THE BIG APPLE

After the glitzy launch of Silicon Valley’s newest TV streaming service, we can’t help but wonder: is there room in an increasingly crowded marketplace? And where does it leave us, the audience?

Any product launch featuring star names such as Stephen Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Aniston has evidently got a big budget and bigger ambitions. Both are true of Apple TV+, a new TV streaming service from the creator of the Mac, iPhone and iPad. Apple CEO Tim Cook describes the service as “the destination for the highest quality originals”, and this year he’s spending a rumored $2 billion on a diverse range of shows, from drama to comedy and beyond. But success in the world of TV and film is rarely guaranteed, and Apple is now wading into a marketplace that’s becoming very crowded, very quickly.

We don’t watch television like we used to. Cable and satellite almost seem passé in comparison to subscription video on demand (SVOD), where we pay a few dollars a month to have shows delivered via the internet to any number of devices. This move away from the traditional living room set-up is known as “cord cutting”, and it’s a phrase that communicates a sense of freedom: watch what you want, when you want to. But that freedom is coming at an ever-increasing cost, according to David Sidebottom, lead analyst at market research firm Futuresource. “You’ve probably done the same as my family,” he says, “where you’re looking for something to watch and have to search through multiple services. That fragmentation is coming to a head. We call it the battle for the living room.”

Apple’s arrival in the SVOD arena has been a stealthy one. It launched a mini set-top box, Apple TV, in 2007, and has sold third-party video content through its iTunes software for more than a decade. Then there’s its TV app, launched in 2016, which brings various subscription services to your phone, tablet or Apple TV. But Apple TV+ is neither hardware nor software; it will compete directly with Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Facebook Watch, Disney+, YouTube Premium and many others.

The resulting battle for our attention is becoming not only confusing and difficult to navigate—it’s expensive, too. Apple hasn’t yet decided the monthly cost of Apple TV+, but there are signs that we’re already experiencing subscription fatigue. “We asked consumers how many subscriptions that they’re willing to take,” says Sidebottom, “and the average in the USA was just over three. In Europe, it was just over two.”

Might Apple TV+ be one of the two or three we can afford? Apple may yet entice us with a low monthly price, but at the moment it’s banking hard on big names. Although it’s also worth noting that its spend on shows is tiny compared to Netflix’s, which is rumored to be splurging as much as $15 billion in 2019. And yet, even if you create a do-not-miss show, people may resent subscribing if that’s the only show on said platform they’re interested in. The whole business is sufficiently risky for companies to engage in strategic skullduggery; Amazon and Google have long refused to allow their respective devices and services to work with each other, while Apple has given no hints as yet that Apple TV+ will be available for Google’s Android operating system, or even for viewing in a web browser. As these technological games play out, it’s the consumer that suffers.

Apple’s pockets are deep, and its reputation is huge. But money isn’t everything, and audiences can be fickle. In a world that’s currently drowning in video content, it’s by no means certain that even the biggest Silicon Valley firm can persuade us to watch a television show, no matter how much we cherish the phones and tablets they make.

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