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Apple TV Plus joins Disney+ in the streaming wars with mediocre shows and lots to prove

New streaming services such as Apple TV Plus, Disney+ and HBO Max must convince consumers their brands are worth the headache. So far, it's not going great.
Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell in "The Morning Show," premiering Nov. 1 on Apple TV+.
Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell in "The Morning Show," premiering Nov. 1 on Apple TV+.Apple TV+

A new movement toward vertical integration is shaking the foundations of the entertainment industry. Having seen the wild success of Netflix’s original content, some of the world’s biggest companies are launching their own subscription video on demand (SVODs), clawing back the right to distribute the work created by their own studios. It’s a potentially lucrative effort to rebrand and capitalize on proprietary content without the cable and satellite middlemen. But to get consumers to sign up, these streamers have to start clearly defining why they should exist, or viewers are going start asking why they can’t just subscribe to a single service and get everything like they used to. And the first one out of the gate, Apple TV+, has no real answer.

To get consumers to sign up, these streamers have to start clearly defining why they should exist.

Apple’s new service launches Friday with four series, which is three more than Netflix had when it began airing original content in 2013. (Although to be fair, Netflix had a giant library from other studios, and Apple TV+ is literally just four shows, produced by a company that has zero experience creating content.)

Apple has long used content to sell hardware; iTunes existed to service the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, not because Apple cared about music. This shows in the initial offerings. Even though the synopsis of all four shows sound like they would be out-of-the-box hits, these series are middling at best.

The best of the lot, “Dickinson,” is at least adorable at times, a playful take on the life of the poet Emily Dickinson. It reimagines her as a proto-feminist teenager in the mid-1880s, a hybrid of PBS and the CW. In its best moments, the show is laugh-out-loud daft. “For All Mankind” has a great idea and an impressive pedigree. Like HBO’s newest hit, “Watchmen,” it depicts an alternate universe where one event changed history — in this case, America lost the space race. Created by Ronald D. Moore of “Battlestar Galactica” and “Outlander” fame, this has all the right ingredients for a hit. But it seems more interested in attacking our current political situation than actually expanding on its creative premise.

Unfortunately, the service’s two biggest offerings are hilariously awful. “See” reimagines humanity as having lost its sight and regressing into hunter-gatherer tribes. It worked hard to get the blind aspect of the plot right, spending lots of money on consultants and hiring blind and low-vision cast and crew. But as science fiction, it is the most expensively campy show I have ever seen.

At least “See” has its moments; “The Morning Show” does not. Based on Brian Stelter’s “Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV,” it features a charming A-list cast (Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carrell) who never stop talking long enough to realize the plot is borderline anti-MeToo. The best thing that can be said about this is the frenetic energy and dialogue is covering an awful lot of dreck.

Apple’s advantage lies not in storytelling, but in its global popularity. With two billion devices (give or take) in pockets around the world, only 10 percent of those users would have to sign up at launch for it to have 200 million subscribers worldwide. (For scale, Netflix currently has in the neighborhood of 139 million subscribers.) With the company giving away Apple TV+ free for a year to anyone who buys a device or trades up for a new model, 10 percent seems pretty doable.

But competition is heating up, which Disney+ launching in less than two weeks on Nov. 12. Meanwhile, coming up behind both of them are NBC’s Peacock, slated for spring, and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max which rounds out the field when it arrives in May of 2020.

Together with Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, this will give audiences seven major streaming services to pick from. But unless these brands start defining themselves instead of trying to be a Netflix-like clearing house of stuff, consumers will wonder why they should sign up at all. There’s currently nothing to differentiate Apple TV+. In fact, Apple’s offerings are striking not because they are bad, but because there’s nothing cohesive about them, other than the lack of a breakout hit.

This may change as time goes on. When someone says “Disney,” for example, people have a good idea what that is. WarnerMedia naming its product after HBO gives consumers a direction, and NBC’s broadcast channel has been a household staple for generations.

Apple’s offerings are striking not because they are bad, but because there’s nothing cohesive about them, other than the lack of a breakout hit.

Meanwhile, other more niche streaming services have been proliferating left and right, from Acorn TV, which has exclusive rights to British and Australian cult TV hits like “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” to YouTube Premium, which offers ad-free access to its ecosystem of homegrown stars. At last count, there were on the order of 35 standalone streaming channels, which, when adding in these new services, cost close to $300 a month collectively — or about what Verizon charges for a cable/internet/phone bundle with all the premium channels included.

Obviously, the price isn’t the only problem here; subscribing to 30-plus streaming services is simply untenable. And the complicated distribution deals mean it’s going to be increasingly difficult to know what shows live where. For instance, “Friends” ran on NBC, but was made by Warner Television Group, so it will be on HBO Max, not Peacock. Meanwhile, the airing rights to “Harry Potter,” which has a WB logo in front of every film, was signed away to NBC Universal.

With so many options, eventually, there will be a Great Rebundling if companies cannot get consumers to see the value in such a system. So far, Amazon has been hedging hard on this coming reorganization; users can now purchase nearly all of the streaming services – including HBO Now – as an “add on” to Prime. (One assumes Apple TV+ and Disney+ will not be allowing Amazon to sell them as add-ons, but you never know.)

But that’s still an unwieldly way of going about rebundling what was once already bundled. What viewers really want is to easily find and watch their favorite programs. Unless these streaming services can convince consumers their brands are worth the headache, the company that will profit the most off this massive reorganization will be the one that puts all the channels back together.