As the former editor of TV By the Numbers, Alex Welch knows a little something about TV viewing habits. In his latest column for Primetimer, he takes stock of Apple TV+ on the launch day of what looks to be the service's most promising project yet.
With millions stuck at home this past month, broadcast TV networks and streaming services have seen widespread viewership spikes. This week alone, Netflix reported gaining 15.8 million new subscribers in the first quarter of the year — more than double the 7.2 million they were expecting — bringing the streamer’s worldwide subscriber count to a staggering 182 million. Meanwhile, Disney+ hit a milestone of its own earlier this month when it crossed 50 million subscribers.
The one big-name streaming service that hasn't reported huge growth from a nation sheltering in place? That would be Apple TV+.
It's important to note that Apple has released little real information about its streaming service’s performance since its November launch, making any definitive statements about its performance impossible. The company has yet to confirm the service’s total number of subscribers, with several outside estimates reporting a count somewhere between 30 and 40 million. While those numbers are respectable enough on the surface, consider this: at least 100 million people qualify for a free one-year subscription to Apple TV+ (a benefit given to anyone who's purchased an Apple device over the last 16 months), meaning that even at the attractive price of $0, the company is having difficulty attracting subscribers.
As for its performance over the last month, Forbes reported that Apple TV+ saw a 10% increase in subscriptions over the weekend of March 14th (when many states in the U.S. were beginning to adopt stay-at-home policies). The same report states that Disney+ more than tripled its new subscriptions from the week before, while HBO NOW, Showtime, and Netflix all experienced markedly higher gains during the same weekend. Likewise, a quick look at Google Trends shows Apple TV+ has consistently generated less search engine interest than Disney+, Netflix, and Hulu.
Apple TV+’s lackluster performance is less surprising when you look at its offerings. To date, the service has released only 20 original shows and four original films, which isn’t much compared to its competitors. To make matters worse, the service’s pickings haven’t just been slim, most of its titles have been met with lukewarm reviews, and even high profile titles like the Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon-led The Morning Show and the Haillie Steinfeld-starring Dickinson have failed to generate much buzz. This, in a streaming marketplace where each of its major competitors can boast critically-acclaimed prestige programming -- including Disney+, which launched the same month as Apple TV+ with The Mandalorian, a critical success and a pop culture phenomenon. Meanwhile, Apple's first original film The Banker, starring Avengers stars Anthony Mackie and Samuel L Jackson, had been slated for an awards season theatrical release in December, to be followed shortly after by its Apple TV+ debut. Those plans were scuttled after allegations of sexual abuse were leveled against one of the film's producers. (The once-promising film was quietly released on the service in March.)
This all might not be so bad if Apple TV+ had a wide-ranging catalogue of legacy titles to fall back on. But not only does Apple TV+ not have a back catalogue, it has no plans to build one. Apple CEO Tim Cook stated earlier this year that the streaming service will only offer original content, and will not be looking to license any popular titles from other producers. That plan contrasts with the strategy adopted by all of its competitors, including HBO Max and Peacock, which will both launch with large catalogues of legacy content in addition to their own original, platform-exclusive titles. So, where the other major services all have large safety nets should their original titles flop, Apple TV+ is left to live and die on the quality of its own offerings
On that front, there is some hope on the horizon. Its latest original series, Defending Jacob (which premiered on the platform today), not only boasts considerable star power, with Captain America himself Chris Evans in the lead role, but critics are lavishing it with praise. With an intriguing murder mystery at its heart, the series has the potential to be the streamer’s first real scripted winner. Another bright spot for the company has been its unscripted projects. Its documentary Visible: Out on Television got stellar reviews, and the streamer is debuting Beastie Boys Story today, a new documentary on the legendary group directed by Spike Jonze. As unscripted content goes, it's hard to imagine a subject and a director with greater appeal for the monied Gen Xers who have long been a driver of sales and buzz for Apple.
If it can continue to maintain a critical pedigree with projects that hit the right demographic, Apple TV+ could potentially stake out a spot in the streaming marketplace that mirrors the company's standing in the larger tech-world as a producer of high-end, quality consumables. With little in the can, and film and television production at a virtual standstill until further notice, it's hard to envision this happening in any significant way in the near future, but a trillion-dollar market cap gives Apple the breathing room few others can afford.
Alex Welch has written about television and film for TV by the Numbers, IGN, The Berrics, Paste Magazine, Screen Rant and GeekNation. Follow him on Twitter @alexrwelch.
TOPICS: Apple TV+, Disney+, Hulu, Netflix, Defending Jacob, Dickinson, For All Mankind, The Morning Show, Visible: Out on Television, Hailee Steinfeld, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, Tim Cook, Apple