Would you sign up for a screening streaming service that only had a dozen movies? A handful of series, and no classics? You might pause and ask if it’s worth it, compared to the range of options on other streaming providers. But if you’re like many of us, you might decide to pony up — after all, it’s only $5.
Of course, I’m describing Apple TV+. It’s cheaper than Netflix or Hulu. But what you get, at least for now, is pretty limited. That’s not to say what they have isn’t good: they’ve pumped in a massive budget to lure creators like Oprah and Werner Herzog to this enterprise. Their movies have major stars. There just aren’t many of them.
But they could have gone the other way. Just bought up some studio’s back catalog to have something to offer when they launched. Put up a few old sitcoms and action movies for customers to flick through, to give at least the illusion of choice. Or pick up a couple of canceled network series, and bring their next season to Apple, get those audience members along. Those are the tactics other streaming services have used. It was a bold decision for Apple not to. What you get on Apple TV+ is their own programming. The only preexisting media they seem to have bought are the Peanuts movies (so Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin is included in your monthly sub, if that’s your brand of nostalgia).
So far, the limited slate of dramas and comedies shows a programming taste that’s eclectic, or perhaps scatter gun. Among the offerings, The Morning Show, starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell was as serious and involving as any of the best from Amazon or Netflix (and offered the most nuanced discussion of the #MeToo phenomenon I’ve seen on screen). Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, a workplace comedy set in a video game production company, is funny and anarchic (and produced by the same team who make It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). There is also Dickinson, a series on the Belle of Amherst, via Dawson’s Creek; a horror series from M. Night Shyamalan (remember him?); a relaunch of the mid-80s anthology series Amazing Stories (like The Twilight Zone but higher budget); and Central Park, an animated musical series, which I will say is truly charming.
There probably is something here for everyone. But maybe only one thing. I held off from subscribing for a while after it launched, waiting to see what they would add. But then the pandemic hit and being essentially welded to my sofa it seemed a reasonable time to dive in. I watched their Mariah Carey Christmas special, which was like every Christmas special you’ve ever seen. (Some awkward acknowledgment of the pandemic at the start, but easily edited out for re-runs in future years.) I blitzed through Ted Lasso, a rather sweet fish-out-of-water comedy about an American coach hired by an English Premier League soccer team. I watched Tom Hanks (yes) being serious in Greyhound, an old-school war movie. Where Apple has swerved away from other providers is by going into more documentaries. Series on animals, houses around the world, Ewan McGregor on a motorcycle: all here. Several of the feature-length movies are also docs, including Spike Jonze’s Beastie Boys Story.
So who are they pitching to? People who’ve already seen Mrs Maisel and Stranger Things and can’t stand stand-up specials? The trick here is that Apple is setting itself up as a middleman to other subscription services. You can get Sundance, Starz, Hallmark, Acorn, and many others through Apple, and for some they sweeten the deal. You want Paramount+? You’ll get it cheaper if you’re already an Apple+ subscriber. If you used to buy and rent movies from Apple, you’ll notice they spent a couple of years nudging us away from buying individual TV episodes, to pitching us subscription deals on those particular channels. They were gearing up for this.
And Apple has to an extent a captive market. Everyone who owns an Apple device can access it, and they’ve started giving a free Apple TV+ subscription to people who buy a new phone or iPad. What I’m sure they weren’t expecting was the pandemic to send everyone to their living rooms — with plenty of time to consider the different streaming options. Consider this one: you actually get a lot for five bucks.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s April 2021 US edition.