Starf*ckers, a Love Story: On Apple TV+'s Celeb-Fawning Programming Strategy

Apple has spent a lot of money to be most A-List-friendly streamer in town, but to what end?
  • A cavalcade of stars: Hero worship seems to be at the heart of Apple TV+'s programming strategy.
    A cavalcade of stars: Hero worship seems to be at the heart of Apple TV+'s programming strategy.

    Debuting this Friday on Apple TV+ is the sports documentary series Greatness Code. The new series, which spotlights elite-level athletes, including LeBron James, Tom Brady, Shaun White, Usain Bolt, and Katie Ledecky is neither likely to make a dent in the vast tapestry of present-day television, nor does it seem positioned to become a much-needed hit for Apple TV+. Greatness Code does, however, serve as the latest reminder of the fledgling streamer's only consistent programming strategy: to feature elite-level celebrities often and in the most friendly, laudatory light possible.

    This isn't meant to cast insidious aspersions upon Greatness Code. Television has made a lasting tradition out of producing sports documentary programming as thinly-veiled hagiography. One need look no further than this summer's Netflix/ESPN co-production The Last Dance, which examined the legacy of Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls championship teams, all under the approving eye of Michael Jordan himself. But it does cast a light on something that's been accumulating since even before Apple TV+ launched in November of 2019, a programming strategy that has thus far held the platform back from achieving any breakthrough successes.

    Apple TV+ didn't debut in a vacuum. The wave of streaming platforms either launching or preparing to launch around the end of 2019 included Disney+, HBO Max, and NBC's Peacock, all of which are looking to do battle with Netflix for streaming supremacy (or at least a seat at the table). Every platform has its own particular strategies. Disney+ launched flexing its massive advantage in intellectual property, programming series from the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as Star Wars spinoffs, not to mention their library of Disney and Pixar films. HBO Max also came armed with a huge library of Warner Brothers titles, Turner Classic Movies, and of course HBO's back catalogue. Apple TV+ didn't have the luxury of an in-house library of titles stretching back decades; they were trying to launch themselves as content creators. So their strategy was to ink deals with as much Hollywood talent as they possibly could, locking them down for commitments to produce one or multiple films or TV series. Headlines were made as Apple signed deals with the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuaron, Sofia Coppola, and Damien Chazelle.

    It's not a bad strategy. You can't build success without talent, and if Apple was going to build its brand on talent, they were certainly off to a great start. While it's still too early to evaluate whether that strategy has panned out — especially since many of these projects have yet to come to fruition — in the meantime that commitment to A-List talent has manifested itself as a rather obsequious series of programming decisions. In just the last few months, in addition to the aforementioned Greatness Code, we've seen the Apple TV+ original Dads, a documentary from Bryce Dallas Howard that examines fatherhood from the perspectives of A-List Hollywood talent, including her own father Ron Howard, plus Will Smith, Neil Patrick Harris, and Judd Apatow; and Dear…, a celebrity-biography docuseries told from the perspective of letter-writing fans to the subject.

    A show like Dear… is particularly vexing because at times it's pretty great. The Spike Lee episode delves (albeit briefly) into the lives of some of the people his films have influenced, and considering it's Spike Lee, the director of films like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, you can imagine the impact is profound. The same could be said for episodes on Oprah, Gloria Steinem, Misty Copeland, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and on and on. But the format in which these biographies are presented is so fawning that it detracts from the artistic or barrier-breaking impact these figures represent, instead reading like what they are: gushing fan letters to elite celebrities. Dads is more of a garden-variety piece of Hollywood fluff, with Bryce Dallas Howard as the ultimate child of privilege paying tribute to her dad Ron, among a slew of other famous dads. Again, it's making a documentary about a subject that could have potentially been rich with commentary, and instead delivering a hagiography about how good Bryce Dallas Howard's famous friends are at being dads.

    This would probably feel like a less jarring programming strategy if it were a broadcast TV network doing it. For years now the networks have increasingly branded themselves around their various loci of celebrity power. NBC has harnessed the pied piper tactics of Jimmy Fallon on late night and has brought on Ellen DeGeneres for celeb-friendly get-togethers. CBS has repeatedly broken James Corden out of his late-night perch to host Carpool Karaoke celebrity specials.

    But with Apple TV+ stacked up against the Netflixes and Disney Plusses of the world, with their massive vaults of programming and acclaimed TV series and films, the upstart streamer's strategy of being shamelessly celebrity friendly above all else feels incredibly flimsy. At best it seems like the platform is throwing their big Apple money around in order to help celebrities throw well-funded parties for each other. At least with something like The Morning Show — which is itself massively celeb-studded, featuring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell, among others — Apple's A-List addiction is being put to use for something creative. (The Morning Show is also a chaotic and uneven show, but it is undeniably alive.)

    At some point, the balance of programming at Apple TV+ is going to need to tip more heavily towards talent — A-List or otherwise — making compelling, can't miss TV series if it wants to have a prayer of keeping up with Netflix and Disney. They've already shown it's possible: Defending Jacob was a compelling mystery with Chris Evans at its center, and Central Park is an ambitious animated musical series with real chops. Audiences haven't come over in droves yet, but they're not exactly breaking the door down for Celebrity Father's Day Cards either, so maybe it's time to let the A-Listers pat each other's backs in private for a while.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Apple TV+, Dads, Dear..., Greatness Code, The Morning Show