Last spring, Apple officially took the wraps off the service we all knew was coming: Apple TV+. The premium streaming service clearly had designs on competing with Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, and the rest of an increasingly crowded market. The first handful of shows were available on November 1, 2019, and a new show or movie has been released every few weeks since then.
So how is Apple doing? Half a year in, is Apple TV+ a must-have streaming service, or can you ignore it without missing much? So far, Apple has landed somewhere in-between. If we were giving Apple a letter grade, it would get a “C” with a special teacher’s note: “shows potential.” Apple is doing as well with overall content quality as any of its competitors, has expanded the TV app to more devices, and is priced competitively at $4.99 a month. But content volume is severely lacking, and the service hasn’t found it’s break-out hit yet.
The best shows arrived early
The milquetoast early marketing for Apple TV+ shows had us worried. They looked slick, but tame. It appeared as though Apple would spend a ton of money to make shows that slavishly avoided sex, violence, and profanity to the point where they had no edge at all.
Fortunately, the opening salvo of shows proved us wrong. While Apple TV+ shows seem to go out of their way to avoid nudity, there’s no lack of foul language, violence, sexual situations, or adult themes in the shows where such things are warranted.
The shows that premiered on November 1 are some of the service’s best: For All Mankind, The Morning Show, See, and Dickinson are all worth your time. They’re creative and engaging and not at all safe and boring. The kids’ shows have been a little more lackluster, but I admit I’m not the target audience.
We had hoped Apple would keep the quality up, but the releases since November have been hit-or-miss. The Little America anthology and Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet are more enjoyable than we would have expected, and The Banker is a snappy, well-paced film with good performances all around.
But just as many big shows have fallen flat. Servant, Truth Be Told, and Home Before Dark landed with a thud. Even Amazing Stories, a tentpole Spielberg production, feels decades behind our expectations for prestige TV today. The recent limited series Defending Jacob is well-made, but overstays its welcome and its positive buzz has worn off quickly.
Perhaps our favorite aspect of Apple TV+ shows is the way they are usually released. The Netflix “whole season at once” approach is great for binging, but gives you little to look forward to and takes a show out of the limelight too fast. The Hulu and Disney+ “one show a week” makes you wait too long, but keeps people talking—one season of The Mandalorian dominates Twitter for a couple months.
Apple’s approach is a smart hybrid of the two where the first three episodes are released on the first day with the rest coming weekly. It lets you binge just enough to get invested, but still keeps you coming back and talking about it for weeks.
Breakout hits take time
Netflix may have struck gold with its first original series House of Cards, but it spent years as a first-mover streaming other content to build up to that point. Hulu took a lot of shots at original series before The Handmaid’s Tale took off. Amazon’s didn’t exactly launch Prime Video with The Man in the High Castle, Transparent, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel out of the gate. Disney+ launched hot with The Mandalorian (a.k.a. The Baby Yoda Show), but we’re talking about one of the world’s biggest media empires with dozens of deep franchises. And Disney didn’t exactly follow that up with a similar watercooler show.
The Apple brand carries sky-high expectations, deservedly so. Yet it’s probably unreasonable to think this company would enter the premium streaming market and immediately deliver a slate of hits that sets the internet on fire, month after month, overtaking incumbents with years of content behind them.
Apple’s biggest challenge is that it needs big hits in the way other streaming services don’t. Apple TV+ is comprised solely of original shows and movies. There’s no licensed content at all.
Netflix, Hulu, Peacock, Disney+, CBS All Access...the streaming market is increasingly crowded, and every one of Apple’s competitors has many thousands of hours of non-original programming to fall back on. Decades of proven hit TV and film content gives subscribers plenty to watch while they wait for the next big exclusive original. Apple TV+ has exactly none of that.
Look ahead to year two
A high-level look at the overall quality of Apple TV+ is positive. Certainly its mix of great, middling, and poor original content is no worse than rivals like Netflix or Disney+. Apple even has a couple shows that could break out into the broader internet zeitgeist if the service grows just a little more popular.
But there’s just not enough there, yet. With only original shows to lean on, Apple needs to kick out a new series or season every week to land enough “must-watch” hits to keep subscribers coming back. Apple has a lot of irons in the fire, but the release schedule is just too slow when there’s no licensed content to fall back on.
Fortunately, Apple seems to recognize that this first year is all about priming the pump. The company made a bold move in offering any customer who buys an iPhone, iPad, Mac, or Apple TV box a free year of Apple TV+. Family sharing included! That offer still stands, in fact.
This holiday season, Apple TV+ will enter its second year. Its opening lineup will return for a second season, bolstered by more than a dozen other series and movies Apple has released during its first year. Just as the first of the free subscription years wears off, Apple TV+ should hit its stride.
Apple’s $4.99 per month price is aggressive, but it’s currently a tough sell when Disney+ is only a couple bucks more and has a massive wealth of content, and competitors like Hulu or Peacock have similarly-priced plans.
The current slate of Apple TV+ originals alone are not enough to justify a subscription, even at just $4.99. The competition is too fierce and subscription fatigue is setting in. But Apple doesn’t need you to pay for Apple TV+ just yet. It just has to build up steam for a bigger second year, just when all those free subscriptions start to expire.