Time will tell whether Apple’s new streaming video service, Apple TV Plus, is any good. But despite what you’ve heard, it certainly isn’t cheap.
Yes, Apple TV Plus launches Friday at $5 a month, making it the least costly streaming option on the market. But in exchange, subscribers will get access to just nine TV shows — eight series and a documentary. I haven’t seen them; perhaps they’re all masterpieces. Still, nine?
In two weeks, the Walt Disney Co. launches its streaming service, Disney Plus. It will offer the complete roster of Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, and Disney films as well as a steady flow of original series, including an hourlong drama series set in the Star Wars universe. More than 7,500 TV episodes and 500 movies . . . at $7 a month.
Now that’s cheap.
For that matter, the granddaddy of streaming, Netflix, charges up to $16 a month, but releases dozens of original series and movies every year, while streaming thousands of hours of TV reruns and old movies. Other streamers — Hulu and CBS All Access — also charge relatively little for access to huge video libraries. Compared to any of these companies, Apple is charging a fortune.
To be sure, one group of Apple TV Plus viewers are guaranteed to get their money’s worth. The service will be free for one year to anybody who buys a new Apple product, like an iPhone, iPad, or Mac computer. It’s a smart way to goose hardware sales at a time of soggy demand. On Wednesday, the company reported solid fourth-quarter revenues and earnings, but a 9 percent drop in iPhone sales and a 5 percent slump for the Mac.
Still, Apple has bolstered its earnings by selling more services, such as iCloud data storage and streaming music subscriptions. It’s a smart play; when buyers aren’t flocking to your newest products, coax some extra cash out of your base of satisfied customers.
But TV is different. It was easy for Apple to license a big library of tunes, but in TV and movies, practically everything worth watching is already spoken for by companies that are making their own streaming plans.
Just look at AT&T, which owns HBO and Warner Bros. Its newly announced HBO Max service will carry all HBO cable programs, Warner-produced TV shows and movies, and content from CNN and Cartoon Network. When it launches next May, HBO Max will cost $15 a month, roughly what you’d pay for HBO alone on premium cable.
And next April, cable company Comcast launches Peacock. Yes, Comcast owns NBC and movie studio Universal, so you know what you’ll find here. The price hasn’t been announced yet, but will probably be in line with similar offerings.
Throw in Hulu and CBS All Access, and you get the idea. Almost all worthwhile TV and movie content is either being streamed already, or soon will be. So Apple’s only way in is to create its own stable of shows.
But even then, it may not be enough. Never mind those excellent Netflix productions such as “The Crown.” Its two most-watched shows are a couple of long-canceled sitcoms — “Friends” and “The Office.” Yes, Netflix is losing the rights to both over the next couple of years, but it’s still got a vast library and a pipeline full of new product. What’s Apple got?
Only one of its shows seems tempting: “For All Mankind,” an alternate-history saga in which the Russians beat us to the moon, and the United States responds with Churchillian doggedness and some really big rockets.
Now that’s my idea of must-see TV.
Other Apple TV Plus offerings leave me lukewarm, at best. I may check out “The Morning Show,” a saga of sexual harassment and ruthless ambition in a television newsroom. But is there really a market for “See,” a “Game of Thrones” knockoff in which all the characters are blind? Or a black comedy about the young Emily Dickinson?
So unless Apple can make licensing deals for additional content, a good-sized library of good shows are years and billions of dollars away.
Could Apple TV Plus end up a humiliating failure? It’s not inconceivable. Just this week, Sony announced the shutdown of its PlayStation Vue streaming service, which delivered traditional cable TV shows. Sony management blamed the rising cost of licensing cable TV shows, and said it made more sense to spend the money on its highly successful PlayStation video game ecosystem.
Apple might also cry uncle in a few years, but I doubt it. It’s estimated the company has spent $6 billion so far on the streaming service. But with over $205 billion in the bank, Apple can certainly afford it. And if it helps sell a few million more laptops, tablets, and smartphones, Apple TV Plus might prove to be a bargain after all — at least for Apple.
But not so much for the rest of us. Apple usually makes excellent products at nosebleed prices. This time, we only get one out of two.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.