Just where is Apple putting that $1 billion investment in TV programming?

Apple CEO Tim Cook has been overseeing his company’s flirtation with television and video. Here he’s talking iPhone X on launch day last September.

James Martin/CNET

Apple’s had a spotty track record with TV. Its set-top box, Apple TV, was a “hobby” for years. Steve Jobs said he “finally cracked” how to create a connected iTV set in 2011, but it never materialized following his death that year. The company failed to pin down deals for a virtual cable service.

But Apple’s latest TV plan can’t stay quiet for long. Apple has nabbed big-name deals with Oprah WinfreyReese WitherspoonM. Night Shyamalan and Steven Spielberg, among many others. The company has hired two top television executives to spearhead the effort. And the company has been deploying a $1 billion budget in the last year to recruit projects from those high-profile film and television stars.

The one hitch: It doesn’t have a place for you to watch them yet.

Apple hasn’t discussed its ultimate plan for all this programming aside from vague hints from CEO Tim Cook, stoking theories about what the company has in store. Even news on the expected service is scant. A report in October indicated Apple would make its original content available free to people who own its devices like the iPhone. The company is also expected to unveil its offering early in 2019.

The level of investment and the breadth of content in Apple’s pipeline has led many to predict that the company is planning a new video service. Its service would launch at a time when seemingly every major media property is putting out their own streaming option, from DC Universe’s comic-flavored fare to a planned Disney offering, not to mention stalwarts like Netflix.

Apple has already released two original video series on its music subscription service, Apple Music. But those shows — a reality competition Planet of the Appsand a spinoff of Carpool Karaoke — were flops. But despite the dark marks of those shows, Apple Music overall has been a success for Apple. Although Apple Music launched seven years after world leader Spotify, Apple’s music-subscription service quickly ascended into the No. 2 spot. Apple reportedly eclipsed Spotify’s subscriber numbers this summer in the US, the biggest music market in the world.

The $1 billion programming pipeline, the success of Apple Music, and the fact that Apple is on deadline to double its services revenue to $50 billion before 2021 have spurred speculation that a video service is en route to your iPhone and beyond.

What will Apple’s TV service look like?

Great question. Nobody outside Apple really knows. And Apple hasn’t peeped yet. Plenty of people have theories.

Rich Greenfield, an analyst for BTIG, believes Apple will give its $1 billion in programming away for free.

If you own an Apple device, Greenfield anticipates Apple will provide free access to all these productions in the TV app on iOS or Apple TV. “Think of Apple’s strategy along the lines of [Amazon’s] Prime Video,” he said in a September note. Apple’s hope is that viewers will come for Oprah or Spielberg and then tack on other paid services to watch HBO, Starz or Showtime all in the same place. (Apple traditionally takes a cut of a service’s subscription revenue when a user signs up through one of its storefronts.)

A CNBC report in October backed up that theory.

Other speculation includes the idea Apple may create one bundle to rule them all. Apple’s takeover of Texture, a company that’s a sort of Netflix for magazines, and its reported plan to create a subscription news service have led some to suggest Apple may be be building a way to package all your digital content in one place. A combination of Apple Music, subscription Apple News and a video service could give consumers a one-stop hub for all (well, most) of their online entertainment.

When will it launch?

Cook’s been talking about TV more in the last few months, which could be taken as a sign that it’s closer to becoming a reality. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess.

Reports have indicated that Apple plans to unveil its plans early in 2019. Greenfield expects that video service will launch in mid-2019 and that the TV app will become available on Macs, too.

James Martin/CNET

How does this fit in with the competition?

Clearly, an Apple service with $1 billion worth of premium video will compete with the likes of NetflixAmazon PrimeHulu and others that stream on-demand, high-quality productions. As Netflix likes to point out, on-demand video services don’t just compete among themselves, they’re going up against anything that’s vying for your attention. So traditional television, YouTube and the parade of live-TV streaming service all make Apple’s competitive field even more crowded.

What’s interesting is that Apple’s dive into original programming comes as another giant, Disney, is ramping up its own original video ambitions.

Disney is expected to launch a Netflix-like service next year. Nicknamed Disneyflix by some industry watchers, the digital service will be a home base for streaming all of Disney’s blockbuster movies, multiple Star Wars original series and other programming. It will cost “substantially” less than Netflix, CEO Bob Iger has said.

And other tech giants have been beefing up their own original video muscle. AT&T closed its $85 billion deal this year to take over Time Warner, the parent of networks like HBO, CNN and TBS, and has pushed live over-the-top services DirecTV Now and AT&T Watch. Verizon spent about $9 billion to take over AOL and Yahoo, plus another reported $1 billion on its now-defunct Go90 video app. And Facebook has been pouring money into original video for the Watch section of its app, too.

Basically, if you’re interested in subscribing to all of these services, you may want to start saving up now.

Apple is a gadget giant. Why does it want to become Netflix?

Haven’t you heard? Everybody wants to be the Netflix of something. (PodcastsFitnessClothesGames! Even demand management.)

But besides Apple’s efforts to boost services revenue, Apple is taking aim at original video because it could be a crucial enticement for people to buy more iPhones and other gadgets.

You can’t overstate the importance of the iPhone to Apple. The phone, one of the most popular in the world, still accounts for more than half its sales and was critical to Apple’s march to become the first US company worth $1 trillion.

Apple quickly established its bona fides in subscriptions businesses with Apple Music. But the content on Apple Music is essentially the same as every other music service. They all have tens of millions of songs. Apple Music has been successful largely because of its presence on the iPhone, already in the pockets of millions of people. It hasn’t been nearly as successful working the other direction, acting as a lure to buy the latest Apple gadget.

Original video from big-name stars and creators you can’t watch anywhere else, however, could be different.

Apple clearly has a hunch it will be.


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