LOS ANGELES — As the streaming wars near a fever pitch and viewers are targeted from every vantage point — Disney Plus has the Marvel and Star Wars brands! HBO Max counters with “Game of Thrones” and DC superheroes! — Apple TV Plus could be cast as the highly pedigreed and improbable underdog.
While the venture counts Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg among its first wave of talent, Apple TV Plus launches Friday with just a handful of original programs. It also lacks a warehouse of old shows and franchise films that can reliably draw nostalgic viewers and produce spinoffs, such as “The Mandalorian” for Disney Plus and HBO Max’s newly announced “Game of Thrones” prequel, “House of the Dragon.”
Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, the former Sony Pictures Television presidents who are heads of worldwide video for Apple, say they are undaunted by the comparisons and optimistic about the streamer’s future.
“We are working with some of the most tremendously talented people we’ve ever met working in entertainment today,” Van Amburg said, and he sees them rising to the challenge of building an enterprise in general and for tech giant Apple in particular. “There’s an expression that we use here across the board at Apple: ‘Come to Apple and do the best work of your life.’ That’s actually what we ask of everyone who comes here.”
There’s both opportunity and anxiety in being part of such a launch, said Kerry Ehrin, showrunner for the Jennifer Aniston-Reese Witherspoon drama “The Morning Show.”
“It’s a huge amount of pressure, but you can’t really live in that space,” Ehrin said. “You drive yourself crazy … because you start creating for, ‘Oh, is this right, or is that gonna work?’ instead of just creating what you find compelling and entertaining.”
Aniston, who’s also a producer for the series, calls it “refreshing and exciting to be a part of something that’s just beginning. … We’re building it all together.”
Besides “The Morning Show,” the service’s starting lineup includes Jason Momoa and Alfre Woodard in the futuristic drama “See,” Hailee Steinfeld in “Dickinson,” a revisionist take on poet Emily Dickinson, and the wildlife documentary “The Elephant Queen.” Upcoming fare includes Spielberg’s revival of “Amazing Stories”; a book-focused series and other projects from Winfrey; the psychological thriller “Servant” from M. Night Shyamalan and “The Banker” drama series starring Anthony Mackie and Joe Morris.
A subscription costs $4.99 a month, with usage allowed for up to six family members. Buyers of new Apple devices such as the iPhone and iPad get the streamer free for a year. Among the competition, Disney Plus (launching Nov. 12) is $6.99 monthly, HBO Max (May 2020) is $14.99 and, among the existing services, it’s as low as $5.99 a month for Hulu and $8.99 each for Netflix and Amazon Prime Video (which is included with a $119 annual Amazon Prime membership).
There are deals to be had. Buyers of new Apple devices get a free year of Apple TV Plus and a seven-day trial is available without charge to all, enticements that mirror those of its competitors. For the new services, free promotions are key to building a subscriber base, while retaining them will be another challenge .
To break out from the pack, streamers are touting their wares with carnival barker-like gusto. In a presentation Tuesday for HBO Max, part of AT&T-owned WarnerMedia, executives emphasized the hits it will draw from the WarnerMedia library, including the full 10-season run of “Friends” (which it’s retrieving from Netflix), and newly purchased series including “South Park.”
Van Amburg and Erlicht , who in their long tenure at Sony were involved with some of the shows their competitors stream, including Netflix’s Emmy-winning “The Crown,” brush away concerns about being library-less. Instead, the executives stress a bonus they’re offering consumers in this dauntingly prolific television age. The Apple TV app, which houses Apple TV Plus and is available on iPhones, iPads and other iOS devices, also functions as a sort of Grand Central Terminal to efficiently access everything streaming, including from competitors (to be paid for accordingly).
“We want to make it easy for the user to find all the things that they watch,” Erlicht said.
Viewers, especially cord-cutters seeking to escape hefty cable and satellite TV bills, likely will be choosy. A new study found that 70% of the 4,816 respondents believe there will be too many streaming services and even more, 80%, worry the streaming habit will become too expensive to maintain, according to the findings from TV Time, a movie and TV tracking platform, and United Talent Agency’s data and analytics group, which joined in the study .
According to the research firm Magid, consumers are willing to subscribe to an average of four streaming services and pay an average of $42 a month for them.
The budget for the streamers themselves? Based on reports, Apple Plus TV is spending $1 billion for its first year of programming, with Disney Plus at slightly under that and HBO Max budgeted for about $2 billion. By comparison, Netflix, with its deep bench of movies and buzzy original series including “Stranger Things,” shelled out a hefty $15 billion this year.
If Apple is serious about the service it will have to open its wallet wider, said analyst Daniel Ives of Wedbush Securities. The lack of a library is another significant drawback, one that could force Apple into the acquisition of a major studio and its creative assets as early as in 2020, said Ives. He offered a bullish prediction for Apple TV Plus of possibly 100 million customers within three to four years, given its loyalists and the 1.4 billion Apple devices worldwide.
Streaming leader Netflix has about 160 million subscribers worldwide.
