Streaming was supposed to be the solution to expensive cable packages. Now, it seems like the myriad of subscription options will shift money from the pockets of cable companies into the pockets of Big Tech. Netflix made its name as the de facto streaming king, and HBO grew into a titanic force on the back of “Game of Thrones” in the last decade — along with the rollout of its own cable-independent streaming service.
Amazon turned its Prime subscriptions from a two-day delivery benefit into a platform for its own original TV shows and movies, as well as a place to manage and buy all your other subscriptions as well, referred to as “channels.” Disney — which effectively owns 40 percent of the entertainment industry — is throwing its weight around with a streaming service “Disney Plus” that will debut shortly. This is the tech era of cable, so while on-demand streaming has brought a new level of convenience, it seems like wallets will not make it out unscathed.
Enter Apple TV Plus — which launched Nov. 1 — the tech company’s deep-pocketed bet on its own television streaming service, spearheaded by some high budget, HBO-style shows at launch. The streaming service debuted Friday with the topical and much-hyped “The Morning Show,” an eerily meta #MeToo drama starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell.
Also new and exclusive to TV Plus is “For All Mankind,” an alternative history sci-fi take from “Battlestar Galactica” producer Ron Moore that imagines a never-ending space race. Rounding out the prestige launch lineup is the post-apocalyptic “See,” which stars “Aquaman” and “Game of Thrones” hunk Jason Momoa, as well as the period piece “Dickinson,” which depicts the eponymous poet — played by Hailee Steinfeld — as a closeted lesbian leading a rebellious inner life.
Also debuting on the streaming service is some family-friendly content like “Snoopy in Space” and films like “The Elephant Queen.” It is hard to gauge who exactly Apple is competing with, launching with such a broad range of content that ranges from the HBO-style adult and gritty to Disney-level kid-friendly. Further complicating matters is the “Channels” feature of Apple’s TV service, which lets users add on channels like HBO and Showtime a la Amazon Prime’s own channel system.
Despite Apple’s notorious connotations with luxury and high prices, it seems the tech company is giving out one-year free trials to the service like candy — particularly to students already subscribed to Apple Music. The move resembles a drug-dealer “first hit’s free” mentality, only this drug dealer is the world’s most cash-rich company showing it can afford to wait and muscle its way into competing with Netflix.
So how successful has Apple been? “The Morning Show” is a competent drama that flexes its production value and A-list cast, showcasing strong work from Steve Carell in particular as a disgraced Matt Lauer-like news anchor facing consequences over a career plagued by sexual harassment. Witherspoon and Aniston shine as competing show-biz personalities fighting to be on top of the world in a cut-throat environment. Fans of HBO’s “The Newsroom” will find it adequate at the very least as a TV show about TV.
Critics are sour on the overproduced and vapid-seeming “See.” Space-race fantasy “For All Mankind” has piqued the attention of space nerds with great attention to detail and execution on its high-concept premise. “Dickinson” has raised eyebrows for its teen-comedy style adoption of the famous poet’s life, but overall reception is mixed.
Middling as the consensus seems, Apple has certainly done better than its previous half-baked efforts at television with Apple Music-branded reality content “Carpool Karaoke” and “Planet of the Apps.” If YouTube Premium’s outright failure at making actual prestige content is any indication, Apple has at the very least done better than Google at turning its tech cash into compelling entertainment. Being included on every iPhone and bundled at every opportunity , TV Plus looks to have a solid chance of success by sheer market force.
But still, it has a ways to go if it ever hopes to have a reputation and identity on the level of HBO or even Netflix, which has defined itself for giving creators freedom to create wildly original content like “Russian Doll” and “American Vandal.” TV Plus might not be trying to have personality. Perhaps it really wants to be the one-size-fits-all service — a Netflix that plays its cards slightly safer while being attached to one of the world’s most premium and valued brands. For now, when it comes to overall content identity, TV Plus is about as bland and amorphous as its name suggests.
As it stands, TV Plus is a promising but unexceptional entry into the streaming wars. Bundled with Apple Music, it will make sense for many iPhone-owning, AirPods-toting students with some hours to burn on television. It is not as innovative or exciting as the tech giant’s “Apple Arcade” gaming subscription — which bundles independent and creative games free of microtransactions in a family-friendly package — but it is a far better execution than Apple’s high-priced, absolutely mediocre News Plus service.
One hopes Apple will take a page from “Apple Arcade” and eventually open its pockets to more offbeat creators and talent once the pressure to flex A-listers like Aniston and Carell tapers off. Until then, consider it an average bundle of Netflix-like shows, just with more iPhones and Macs conspicuously present on characters’ desks.