When Apple TV + was launched in late 2019, I found the whole idea of it deeply annoying.
A big technology company that came into the streaming game, simply because it could, throw around money to attract talent with big names, but without making shows that were so good? The service’s great flag drama, The morning show, boasted Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell and so many other household names, but even at its best it was just solid, a disappointment for a series with so much known talent.
And even worse than the other big tech-owned streaming service ̵
Imagine my horrible surprise when Apple TV + became one of the streaming services I turned to most in the whole pandemic, as I found more and more good shows to watch.
Ted Lasso became the service’s first real success, first taking TV Twitter by storm and then curling out through the larger realm of people who like TV comedies. And both the Emily Dickinson drama Dickinson and the alternative story drama For all mankind is among the best shows being made right now. Meanwhile, the service’s catalog of quality TV is growing to lean back on its heels and zone out to get bigger for the day. (My favorite program of this type: “child detective” noir Home before dark, which has absolutely no clear audience, but which is strangely convincing.)
I do not know I would call Apple TV + essential quite yet, but if you are willing to spend $ 4.99 to check it out in a month, it’s a decent bet. And hey, if you have an Apple TV receiver box, it’s probably the best streaming device on the market, and channels all the shows you like to a room that makes it easy to figure out what subscriptions you need to be able to watch them.
The simplest explanation for why Apple TV + broadcasts so many solid shows right now is that they make a deliberately limited number of them, mimicking the model of a network like HBO or FX and focusing on quality instead of quantity – as opposed to a service like Netflix, which is trying to flood the zone with more and more thing. Sure, not everyone in Apple’s original series will be a roaring success, and some will still be terrible. But this kind of curated approach leads to more consistently fun shows.
But there’s another explanation for why Apple TV + works so well for me right now: It does not have any clear intellectual property to me.
Apple does not own any major movie or TV franchises, so it has to go elsewhere for the ideas
Intellectual property (IP) is a fancy way of saying “stories a company owns the rights to.” Disney’s intellectual property rights include, for example, all the animated princess movies and Mickey Mouse, but also the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars.
The wave of streaming services launched in 2019 and 2020 is defined by mining on intangible property. Disney + has shows based on Star Wars and Marvel superheroes, as well as, as, a Mighty Ducks series. Paramount + has so many Star Trek series, and HBO Max launched with new Looney Toons shorts and added new ones Adventure Time stories shortly afterwards. Even Peacock has offered sequels to Saved by Bell and Punky Brewster.
I do not want to run down on any of these shows. Some of them are pretty good! But it’s less of a mountain to climb to get the audience interested in yet another tale of their favorite superheroes, starship captains, animated friends or lucky orphans from the 80s. You know these names, the theory says. You can feel the strong features of nostalgia after the original stories that centered around them. And thus, you can be more easily persuaded to invest in new stories built around these names.
I do not know that this approach has been particularly successful across the board you look at Punky Brewster on peacock? – but it has been the dominant strategy for new streaming services. It’s only getting worse from here. Every service I have already mentioned is an overload on spinoffs, sequels and remakes of titles and characters you have already heard of, even if you do not have a fixed memory of e.g. Chip & Dale: Rescue Rangers (a show that will receive an updated version of Disney +). More established services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu are less dependent on intellectual property, to some extent, but they even devour existing works to adapt.
To be clear, Apple TV + is very much in the IP business as well. Ted Lasso is technically an adaptation of a series of commercials about a chuckling American starting to coach a football team, while Home before dark is loosely based on the true story of a girl who became a reporter who tells about what happened in her neighborhood. (I’m not sure we can call real people “intellectual property”, but let me tell you that stories based on real people are adaptations of a kind.)
Apple also adapts books and remakes old TV series, and they have made shows with Snoopy and the many other characters from the cartoon Peanuts. Eventually it will land a big hit show, a Stranger Things or a Bridgerton, a Handmaid’s Tale or a Boys, and it will go all-in on that success. (It is also worth noting that the company makes and buys films, and is a distributor of the very good documentary Boys State and the huge animated film Wolfwalkers.)
But there is a crucial difference between what Apple’s IP strategy is and what, for example, Disney + (which was also launched in late 2019) does. Apple TV + mostly adapts books, and mostly selects titles that have not been adapted to the screen before. But Disney + is not particularly interested in buying up book rights when the Disney vault is there, full of IP that it can think of for streaming time. That is not to say that Disney + never adapts features that were not already movies or TV series (its 2020 movie The one and only Ivan is based on a book that had not been adapted before, for example), but it points out how projects that build on already successful Disney properties have a leg up.
Apple TV + has no choice but to look elsewhere for the ideas. When you combine that challenge with a focus on creating fewer, more consistently successful shows, it seems more likely that it will light up exciting and original projects that do not look like other things on TV. Say what you will about M. Night Shyamalan’s schlocky, goth-y horror drama Servant, but it’s hard to compare it to anything else in the air right now.
Will it translate to viewers thinking of Apple TV + as a home for quality shows? It already works around the edges. Ted Lasso is a bonafide hit, and Dickinson, For All Mankind, and Little America (an anthology drama about immigrant stories produced by Epic, a subsidiary of Vox Media) has a significant cult audience. Put enough good shows like this together, and Apple TV + can go from a curiosity to a must for many TV fans.
The Apple TV + approach will not always result in good TV – its Jason Momoa vehicle See is funny bad – and it will not always result in memorable TV. Although the overall quality is ticking upwards, Apple TV + makes a few too many memorable shows, like the musical drama Little Voice, which contained new songs from Sara Bareilles, and which I could not tell you anything about beyond what I know I watched at one point.
But creating a smaller number of shows, based on fresher ideas, is a smart way to build a streaming service with an eye toward standing out in the long run, especially if they show hail from creative voices that can bring new perspectives to the air. (Dickinson creator Alena Smith, as an example, had mostly been a staff writer at Showtime The affair before launching her clever blend of romantic longing, true history and over-the-top drama.) Time will tell if this approach proves to be more successful than just emptying a streaming service with famous titles and characters, but as a fan of fresh and original television, I have a root for it to work.