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Apple’s plan for its new TV service: Sell other people’s TV services

Apple’s TV plans, explained. (Spoiler: Apple isn’t taking on Netflix yet.)

Apple CEO Tim Cook onstage in front of a TV icon.
After years of circling the TV business, Apple is ready to announce its TV plan.
Stephen Lam/Getty Images
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

After years of circling the TV business, Apple is finally ready to make its big splash: On Monday it will unveil its new video strategy, along with some of the new big-budget TV shows it is funding itself.

One thing Apple won’t do is unveil a serious competitor to Netflix, Hulu, Disney, or any other entertainment giant trying to sell streaming video subscriptions to consumers.

Instead, Apple’s main focus — at least for now — will be helping other people sell streaming video subscriptions and taking a cut of the transaction. Apple may also sell its own shows, at least as part of a bundle of other services. But for now, Apple’s original shows and movies should be considered very expensive giveaways, not the core product.

That is much less exciting than “Apple Takes on Netflix in the Streaming Wars,” but it is an accurate description. Even worse for people interested in exciting narratives: Apple has already been helping people sell video subscriptions and taking a cut of the transaction for years.

The difference, say people who’ve talked to Apple about its plans, is that instead of selling TV subscription apps surrounded by millions of other apps in its main app store, Apple plans on making a new storefront that’s much more prominent for those who use Apple TV boxes and other Apple hardware. It will also be able to offer its own bundles — for instance, it could offer a package of HBO, Showtime, and Starz at a price that’s lower than you’d pay for each pay TV service on its own.

And, as it already does on its TV app, Apple will be able to show users what’s playing on services they subscribe to and surface stuff they may be interested in.

All of this might very well work. Apple has an installed base of 1.4 billion users, and some of them will buy the things Apple promotes: Look at the success of Apple Music, which launched seven years after Spotify but quickly amassed 50 million subscribers due to a free trial period and prominent real estate on Apple’s devices.

Another reason this could work: Amazon has already been very successful with its own version of the same idea. Facebook is also bullish on selling TV subscriptions and is pushing would-be partners to sign up so it can launch later this spring or summer, according to industry sources. Similarly, Comcast (which is a minority investor in Vox Media, which owns this site) is rolling out Flex, a $5-a-month service that gives you a bunch of free content (some of which you can also get other places) and the ability to easily buy HBO, Showtime, etc. Instead of offering exclusive content, Comcast is offering subscribers a Roku-like streaming box.

If you are a fan of the “Apple can’t innovate anymore” theory, some of the above will provide you more ammunition: Apple’s big launch is a revamped version of something it’s already doing, and something its competitors are doing, too. “It’s incremental,” shrugs an executive at a company that’s working with Apple on the new, new video store.

But I’m partial to the theory that Apple won’t make another iPhone because the iPhone was a once-in-a-lifetime product, which happens to be the theory Apple has been implicitly promoting for several years now. As Apple’s iPhone sales have slowed, Apple has been pushing the idea of generating more “service” revenue — selling more software, entertainment, and subscription services to people who already own Apple hardware.

Speaking of that, a brief detour to talk about the other service stuff we expect to see Monday:

All of which sounds fine. And potentially very lucrative. And, if you squint hard and hope, a potential new revenue boost for publishers, who could use one.

But that’s not nearly as fun as Apple taking on Netflix. Let’s go back to that one and explain why it’s not so.

Yes, Apple may be spending $2 billion a year on dozens of shows, which feature participation from brand names like Reese Witherspoon, Steven Spielberg, and JJ Abrams. And yes, it may even sell a subscription to those shows to people who use the service on other company’s hardware, like Samsung TVs.

But Apple’s partners believe Apple’s primary plan is to use the shows as added value giveaways, either to people who own Apple phones and other devices or to people who buy some of the other services it will roll out Monday.

That makes sense. Because while $2 billion a year is a lot of money, it’s not much compared to the $10 billion a year Netflix says it will spend on programming this year.

And, crucially, Apple will launch from a standing start: Those new shows will be the only shows Apple has to offer, because it doesn’t have a library of existing stuff, like Hulu and Netflix. And WarnerMedia and Disney will be drawing from their own giant catalog of movies and TV shows when they launch their own subscription services later this year.

Apple could certainly license a lot of other stuff if it wanted to — or just purchase the entertainment companies outright that own that stuff. (In the past, for instance, Apple had briefly discussed buying Time Warner, primarily to get its hands on HBO.) But right now, Apple’s strategy seems to be letting other streamers fight each other while it collects rent from all of them.

Some backstage details:

  • One under-the-covers change that matters to Apple and its partners: With the new video storefront/service, Apple will host and serve the streams, which means it will have primary access to the viewing data its users generate. Under the previous model, streaming video apps Apple offered essentially redirected users back to the streamers’ own hosting service. Streamers who work with Apple in the new setup will have to be comfortable with Apple owning the primary relationship with their audience.
  • That wholesale/retail relationship also means Apple, not the streamers, can set the price for the stuff it sells. Apple isn’t likely to sell, say, HBO for less than HBO sells itself on rival platforms like Roku. But it definitely plans to sell bundles of pay TV channels at a discount, just like pay TV operators have always done.
  • Netflix has already said it won’t be part of Apple’s store. But some other prominent names may be missing on Monday: An industry source says Apple hasn’t tried to get every big subscription service on board, at least for launch.

Update 3/21: Updated to include information about Comcast’s “Flex” plan.

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