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Apple TV Plus isn’t catching on — Here’s how Apple can change that

My inbox is no longer bursting with entreaties from Apple. The TV app on my iPhone is no longer festooned with a red notification dot. Even my Apple TV now lets me stream things in peace.

(Image credit: Apple)

Since Apple TV Plus launched in November, Apple's been making a full-court press via all the Cupertino-built devices I own to let me know that, as someone who recently purchased Apple hardware, I was entitled to a year's subscription to the new streaming video service free of charge. I had until the end of January to pull the trigger, or else I'd wind up paying $4.95 a month for Apple TV Plus, just like any other ordinary schmoe.

Well, January's come and gone. And I never took advantage of Apple's free offer, nor do I have any intention of joining the ranks of Apple TV Plus subscribers anytime soon.

I have my reasons for spurning 12 free months of TV featuring the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Jason Momoa, Oprah Winfrey and other impressive Hollywood heavy-hitters. The initial slate of programming didn't particularly pique my interest, and what little time I have to watch television these days, I prefer to spend with sports and old movies. Apple TV Plus offers me neither. And as I sometimes forget about appointments I've made for next week, I imagine the chances of me remembering to cancel my free Apple TV subscription in January 2021 to be remote at best.

But while my reasons for not taking advantage of Apple's generous offer may be particular to my life and interests, it sounds as if I'm not the only person who didn't mash the Subscribe button for a free year of Apple TV Plus. Analyst Toni Sacconaghi of Bernstein Research estimates that fewer than 10% of the people who could take advantage of the free offer actually did.

(Image credit: Future)

Sacconaghi gives several different reasons why this might be the case, one of which has to do with accounting and the other being Apple dividing its promotional efforts among several different subscription services. But the one that struck me was a third reason Sacconaghi floated for Apple being unable to give away free video streaming — Apple TV Plus just hasn't resonated with would-be customers.

It's that last possibility that sounds like the most likely explanation to me, and not just because it reflects my Apple TV Plus ambivalence. I think Apple's effort to launch a streaming video service has suffered from a few missteps that the company would be wise to correct — not just to convince people like me that we're missing out on Apple TV Plus but to work toward its state goal of squeezing more revenue out of its services business.

Apple needs to offer something other than originals

Apple TV Plus debuted with nothing but original programming like The Morning Show, See, Dickinson and For All Mankind. That's an admirable statement of intent on how serious Apple is about creating its own slate of shows. But it also meant a very limited library of programming when the service came online, and I think it also doesn't line up with how people discover new shows on streaming media.

(Image credit: Future)

I've taken a shine to Glow, Netflix's original program about a women's wrestling promotion in the 1980s. But I didn't subscribe to Netflix just because I heard about Glow and wanted to give it a look-see. Rather, I was already paying for a Netflix subscription, couldn't find anything else to watch one evening and decided to take a flyer on a couple of episodes to see if I liked it. And honestly, if Netflix took a position along the lines of "Watch our original programs or nothing at all," I likely never would have tried out Glow in the first place.

I think it's the same situation with The Mandalorian on Disney Plus. No doubt there are plenty of Star Wars diehards who plunked down their $6.99 a month just to watch this original series. But I'd be willing to bet that a majority percentage of The Mandalorian's viewers subscribed to Disney Plus for access to Disney's vault of movies, cartoons and TV shows — finding an engaging original series was just a bonus. (Though at least one exception exists within our ranks here at Tom's Guide.)

Having a library of things people recognize and enjoy helps get them in the door, while original shows can be what keeps them there. It sounds like Apple realizes that, if reports of the company trying to snap up MGM's film library are accurate.

There's a sameness to Apple TV shows

This may sound like a strange complaint when your lineup of shows includes a stylized retelling of a 19th century poetess's adolescence, an anthology series about immigrants and a post-apocalyptic fantasy show where no one can see but have still crafted weapons and clothes. But all the shows on Apple TV feel like their cut from the same cloth.

