactions, device sales, etc.,” the post continues. “Regardless of how they monetize, all believe the more time you spend in their world, the more consumer wallet share they will ultimately capture.”
No surprise that the poster child for this approach is Amazon, which just agreed to spend nearly $8.5 billion to buy my old employer, iconic but undersized studio MGM. The deal brings 4,000 features and 17,000 episodes of TV shows, including 18 Oscar Best Picture winners and the James Bond, Rocky and Pink Panther franchises. That’ll certainly attract some view time (once all of MGM’s many, many global licensing deals elapse) for its AVOD service, IMDb TV.
But MGM’s real value, Amazon executives said, will be as a rich vein of intellectual property, to be mined endlessly for new Prime Video programming as remakes, reboots and spinoffs. That will save Amazon executives considerable time and money on bidding wars for projects from other studios and indie creators.
The challenge of driving “addiction” is to make enough compelling content to give viewers a reason to stick around. That means new movies and series, not just relying on a bank of old stuff, which attracts few paying subscribers (AVOD services are a different matter altogether).
Netflix throws dozens of shows a month at viewers, and lets them watch as many episodes as they want in a binge. By contrast, the traditional companies aren’t making many shows, and are still doling them out old school, hoping to get consumers to come back week after week for a single episode of a hot show, in what’s a pale imitation of appointment viewing.
Except, as Netflix Co-CEO Reed Hastings likes to point out, Netflix and other streamers aren’t really competing with each other. They’re competing with all the other ways people like to entertain themselves, addiction style, for hours a day, every day.
That might mean playing Fortnite or Roblox, or watching Twitch or YouTube, or creating TikTok and Instagram content. All those platforms are about getting users to stick around for hours every day, not just getting them to tune in for 45 minutes once a week to watch the latest episode of one prized new show. Forgive me if I and millions of others keep forgetting to do that while we keep spending time in those other, more absorbing pastimes.
“Consolidation alone is not enough, it really comes down to driving addiction vs. profits,” the LightShed post points out. “Margins and profitability need to take a backseat with all focus placed on capturing more of a user’s daily entertainment time spent.”
And it’s not just making lots of new shows that get people to sign up, show up, and keep showing up. It also requires a library of older content that they flip on when they’re just looking for something familiar to pass the time until they find another new show to watch.
“It is abundantly clear that ‘winning’ the war for time and attention requires incredibly deep pockets and long-term thinking,” the LightShed post says.
Yes, AT&T plans to merge WarnerMedia with Discovery to create a media company with more total produced programming than Netflix or Amazon. But we don’t know if what’s now dubbed Warner Bros. Discovery will merge into one streamer, continue with two, or perhaps even have three, if CNN and Jeff Zucker go ahead with reported plans to launch a standalone operation.
(Aside: the new logo, with a tag line from The Maltese Falcon’s misquote of Shakespeare, brought gleeful mockery from one of WarnerMedia’s own, HBO’s John Oliver on the latest episode of Last Week Tonight: “I absolutely loved the new corporate logo you dropped this week. It looks like The Simpsons if the font were not found…Anyway, good luck with the merger, I’m sure everything’s going to go great.”)
More to LightShed’s point, though, is the new company ready to make the new content-spending commitments that will keep fans coming back, particularly given a combined streaming cost of more than $20 a month for HBO Max and Discovery, even as they try to preserve their eroding but still lucrative cable TV presence?
All of which brings us back to Apple and TV+. Its emphasis on originals-only content with high production values and notable stars has a whiff of the strategy that fueled Quibi’s brief time on the planet, and rapid demise. Apple, of course, has far deeper pockets than even Quibi’s massive fund raise, and far broader strategic opportunities, not least with its services bundles that include TV+.
But for all the new shows Apple is making, the lineup by itself is not enough to keep people around. Nor is there any library of familiar older shows for in-between comfort food. There’s a reason why yet again this month I got a message from Apple telling me it had rebated me $4.95 for a TV+ subscription I have yet to pay for, 18 months after launch.
As Jason Sudeikis’ Ted Lasso character says at the end of that Apple trailer, “I think we’ve all had enough of this amuse bouche. Time to move on to the main course.” Indeed.