Apple TV+ seems like a strange thing. There’s little about it that Apple can inherently do better than anyone else paying for shows to be produced. They’ll be good or they won’t whether they’re on TV+ or HBO.
I’ve written about this before over the years, and my feeling more or less hasn’t changed on what I’d like TV to become. I think the current exclusive-based business model is harmful in a way that was made illegal for movie companies 60 years ago.
Start by thinking about how someone in the future—say, an off-duty officer on the Starship Enterprise—might watch TV. Does our young ensign sit down at an LCARS console, choose between Space Netflix, Space Amazon, Space HBO, etc., navigate through some menus, and pick a show or movie? No. She just says, “Computer, play the next episode of Space Friends,” and it plays. Point being, this thing where we have to know what service a show comes from has to go.
Streaming music basically works like this now, and it’s pretty great. For me, the HomePod is more or less exactly what I wanted in a living room stereo. I ask it to play Van Halen and it does. If I want a specific version of an album, I can peck for it in my library, but generally Siri gets it right. Bands make records, their labels make deals with Apple Music, and I pay for it.
Of course we sorta had this with cable. You paid a monthly fee and you got all of the channels. Now it’s all on-demand but you have to pay for each different service and learn how to use each’s app. Yet I also don’t really want to pay for a universal streaming video service where the cost includes a ton of channels I’ll never watch. That’s why I ditched cable in the first place.
Rewinding quite a bit, in the old days of cinema, the movie business was broken into three parts:
- Production. The studios making the movies.
- Distribution. Taking the printed film and renting it to movie theaters.
- Exhibition. The movie theater.
Over time, the big movies companies started to own all three. They’d make a movie, distribute it themselves, and show it only in their own movie theaters. This was eventually ruled to be illegally anticompetitive. Any movie theater company had to be allowed to show any movie regardless of what studio made it.
Turning to streaming services, productIon is the easiest to understand. As I argued above, there’s nothing about production that I think gives Apple an edge. JJ Abrams, Steven Spielberg, and Oprah’s shows will either be good or bad whether their budgets come from Apple or another company.
Exhibition is what I think Apple can be really good at. It makes the devices you watch the shows on. It can ensure its displays are calibrated properly, decide which video and audio formats to support, etc. It’s pretty good at making apps (though the current TV app is only *okay*—it’s better than Hulu’s, at least). Given permission from the shows’ owners, it can create the sort of USS Enterprise interface I’d like, where playing a show is as easy as asking for it or tapping a button without having to worry about the stuff I don’t care about like what network initially aired it. This works passably right now for services that participate in Apple’s TV app.
Distribution is the tricky part, largely because it involves getting all the stakeholders to sign on. And part of this is because of the same sort of vertical integration that the court broke up in the 40s. Netflix pays for Stranger Things, so it gets to distribute it itself, and exhibit it within its app. United States v. Paramount Pictures put a stop to this sort of thing, but that was a different era.
How do I think it should work? Basically more like any other industry. A studio makes a show and then sells it to streaming services for a price. Those services then charge you to subscribe to them. You buy a TV or box or computer to watch it on. They don’t compete based on the number of exclusives they have but rather on price, how well they work, how easy their apps are to use, etc.
There could still be differentiated services, of course, if they can make it on the open market. One service might have a huge offering that gets you every show, ever, like Spotify and Apple Music do for music. Another, though, could be cheaper but only offer a few genres. Think a Criterion Collection-like offering, or American Movie classics. And of course you’d have a sports package. These could all operate alongside services like iTunes that lets you rent movies à la cart. And yeah, this all winds up basically being cable, except instead of having a local monopoly—a choice between Comcast or Comcast—you get to choose which service you subscribe to based on if you like them, not on what shows they offer.