Apple’s TV Content Push: Who Will Get a Piece of That $1 Billion?

Company could be one buzzy drama series away from securing its footing in the saturated content market

Last Updated: August 22, 2017 @ 1:09 PM

Apple signaled this week that it is serious about competing in the original-programming space, devoting a cool $1 billion in a concerted push into new TV shows. But questions remain regarding exactly which kinds of shows will fill out its roster.

The Cupertino-based company initially plans to develop up to 10 series as it joins the crowded content fray that already includes digital platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. This summer saw Apple launch its first two original shows, “Planet of the Apps” and a spinoff of James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke.”

Neil Landau, author of “TV Outside the Box” and head of the Writing for Television program at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, told TheWrap that he sees two distinct paths for the company to follow.

One would involve a “big swing,” akin to Netflix’s decision to pump $200 million into two full seasons of its first original series, “House of Cards,” featuring a big-name cast and pre-established intellectual property. A second option could involve developing smaller, niche shows and shorter-form serialized projects.

“I’d wager a combination of both strategies,” Landau said. “They need their flag planted in the scripted space with a signature series. One ‘Stranger Things’ or ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ can be a game-changer. Viewers, especially younger ones, tend to be brand-agnostic. They just watch what they choose when they want to, on demand.”

That said, Landau doubts that one or two quick success stories alone will be enough to carry Apple to the top of the heap in the peak TV era.

“Netflix still has the cachet — the cool factor,” the former “Melrose Place” writer said. “Hard to beat them. But content is king. Hits and misses occur. I call it Digital Darwinism — look at [the renewed success of] NBC.”

Brian White, senior equity research analyst at Drexel Hamilton with an emphasis on Apple, points to edgy, challenging shows featuring antiheroes — like “House of Cards,” AMC’s “Breaking Bad” or USA’s “Mr. Robot” — as good models for Apple to follow.

“They need something like that, that’s so unique and different and, in a way, almost a little shocking,” White said. “You need to have some real great dramas, something with well-known actors and actresses. Those kind of shows that are so unique it can really grab the attention of a mass audience, not just someone interested in music or apps.”

A conversation-starting drama would certainly be well in the wheelhouse of Apple co-heads of video programming Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, who stepped down as Sony TV co-presidents in June.

Their Sony tenure included such heralded shows as Netflix’s “Bloodline,” AMC’s “Preacher,” Starz’s “Outlander” and Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” along with “Better Call Saul.” Additionally, Apple announced the addition this week of former WGN America president Matt Cherniss, who oversaw that channel’s praised historical dramas “Underground” and “Manhattan.”

Even as Apple’s headfirst dive into original content has excited creators, who now have another deep-pocketed buyer to pitch to — and likely spooked some competitors — its actual investment is quite modest.

The $1 billion Apple plans to commit to original shows over the next year is about half of what HBO spends, and one-sixth of Netflix’s outlay. It’s also a tiny gamble for Apple, which had $77 billion in cash and short-term investments on its balance sheet as of July 1.

Given Apple’s prodigious resources, some have questioned why the company wouldn’t just buy an existing prestige content creator and enter the business that way. Ross Gerber, the president and CEO of Gerber Kawasaki Wealth and Investment Management, suggested that Apple acquire or do a joint venture with a company like Lionsgate rather than try to build its own content ecosystem from scratch.

But earlier this year, Apple’s content chief hinted at his plans to think different. At the Code Media conference in Dana Point, California, in February, Eddy Cue shot down a questioner asking why Apple wouldn’t just break out its checkbook and acquire a content producer. He said Steve Jobs’ company wanted to carve out its own path and leverage its ecosystem in a distinct, if yet undefined, way.

“If we wanted to do what everybody else is doing, then you’re right, we might be better off buying somebody,” he said. “But that’s not what we’re trying to do. We are trying to do something that’s unique, takes advantage of our platforms and that really brings culture to it.”

“For us, we’re trying to do things that are unique and cultural,” he added. “We think we have a real opportunity in the TV space to do that with Apple Music and shows. The things we’re trying to do aren’t done by anybody else.”

Cue also foreshadowed Apple’s conservative investment, saying he didn’t plan to do the type of volume shopping that companies like Netflix and Amazon have.

“We’re not out to buy a bunch of shows,” Cue said. “We’re out to be creative, move culture and do something Apple is adding value to.”

Even if there is a limit to Apple’s willingness to spend, showrunners and producers may nonetheless be inclined to move over from broadcast and cable channels, following Shonda Rhimes’ lead of leaving longtime home ABC this week for an overall deal with Netflix.

“The new platforms don’t necessarily have to offer a great deal more money to attract top producers, and in fact, many of their series have budgets that are less than primetime broadcast TV,” Mark Litwak, attorney and author of “Dealmaking in the Film & Television Industry,” told TheWrap. “Digital platforms offer more creative freedom to creators and will often make a commitment up front for an entire season without a pilot, and are not as concerned with ratings.”

The competitors are certainly keeping an eye on Apple’s moves, and perhaps not above taking a few potshots at the tech giant. FX president John Landgraf told reporters at a Television Critics Association presentation earlier this month that his network has a different mindset for content creation since it lacks Apple’s deep pockets and ability to take a see-what-sticks approach to programming.

“I respect Apple as a company … [but] we can’t do what they do,” Landgraf said. “I’m not interested in making the world’s largest all-you-can-eat buffet with something for everyone.”

Sean Burch contributed to this report.