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This is not unintentional. Apple promised as much in the launch announcement for Apple TV Plus, saying that it would deliver "inspiring and authentic stories with emotional depth and compelling characters from all walks of life." And the desire to create prestige TV should be celebrated, especially in a medium dominated by bachelors and real housewives and other flotsam and jetsam from reality TV.

But variety is also the spice of life, and I don't need appointment TV every time I sit down on the couch. Sometimes, I just want a half hour of noise and pictures to take my mind off the world, And while Apple TV Plus seems to promise a lot of aspirational programming, it seems to be shy on the escapism that all of us need some of the time.

Put another way, for all the award-courting movies and TV shows that Netflix has assembled, the program I'm enjoying the most right now is called Medical Police, a sendup of all those iterations of CSI that clog the airwaves. It is neither aspiring nor authentic, but for the half an hour that it's on, I get to laugh my fool head off. And then when I'm ready for something a bit more high-minded, I can watch something instead. At this stage in its existence, Apple TV Plus just doesn't have that breadth of programming, from highbrow to low.

Not all of Apple's subscription services have hit the mark

Apple TV Plus wasn't the first subscription service that Apple rolled out in 2019. Seven months earlier, the company debuted Apple News Plus, a $9.99 service that promised access to 300-plus magazines along with news coverage from the likes of the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal.

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There's a lot to appreciate about Apple News Plus, especially when publishers take advantage of the News app to optimize their articles and graphics, and it's hard to beat the volume of content. (In fact, Apple lining up so many publishers makes you wonder why it didn't do the same thing with Apple TV Plus to offer a deeper bench of shows.) But there's also a lot of problems that persist nearly a year after the service's launch — some publications merely slap up PDFs of articles, and I find it hard sometimes to track down what I'm looking for. The service is also less impressive on a smaller-screen iPhones than it is on devices with larger displays. As the months have gone on, I find myself using Apple News Plus less and less, to where I'm wondering if it's worth that $9.99 hit on my credit card each month.

Apparently, other people are having the same doubts. Just this week, Liz Schimel, who headed up the Apple News Business, left the company, reportedly because the service has had a hard time attracting paying customers.

So how is this Apple TV Plus' problem? Well, if you've given Apple's other subscription services a try and had an underwhelming experience, you'd be less inclined to take a chance that Apple was going to get streaming video right. I can't speak for Apple Music and Apple Arcade — two other subscription services the company officers — since I haven't tried them. But a less-than-stellar experience with Apple News Plus has made me think twice about sending additional subscription fees in Apple's direction.

Apple's not offering a bundle

I might be tempted to change that "No More Subscriptions for You" stance if Apple were willing to make it worth my while by bundling services together. Instead, if I want Apple to provide me with music, games, news and videos, I'm shelling out a total of $30 a month, once you add up the different fees for Apple Music, Apple Arcade, Apple News Plus and Apple TV Plus. Surely, there must be a way for Apple to combine all those services at some sort of discount.

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After all, Apple's rivals seem to have figured out the joys of bundling. The reason I can watch Hulu in my house is that my wife subscribes to Spotify and that music service started including Hulu for free last March. Even if we didn't get Spotify, we could still add Hulu along with ESPN Plus and Disney Plus as part of a $12.99 monthly package.

Apple may be getting wise to the error of its ways. Back in November, a Bloomberg report suggested that a bundle featuring Apple's music, news and TV services would debut sometime in 2020. It feels as if there's no time like the present for that to happen, especially if Apple is serious about persuading people to give its new streaming service a try.

Outlook

It's possible — even probable — that Apple TV Plus is going to catch on. Signing Richard Plepler, formerly of HBO during its glory years of original programming, to create shows for you is certainly a step toward livening up your programming options. It could well be that Apple is working on so many shows, that one of them will eventually provide a compelling enough reason to sign up for this service.

But there's plenty Apple can do right now to grow its subscriber base, which the company has said is the way it will ultimately measure the success of Apple TV Plus. And who knows — offering a compelling bundle and a bigger library with a wider variety of shows and movies might just convince people to stick with Apple TV Plus in a world full of streaming-video options.