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We still don’t know what’s in Apple’s streaming service, how much it will cost, or why we should pay for it

Oprah? Sure. Reese, Jen, and Steven, too. But Apple’s preview raises more questions than it answers.

Tim Cook and Oprah Winfrey onstage at an Apple event.
Tim Cook and Oprah Winfrey.
Michael Short/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.

I have some questions about Apple’s new video service:

  • What, exactly, is Apple going to have in its new video service?
  • What, if anything, will Apple’s new video service cost?
  • Why would someone pay anything for Apple’s new video service?

I’ve had these questions for a couple of years, but I figured I would have answers to them today because I just spent two hours watching Tim Cook and other Apple executives show off a new suite of Apple services, with Apple’s video offering as the showstopper.

Nope! Still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

In lieu of answers, Cook and his team did a high-gloss version of hand-waving at their Cupertino, California, HQ today: They brought out Very Big Stars like Steven Spielberg, Reese Witherspoon, and Oprah Winfrey to tell a worldwide audience that they were indeed working on projects that you might be able to see as soon as this fall. Musician Sara Bareilles played a song on an onstage piano.

Apple did promise that the subscription service would be ad-free and that it would be available in more than 100 countries. And it played the briefest of sizzle reels, which allowed the audience to see that Apple’s production team has indeed shot footage for some of its shows.

But that was it, and that was surprising.

One thing Apple has been very good about is showing off a new piece of hardware or software, telling you why you’d like to use it, and telling you when you can get it. It usually tells you how much it costs, too.

In the absence of any of that information, we have to do some guesswork: Maybe Apple wanted to show off its talent and a vague sense of its plans, because the event isn’t really aimed at consumers who will end up paying for (or at least using) the service. Maybe it was aimed at Wall Street, to convince investors that Apple is really, really serious about using service revenue to augment its slowing hardware sales.

If so, fine. But why not wait until next fall, when Apple’s finally ready to roll out its video offering? That might also be a good time to have talked up Apple’s new gaming subscription service, Apple Arcade, which also had a TBD for pricing and for launch date.

In terms of things Apple is doing right now — or at least very soon — Apple did have some news: Its Apple News+ “Netflix for magazines” service, which also features the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal (as well content from, which like Recode is owned by Vox Media) is now available for $10 a month.

And Apple’s overhauled TV app, which is meant to serve as a TV guide and a storefront for subscription services like HBO, Showtime, and Starz, is coming very soon. While Apple didn’t spell it out this way, it hopes this is the thing that will be the core of its video strategy, which also involves distributing its services on hardware owned by competitors like Samsung, Roku, and Amazon, which is a very big shift.

Oh, and there’s a new Apple credit card, which is both virtual and made out of titanium. (Really.)

Back to the video and the lack of it. Perhaps Apple could have used today to really play up one of its shows, or a handful of them. That’s what the TV guys do at their annual “upfront” presentations, when they try to convince marketers to buy time in upcoming programming based on clips of the stuff that will be out in a few months.

Instead, Apple chose to have giant stars like Spielberg and Winfrey telling us about the shows they were making, not showing us, which violates a basic communications rule. If we didn’t know better, we might think these things aren’t really ready.

And when they are ready, how much is Apple going to charge us to see them? This will be a non-issue if Apple gives them away as inducements to use its main video app, as many industry sources have expected.

But Apple went out of its way to describe what it’s working on as a “subscription service,” which certainly implies a charge. And over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal reported that “people working on the [video] projects said the company plans to charge a fee” for them.

One way to square all of this is to theoretically charge a fee, but bundle the video service with other offerings, which drops the real cost of the service to something very minimal, or less.

That remains the most logical move, since even when Apple does launch its new shows, it is only going to have a handful of new titles to roll out each month. Everyone else charging consumers for video subscriptions — or that plans to — is offering a combination of new things plus an extensive catalog of older shows and movies. HBO, for instance, may sell you on Game of Thrones, but it knows you’ll spend most of your time on the service watching movies like Fast and Furious sequels.

Who knows? Maybe Apple has a genuine surprise up its sleeve and will augment Winfrey, Witherspoon, and Spielberg with a lot of other stuff so you have something to watch when you’re done with the new things.

It’s also possible that this curiously flat show won’t matter at all next fall when the shows are up and running and Apple leverages a huge marketing push — plus its huge installed base of devices — to get people to pony up. But it would be easier to believe that if Apple had more to tell us today.

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