Apple needs a television advocate

Music is in Apple's DNA, but what about TV?

We’ve barely delved into Apple’s latest grand experiment with online media, but I’m already looking forward to the next one. I’ve spoken of my hopes for Apple’s rumored television service in the past, but after a few days with Apple Music, I’ve been even more curious about how the company plans to tackle the TV industry.

I appreciate the audacity and ambition of what Apple’s trying to do with music. I’m second to none in my admiration that the company rolled out a massive streaming service and worldwide radio station to 100 countries with relatively few hiccups. That’s a testament to its clout and its ability to change the world—when it cares enough.

Apple seems to succeed best when its business interests intersect with its passion. But though the company’s repeatedly banged the drum, as it were, about how music is part of its DNA, the same claims have never really extended to television and movies.

Over the years, Apple has touted each new music milestone from the iTunes Store, but updates on the company’s movie and TV business have been few and far between. From a purely nuts and bolts perspective, I suspect that’s because iTunes’s video business has never had the meteoric success that music has. The most current number I could find was slipped into a press release in June 2013, when HBO Go and WatchESPN were added to the Apple TV:

iTunes® users have downloaded more than 1 billion TV episodes and 380 million movies from iTunes to date, and they are purchasing over 800,000 TV episodes and over 350,000 movies per day.

At that point, TV episodes had been available on the store for around eight years (since 2005), which means the company was averaging around 125 million episodes a year. That sounds like a pretty good number until you realize that earlier in 2013, the iTunes Store also recorded 25 billion songs sold, or around 2.5 billion songs a year since its launch in 2003.

new apple tv icons sep2014

Granted, we’re talking two different mediums with wildly different price points and consumption habits. But that’s part of what worries me: TV can’t be treated like music. And while Apple is second to none in lauding the role of music, television has long seemed to be a second-class citizen in Cupertino. The late Steve Jobs famously said—in an interview with my fellow columnist Jason Snell, no less—that “We think basically you watch television to turn your brain off…” ; in this year’s Becoming Steve Jobs, one anecdote had him declaring “I just don’t like television. Apple will never make a TV again.” Jobs was, of course, famous for saying something contentious only to turn around and contradict himself when it was convenient, but in this I think we’re seeing a glimpse of Jobs’s own beliefs.

That said, Steve Jobs isn’t around anymore—this is Tim Cook’s Apple. Then again, I’m not convinced that Tim Cook himself is much of a TV watcher personally—sporting matches excluded. Fitness and health is his bailiwick, and he does a great job conveying his own passion and enthusiasm for those aspects of Apple’s business.

But what Apple needs is someone to make the case for television. To talk about why it’s great and why Apple thinks its service, whatever it is, is the greatest thing since the invention of the remote control. It needs a television advocate. Admittedly, television is hard to demo on stage—while you can have U2 come out and play a few songs, you can’t really have the audience watch a whole episode of Mad Men or Game of Thrones. But I’d like to see someone who can make me believe that Apple cares about television being great as much as it cares about music being great.

Maybe that’s wishful thinking. I mean, Apple went out and spent $3.2 billion on a music company; it hasn’t done anything of that magnitude on the TV side. Still, among the ranks of vice presidents and product managers working on a project as large as a new TV service there surely must be someone who can be passionate and eloquent about why television is important.

I’ve been waiting for a solid Apple subscription TV service for as long as I’ve been writing about the company. This is an area that, as cringeworthy as the phrase might be, is ripe for disruption. Apple could be the one to do it, but it also needs to be able to convince the viewing audience that the time is right to change the channel.

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