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Opinion: Apple set for war with Netflix

  • Apple reportedly spent $2 billion on their upcoming shows
  • Apart from Jennifer Aniston and Steven Spielberg, they will be partnering with Oprah Winfrey

Steven Spielberg basked in the applause at Apple’s Steve Jobs Theater in California, the meticulous master of the blockbuster presumably feeling at home in that manicured cathedral of design. The legendary director was the first storyteller highlighted at Apple’s 25 March event, the much-ballyhooed launch of their foray into entertainment creation. Sure, they also announced an all-you-can-eat magazine buffet for Apple News subscribers, and a titanium credit card that would make Patrick Bateman from American Psycho bite his fist, but the headline has to be that Apple will now make shows and movies.

Spielberg kicking things off is no coincidence, given the director’s voluble campaigning against Netflix films being nominated for the Oscars: He believes projects viewed primarily on television should be eligible for TV awards and not movie awards. I disagree with this exclusionary view, but that isn’t the point. Spielberg loves television, his Amblin TV has done great work in the past, and him making shows for Apple doesn’t contradict his discouragement towards Netflix’s Roma at the Oscars. The prod, though, is unmistakable, as Apple tells the streaming giant that the gloves are off.

The Apple TV+ package is still unclear. Apple paraded many an A-list celebrity and creator, on stage or via video, to announce their service but the meatiest details are yet to come: We don’t know what it will cost, when it will be out, how big their library will be at launch, and how quickly it can scale up. Apple reportedly spent $2 billion (around 13,800 crore) on the forthcoming shows, which include Spielberg’s revamp of his own Amazing Stories; Morning Show, a drama starring Reese Witherspoon and a couple of legends in the world of television reruns, Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell; See, a period epic featuring Aquaman star Jason Momoa; and Helpsters, a Sesame Street spin-off intended to teach youngsters how to code.

It’s an impressive slate by any standard, but a few dozen shows won’t allow Apple to close the gap with Amazon or Netflix. It’s all very well for the curators of coolth to say their productions will be the best, but Apple design guru Jony Ive can’t shave corners and round off bezels for screenplays the way he can do for iPhones. They could become just another network, trying to make prestige TV shows while not featuring syndicated content, which is a massive downer. More than half the shows we watch on Netflix and Amazon Prime come from other international networks and from the past. Apple might have Aniston’s return to TV, but Netflix has Friends.

Having said that, the lack of endless content may be intentional. Apple has always created a walled garden, its stringently moderated App Store enforcing a user experience the way Apple likes it. On streaming services, where we spend hours indecisively scrolling past thumbnails wondering what to watch, an editorially curated selection—an Apple show a day, if you will—may be what the doctor ordered.

A network that empowers storytellers is great, and some headliners Apple has roped in do indeed deserve ludicrous budgets to take creative swings—Damien Chazelle, Sofia Coppola, M. Night Shyamalan and Taika Waititi, for example—but they aren’t likely to become exclusive to Apple. Waititi, who directed Thor: Ragnarok for Apple competitor Disney, surely isn’t done with them. Unless, that is, we eventually head into a revival of Hollywood’s studio system, where actors and directors are signed up on exclusive terms, creating content for only one platform. It sounds a tad far-fetched, but consider how Netflix signed up TV sensation Ryan Murphy to make shows only for them.

Apple will have to price itself competitively. This shouldn’t be a problem given the global affordability of Apple Music plans, and Apple’s constant encouragement of Family Plans, widening their ecosystem. What would set rivals quaking—both streaming services and electronics makers—would be if Apple TV+ was free for existing iOS users, sparking a revolution at launch. It would be like the time we woke up to find that U2 album already on our iPhones, except this time we would have something worth watching.

No massive, immediately must-see show was announced, though. Something Game Of Thrones-y would have been ideal, but CEO Tim Cook used a bigger name as his “one more thing" announcement at the end of the show. Oprah Winfrey will be part of the Apple family, producing documentaries and running a potentially gigantic version of her Book Club across Apple devices. “They’re in a billion pockets, y’all. A billion pockets," she laughed, explaining her desire to board the Apple bus.

Winfrey, who famously used to lavish gifts on her studio audience—“You get a car! You get a car!"—now addresses an audience which has bought its own vehicles. There is little glory in a billion pockets if only a percentage of paying customers watch the service. Apple hasn’t yet disrupted entertainment as we know it, but it may be smart to play their cards close to their chest. After this high-profile step, they can’t afford to fail. Apple is landing on a cluttered moon, but it’s used to being the first man.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

He tweets at @rajasen

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