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Apple Has Big Plans for TV, and Lots of Celebrities, But Few Details

Apple summoned journalists to Cupertino for a preview of its new streaming service that decidedly lacked the wow factor.

From left, Steve Carell, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston speak at the Steve Jobs Theater during an event to announce Apple new products, in Cupertino, CalifApple Streaming TV, Cupertino, USA - 25 Mar 2019

Tony Avelar/AP/REX/Shutterstock

When Apple revealed the name of its new streaming service, set to serve up a $2 billion lineup of original content, the seats in the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, Calif., shook from the bass. But while the presentation of “Apple TV+” — the new moniker for the collection of premium series that the tech giant will release in Fall 2019 — received much applause from the assembled crowd, it represented built-up anticipation with nowhere to go.

Monday’s Apple event covered multiple launches within the Apple ecosystem, including the subscription news service Apple News+ and new spins on Apple Pay (including a new Apple credit card). The main attraction, however, was Apple’s foray into television, which occupied half of the nearly two-hour presentation. It included a look at upcoming changes to the Apple TV app, followed by a preview of Apple’s new original series in which celebrity creators summed up what their audience already knew.

Apple brought a dozen or so of the brand-name talents involved with its series, including Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, Kumail Nanjiani, and Big Bird, where they gave quick speeches setting up their series in a manner reminiscent of a TV upfronts presentation to advertisers. Beyond that and a brief appearance by Oprah to discuss her upcoming documentaries, however, there was only a brief sizzle reel to prove that actual TV shows have been shot — audiences will have to wait a while longer for more in-depth looks at Witherspoon and Aniston’s “The Morning Show,” the Spielberg-produced “Amazing Stories,” Nanjiani’s “Little America,” and more.

Other shows which have been announced but were not presented Monday include the Octavia Spencer-starring “Are You Sleeping?”, Ronald D. Moore’s “For All Mankind,” post-apocalyptic Jason Momoa-starring “See,” an untitled thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, Hailee Steinfeld’s comedy series about Emily Dickinson,” a comedy from the creators of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” and “Defending Jacob,” a drama series starring Chris Evans. Spencer, Evans, and Moore, among others involved with Apple programming, were in the audience for the event.

Coming into Monday’s event, there was a fair amount known about the shows Apple was making — who was making them, and what they were about — but no understanding about how people might expect to watch them. Would Apple devices be required? What kind of subscription fee would they be asked to pay?

Apple addressed none of those issues, except maybe for the question of where people will watch these shows. As revealed by Apple VP of services Peter Stern, the Apple TV app will be updated in May to integrate existing cable subscriptions (as well as skinny bundle services like Playstation Vue) with pretty much every streaming service to which you might already subscribe. The only major television provider that will exist outside the Apple TV app is Netflix; Prime Video and Hulu are incorporated, as are smaller streaming services, and the app will be able to provide recommendations for viewers based on their past viewing data — yes, much like the currently existing Netflix algorithm. (No word, however, on Disney +, which may be presumably annoyed by Apple’s pre-emptive grab of the mathematic symbol.)

The presentation also championed the idea of ending the “bouncing from app to app” by incorporating all of those apps into the Apple TV app itself. Conceivably, the design-centric Apple may believe those who favor user experience will win the spoils.

It’s cynical to view Apple as simply reinventing that which came before (an impression not aided by an Apple TV interface that seems to bear some resemblance to the current Netflix UI). Clearly, Apple wants to offer a central hub that allows users to watch the shows they want (again, except for Netflix) — also allowing their viewing data to be tracked under one umbrella.

However, throughout the entire presentation, Apple repeatedly emphasized that “Apple doesn’t allow advertisers to track you.” The (presumably) unstated part of that claim is Apple doesn’t let advertisers access your data because Apple wants that data all to itself (though Apple will only track your behavior, it says, if you give it permission). Of course, data also enables Apple to personalize those recommendations, but it also carries inherent value to any company that collects it.

The star power was there, but more information is still needed before Apple can really deliver the wows necessary to shake up the TV industry. Today’s presentation represented a mere tremor.

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