Apple, however, has long struggled to crack the TV market, said Pivotal Research Group analyst Jeffrey Wlodarczak. While it has plenty of capital to throw at Apple TV Plus and a built-in consumer base, he said, it remains to be seen if its new service ultimately is among the survivors of streaming’s fierce contest. Major companies can’t always break into another sector, he said, citing Google’s attempt to compete against Facebook with Google Plus.
“Just because you have a lot of money doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to be successful,” Wlodarczak said.
Price: $4.99 a month or a free year when you purchase a new iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Mac or Apple TV.
When does it launch?: November 1
What it offers: Apple TV+ may be short on content, but it undercuts many of its streaming competitors in price with its $4.99 monthly fee (and you get a year free if you buy a new Apple product). Apple TV+ will also include content from some heavy-hitters in Hollywood. There’s “The Morning Show,” a series about the news industry starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carrell (CNN’s Brian Stelter is a consultant on the project, for which his book was used as background.) Apple also struck a multiyear deal with Winfrey in June of 2018 to create documentaries and a book club.
Price: $6.99 or $12.99 when bundled with ESPN+ and commercial-supported Hulu
When does it launch?: November 12
What it offers: Disney+ will be the exclusive home for some of the most popular franchises in Hollywood for a low price. While Apple is promoting names like Oprah, Disney+ has brand names like Star Wars and Marvel. There will be multiple series from Marvel, a few original Star Wars series including “The Mandalorian,” Pixar films and shorts, Disney animated classics and documentaries from National Geographic. The service will also be the exclusive home to all 30 seasons of “The Simpsons” — TV’s longest running primetime scripted series. Much of Disney+ will cater to children, but that’s still a lot of content for $6.99, or half of what Netflix charges for its standard plan.
Price: $14.99 a month
When does it launch?: May 2020
What it offers: HBO Max’s best selling point is its variety. The upcoming service from WarnerMedia, which also owns CNN, has content for all ages — Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera, Cartoon Network and “Sesame Street” for the young and HBO series, TNT and TBS for adults. All 23 seasons of “South Park” will also be exclusive to the service. For cinephiles, HBO Max offers Warner Bros.’ deep film library, The Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies. The service will also have television favorites such as “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “The Big Bang Theory.” The iconic “Friends,” which Warner Bros. had licensed to Netflix, is coming home to WarnerMedia and will live exclusively on HBO Max for five years starting in 2020.
HBO Max has also successfully courted J.J. Abrams in a wide-ranging production deal with WarnerMedia, as well as Greg Berlanti and Reese Witherspoon, who will produce original films for the service.
Price: $11.99 without ads, $5.99 with ads
What it offers: Hulu has the Emmy-winning “The Handmaid’s Tale,” current television episodes available on-demand and is now fully controlled by Disney. The service, which has 28 million subscribers, has greenlit a bunch of new series including “The Dropout,” a limited series about rise and fall of Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes that stars Kate McKinnon as Holmes, as well as two new live-action Marvel series, “Ghost Rider” and “Helstrom.” Hulu is a big part of Disney’s streaming strategy along with ESPN+, which the company plans to bundle together.
Price: $8.99 for its basic plan, $12.99 for standard and $15.99 for premium
What it offers: Netflix is still arguably the streaming king thanks to an expanding archive of content and global subscriber base that is 150 million strong. Netflix’s library includes its original series such as “Stranger Things,” “The Crown” and “The Umbrella Academy,” plus original films like “Always Be My Maybe” and the Oscar-winning “Roma.” It also has comedy specials from the likes of Dave Chappelle, upcoming films from Martin Scorsese and Michael Bay and series from Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy — two of television’s most successful producers. Netflix is losing beloved classics like “Friends” and “The Office” to competitors, but it’s now the exclusive global streaming home to “Seinfeld” starting in 2021. So, yes, Netflix may have competition waiting at the gates, but it’s still synonymous with streaming.
When does it launch?: April 2020
What it offers: Do you like to laugh? Well, NBCUniversal has the streaming service for you. Peacock will offer a full lineup of comedy hits including “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” (both of which will be exclusive to the service) “30 Rock,” “Cheers,” “Frasier” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Every season of “SNL” will be available on Peacock and there will be reboots of classic series like “Saved by the Bell” and “Battlestar Galactica.” Peacock will have blockbusters from Universal Pictures such as the “Fast & Furious” series and classics like “Jaws” and “Back to the Future.” Universal, Focus Features and DreamWorks Animation will also create original films for the service, and Alec Baldwin and Demi Moore will star in original series as well.
Amazon Prime Video, CBS All Access and sports streaming
Amazon Prime Video has “Jack Ryan,” a deep content library and the Emmy-winning “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Amazon is also bringing “Lord of the Rings” to the small screen for a reported price tag that could reach $500 million.
CBS All Access is the exclusive home of “Star Trek: Discovery,” a reboot of “The Twilight Zone” hosted by Jordan Peele and an adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Stand.”
And lets not forget about live sports, which is one of the few television events that viewers still tune into in real time. Niche services like B/R Live, ESPN+, WWE Network and DAZN offer livestreams of sports events, but not-so-niche services have also taken an interest. Amazon recently secured rights to the YES Network, the country’s most-watched regional sports network and home to live games and programming featuring New York teams.