When Apple TV+ went live four years ago on November 1, 2019, it was a streaming platform with just six titles. The new streamer’s marquee push was the Jennifer Aniston-Reese Witherspoon melodrama The Morning Show, which is currently airing its third season. Also available at launch was the revisionist space race historical drama For All Mankind (Season 4 debuts November 10), the post-apocalyptic series See starring Jason Mamoa, the whimsical period piece Dickinson starring Hailee Steinfeld, and the charming yet self-explanatory Snoopy in Space.
In 2022, Apple TV+ became the first streaming platform to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards with CODA. But when it launched, it didn’t have a single scripted movie on offer. The only film it boasted was the nature documentary The Elephant Queen. And that was it. No library of licensed titles or big special events. Just half a dozen originals.
Since then, Apple TV+ has built a steady but comparatively modest selection of series, films, documentaries, and kids programming that has found acclaim (the drumbeat championing
But without much fanfare, it has also accomplished something that has eluded its streaming competitors — creating a recognizable brand for its titles. Be it through visual markers or a commitment to style and thematic intention, the streamer has built a pedigree of content that’s more unified than anywhere in the streaming landscape.
Think about it: could you identify anything that unifies the onslaught of Netflix series released in a given year? How about Hulu, or god forbid, Peacock? It might seem like Max has some thematic or visual thread that weaves together its tapestry of programming, but what you’re thinking of is the preexisting HBO mystique — something that has been eroded, at least in name, by the merger of Warner Bros. Discovery.
A streamer doesn’t necessarily need a consistent brand to be successful. By design, such services are meant to reach the maximum number of subscribers with a variety of programming that doesn’t stifle potential growth. But when you’re watching something on Apple TV+, you know it. And as the industry faces the descending side of Peak TV’s content boom, that will mean something.
Apple has accomplished this a number of ways, but subtlety hasn’t been one of them. Without the added benefit of library titles to bolster its value, the platform has to show viewers why its programming stands out and one noteworthy example is that nearly all of its original series has a title sequence — an increasingly lost artform, in our humble opinion. Some are more bearable than others. Don’t pretend you’ve never fast-forwarded through the bouncing balls of The Morning Show or felt yourself ascend with the artistry of Pachinko’s title sequence. Even most of its comedies like Ted Lasso and The Afterparty have elaborate titles, something that has certainly fallen out of fashion for half-hour shows in the streaming era. For good or ill, as soon as you cue up an Apple TV+ original, you can expect that to be part of the experience.
With streamers constantly debuting new series that dare audiences to take a gamble on them with a snazzy photo or quippy title, pressing play on an unknown Apple TV+ show will at least come with an almost guaranteed familiarity when the title sequence begins. More so than the “tudum” sound of Netflix or even the click of the Disney+ arch, a visual hallmark baked into the series, no matter the genre, can build trust in the product.
But is it working? When it comes to market share, Apple lags well behind Prime Video and Netflix, though it managed to crack the top 10 late this year. But its programming has shown signs of growing momentum. The third season of The Morning Show has been its buzziest yet, and not just because the show is more ridiculous than ever. Silo and Shrinking were populist hits this year, and Apple is already preparing a pivot to historical drama with Masters of the Air, the long-awaited Band of Brothers follow-up from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.
While Apple isn’t the first streaming service on a viewer’s mind when settling in for a binge watch, it’s steadily putting in the work to rise in the ranks. Those intentionally placed building blocks can already be seen combing through the service, which has noticeably fewer titles compared to the bottomless-by-design scrolling of Netflix or Hulu. Now again, this is largely because Apple doesn’t have the dense library of licensed titles those streamers do. More than a few viewers unknowingly land on Netflix projects while perusing its vast non-original selections. Apple can’t offer that as of now; looking just at originals, it’s only produced 46 scripted adult series and 12 limited series since its launch four years ago. For comparison, Netflix will release at least 30 English-language scripted and limited series in 2023 alone.
Apple has been more conservative with its content output and, in turn, built an ecosystem of series that feel of a piece with one another. Take its dramas, which are rooted thematically in the early series it premiered at launch. Those who watched three seasons of See have likely tested out the ambitious Isaac Asimov adaptation Foundation, which led to curiosity about the claustrophobic survival series Silo. We’d also wager a guess that the same audience is gearing up for the fourth season of For All Mankind.
These titles, among Apple’s biggest swings, are in line with its legacy as the tech company that dominates our lives. They fit the mold of a scientific and cinematic dream of the future, be it technologically advanced or post-apocalyptic. Even those more down-to-earth series — The Morning Show, Severance, Surface — have an almost fantastical sheen to them, intentional or otherwise. The streamer will soon blend the two with Monarch: Legacy of Monsters (premiering November 17), bringing the threat of science fiction (Godzilla and his cohorts) to a recognizably earthbound reality.
For its limited series, Apple has stuck closely to the thriller genre: The Last Thing He Told Me with Jennifer Garner; The Shrink Next Door with Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd; Black Bird with Taron Egerton; The Essex Serpent with Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston; and so forth. They all have a propulsion that’s either stylistic or investigative, which are qualities they share with their ongoing series counterparts on the streamer.
On the comedy side, arguably its most successful arm, Apple TV+ has built from that heart-first groundwork set by Dickinson. It currently has the reigning and two-time Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy winner Ted Lasso, and expanded creator Bill Lawrence’s stake at the streamer with the equally praised Shrinking this year. Apple also dabbles in surrealist and style-driven comedy with series like the musical homage machine Schimgadoon!, the genre-busting The Afterparty, and the small-town-fantasy The Big Door Prize.
This doesn’t mean the streamer hasn’t tested the waters beyond its comfort zone. One of its first post-launch series Truth Be Told, starring Octavia Spencer as a true crime podcaster, tried an anthology structure for its three-season run, bringing in new cases and casts each year. Apple tried the anthological approach again with this year’s episodic, socially conscious Extrapolations. M. Night Shamaylan’s Servant ran for an impressive four seasons, a rare venture into horror for Apple, as was the prestige TV push levied on the limited series WeCrashed with Anne Hathaway and Jared Leto. These were outliers to Apple’s broader formula, but still weren’t drastic enough departures visually or emotionally that they couldn’t lure in viewers if the title popped up as a “Play Next” option.
Plenty of streamers have found their niche and run with it — sometimes into the ground. But Apple TV+ has shown that, in an age of endless options, consistency is an attractive and increasingly novel approach. When turning on your TV today can mean seeing a dozen new options that weren’t there yesterday, blind-faith viewing can only be so satisfying. But there’s something compelling about knowing what you are paying for as we hand more of our money to subscription fees.
And Apple TV+’s customers are paying more than ever before. Just shy of its four-year anniversary, the streamer announced it’s hiking its monthly prices for the second time this year, from $6.99 to $9.99. That’s a pretty penny to pay for a streaming service that doesn’t have library titles to accessorize its originals, no matter how good they are.
Whether people will stick around for that latest hike will be something to unpack on the occasion of its fifth anniversary. For now, maybe the streamer can just debut a new slogan with its new price: "Apple TV+: At Least We Know What We Are."
Hunter Ingram is a TV writer living in North Carolina and watching way too much television. His byline has appeared in Variety, Emmy Magazine, USA Today, and across Gannett's USA Today Network newspapers.
TOPICS: Apple TV+