25 March 2019 | Mark Lawson | The Guardian
“if the shows on Apple’s new TV service turn out to be as smugly evangelistic, self-indulgent and editorially undisciplined as the launch event for the product, streamed from California on Monday, then it will be very bad news for Apple subscribers and very good news for Netflix, the current market leader.
The boring, sprawling 100-minute broadcast ended with Apple CEO Tim Cook tearing up as he delivered a namaste to Oprah Winfrey, the last of a string of A-list contributors, also including Steven Spielberg and Jennifer Aniston, who, live on the stage of the Steve Jobs Theatre in Cupertino, previewed shows they are making for the new Apple TV app.
Apple has often seemed at risk of mutating from technology company to quasi-religious cult, and its full-scale entry to the TV content market went very close to full Media Moonie.
Declaring that “each of us comes to the earth with a great potential”, Winfrey promised that her new shows represent a “mission and vision for the common good”. The series she was creating would “illuminate consciousness and build greater awareness.”
Having rejected suggestions that she should run for US president, Winfrey seems to have decided to challenge Trumpism by becoming global communicator-in-chief from the rectangular screen rather than the Oval Office.
Winfrey, though, was not the only speaker whose advert sounded like a sermon. “Great stories can change the world!,” declared one of a succession of corporate vice presidents invited to the stage in a broadcast that never fully seemed to have decided if it was an internal presentation to staff or an external pitch to potential subscribers. (The latter aspect was weakened by the absence of data about what an Apple TV + subscription will cost, a vital element in the viability of its challenge to Netflix.)
Not since the severe Scottish presbyterian John Reith tried to shape the BBC as a broadcaster that would be a moral force in Britain has a TV provider sounded so like a church. Sky was about increasing choice, Netflix and Amazon dedicated to changing when and for how long viewers could watch shows, but Apple TV + felt openly committed to making the world (and, by frequent implicit suggestion, Trump’s America) a better place.
However, as the programmes Winfrey was touting included an interview series and a book club, forms in which she has a long record on conventional TV, there was a gulf between rhetoric and invention.
Indeed, as Apple has been a titanic innovator in hardware and software, it was disappointing that none of the content announced felt very formally different from what might be found on Netflix. Steve Carell, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston represent an impressive haul of talent, but their vehicle, a satire of TV called The Morning Show, feels in the mould of numerous other network and streamer programming.
It also seemed significant that the Apple event placed the original TV content presentation last, coming almost an hour after a lengthy extolling of a financial app claiming to be “the most significant change in the credit card industry for 50 years”, and also extended sections on an app that will curate the best of international magazines, and a new range of video games.
Equally revealingly, ahead of announcing the starry original shows, the launch lauded the use of the Apple TV app for navigating and curating content from theoretically rival streamers, including Amazon Prime, HBO, Showtime, and, strikingly for UK viewers, BritBox, the planned new BBC/ITV product.
It seems significant that Britain’s two oldest networks, having felt the necessity to cooperate for the first time in order to have any hope of competing with Netflix, have now also joined a broader international alliance with several other streamers. But, as with the launch of BritBox, revealed long before it was ready for market, there was a sense here that Netflix is so large and so far ahead in the market that any new entrant is now just playing desperate, and probably futile, catch-up – even a behemoth such as Apple.
The company created by the late Steve Jobs may dream of changing the world with TV, but may have left it too late to change the TV world.