It's been about a year since Apple TV Plus debuted to… not much fanfare, to be honest. Outside of Apple's own events — the company rolled out its red carpets all around NYC and LA for private screenings of its new shows — it felt like Apple for once was living in someone else's shadow.
Even though Disney Plus debuted only a week later, Apple TV Plus started out behind the hype machine for the house of mouse's newest platform (which couldn't have come at a better time, given the pandemic that would shut down its amusement parks months later). At $4.99 per month, Apple TV Plus is one of the cheapest paid streaming services, but what has it done to convince people to spend the equivalent of a Starbucks order?
Stuck in the Mouse's shadow
Well, it didn't have to do that for many of its subscribers. Apple gave away 1-year subscriptions with the purchase of any Apple device that you can watch the service on (including iPhones, iPads, Apple TVs and Macs).
This probably contributed substantially to the 40 million subscribers that Statista estimates Apple TV Plus has collected. We don't know how much Apple TV Plus contributed to the $14.55 billion USD that Apple reported in its Q4 2020 earnings call, but that's a record amount, up 16.3% from last year. Also, one wonders how much of a return (if any) Apple's gotten on its investments. In August 2019, it was reported that Apple had already spent $6 billion on its TV service, before it even launched.
Disney Plus also benefited from a 1-free year deal that came in a partnership with Verizon, but it's already crossed the 60.5 million subscriber count, on the backs of big wins such as The Mandalorian, Hamilton and other programming that took over the conversation in a way that few TV shows and characters ever do.
Apple TV Plus was waiting for a win, and got one
Apple's pack of launch day shows — Dickinson, For All Mankind, The Morning Show and See — all failed to create any similar buzz. I started all of them, and only finished The Morning Show because I needed something to watch while dealing with epic jet lag.
And since Apple TV Plus (like most streaming services) fails to give serious metrics about its viewerships, it's hard to tell if any of those shows were a true "hit." The lack of a hit, in fact, was my biggest issue with the service. The original launch list was slim, and that didn't help either. Disney Plus launched with a short list of originals as well, but at least it had the back catalogue of the Disney Vault and most of the Marvel movies.
That issue changed slowly at first — small wins like Mythic Quest and Beastie Boys Story popped up — but Ted Lasso apparently became the success story Apple needs. Even though only one Ted Lasso season has aired, both its second and third have been ordered.
This kind of demand for more TV content from Apple has only been seen once so far, with launch title Dickinson. Ted Lasso appears to have a slow, but steady, growth in audience — though that's purely based on anecdotal evidence on my part (since Apple doesn't turn over big details). I keep learning about new fans of the show, and that gives the show a "word of mouth winner" kind of vibe.
Contrastingly, Apple TV Plus scored what looked like a win with the Sophia Coppolla-directed "On The Rocks," starring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones, but that film didn't exactly start much of a conversation. It is Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with a score of 86%, though.
Web browser streaming got better
In my original Apple TV Plus review, I commented on how the service's web browser mode wasn't exactly error-free. As the year followed, though, I noticed how little this really mattered, as I never actually used the browser to stream the service (this is more because I'm a Mac user, though, and not a PC owner).
But when I checked back in this week, and rewatched a Ted Lasso episode in the browser, I found that streaming was smooth and crisp without error.
What Apple TV Plus year 2 looks like
So, a soft year one, with some promising leads for a second year doesn't sound like the best future, right? Well, Apple TV Plus' upcoming slate of programming will probably give more than a few people some reasons to tune in.
First off, Apple is bringing Jon Stewart back to TV. His to-be-named show will consist of hour-long deep dives on a single topic, exploring issues "that are currently part of the national conversation and his advocacy work," according to Apple.
Apple has also pulled in a new comedy series starring Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen, titled "Platonic." Rogen most recently won kudos for the HBO Max exclusive An American Pickle, and he's also played a big role in The Boys as an executive producer. This feels like it could be the big hit Apple needs.
And following its success with Beastie Boys Story, Apple signed the rights to director Todd Haynes' upcoming documentary about The Velvet Underground. If the platform continues to be a home to interesting documentaries about music, it can continue to build its voice. But considering they're also targeting new shows with top names, it's clear Apple knows that a diverse roster is the key to growing its audience.
Apple's decision to extend free year-long subscriptions, however, shows it might not have a ton of faith that people would resubscribe. While I want to give the service credit for the excellence I've watched so far, I think you could probably binge-watch its best shows and films in a month's time.
Back when Apple TV Plus was launching, I managed to talk my way into the premiere of The Morning Show at The Metropolitan Opera, where Tim Cook and Eddy Cue got their applause alongside Jennifer Aniston. It all felt very glamorous, and then the show took a bit too long to actually connect with me. That, in a microcosm, has been the Apple TV Plus story thus far.
I don't know how much the world needed another streaming service, but it looks like Apple's committed to seeing its plans for original programming out for more than just its second year. We'll follow along, and I'll stay tuned through the Apple One bundle, to see if Apple can get more success stories under its belt.