Apple’s management of its video service isn’t a plot twist, it’s business as usual
This week the New York Post published a report that fits into every narrative about Apple’s forthcoming video-streaming service: Apple, a skittish tech company that’s not used to having its fate determined by content produced by outsiders, has been heavy-handed in providing feedback to the people creating TV series for Apple’s new service.
I believe there’s got to be some truth in there, but this is a more complicated story than perhaps the Post is interested in telling. (Shocker.)
Producers give notes? Impossible!
The primary source of the Post story appears to be someone who had a bad experience with Apple and therefore has an axe to grind. (Producers who had lovely experiences with Apple are probably not going to call the New York Post about it. If they did, it’s unlikely that the Post would be interested in the story.)
The reasons for the axe-grinding could be legitimate or not. We just don’t know, because it’s an anonymous source providing a complaint without context. But even if I take the source at its word—that Apple execs are meddling in the creative output of their future service—I have to wonder: Has this person never gotten notes from a meddling producer before? My understanding is that it’s the rare creative project that doesn’t get annoying notes from a higher-up. An executive at MCA famously wrote a memo that Back to the Future should be called Spaceman from Pluto.
And should we be surprised? Apple is famously fussy about the details, and in this case it is spending billions on a video-streaming service that will be defined by its first original shows. It’s hard to believe that Apple would write a bunch of checks and then wait around for the final digital files to come in.
The story also suggests that the real crime here is that tech execs—Tim Cook and Eddy Cue, not Apple TV execs (and TV veterans) Zach Van Amburg and Jamie Ehrlich—are among the meddlers. It’s certainly possible, and if Tim Cook is sending detailed script notes it’s probably a huge mistake. But there are plenty of other scenarios here that also make sense. Perhaps Ehrlich and Van Amburg are using Cook and the Apple corporate structure in general as a bad cop or bogeyman, in order to soften the blow of necessary changes when discussing them with producers.
It’s also not hard to imagine a scenario where Apple executives think they know what they want, and think they’ve communicated it properly… and then they see a script or sample footage that is entirely antithetical to their vague vision of what Apple’s service should stand for. I’ve been a part of many large creative projects over the years, and there’s invariably a time when an executive who had signed off on everything suddenly sees something he or she doesn’t like, because they just hadn’t thought through all the ramifications of what they’d approved. If you’re the creative person who thought everyone was on the same page, but is now being told that what you did doesn’t fit after all, that’s incredibly frustrating.
If you’re an Apple executive who has complete control over the people who make your products, and a broad understanding of what the underlying issues in building a tech product might be, it’s got to be unnerving to be trying to launch this product—which just doesn’t play by those rules. The most difficult jobs in all of this are those of Ehrlich and Van Amburg, who must find a way to divine the wishes of Cupertino execs and translate them into something that the TV production staffs will understand and accept. I don’t envy them.
An aside: I’m so sick of people bringing up Planet of the Apps and Carpool Karaoke as reasons why Apple’s video service is doomed to fail. Those were content purchases made by amateurs, and they proved to Apple that it needed to hire actual TV industry professionals to do the job right. That’s Ehrilich and Van Amburg. Those precursor shows tell us nothing about whether they’ll succeed or fail.
Disney versus Netflix
Another source of fear about Apple’s new service has been reports—echoed by the Post—that Apple is committed to family-friendly content, something that is in stark contrast to most modern prestige TV, which skews dark and violent with explicit sex, nudity, and coarse language. When I write or speak about this topic, I hear from a lot of people who just don’t understand the premise that television shows can’t be high quality without adults-only content.
The fact is, there’s nothing in Apple’s reported standards that precludes shows that are of the highest quality. The challenge for Apple—and ABC/Disney, which has similar standards to Apple, by the way—is that today’s A-list creative types would rather be given carte blanche to make the shows they want without fighting battles with censors.
In the past, if you wanted the money to make a network TV show, you’d have to accept that the network had certain content lines they wouldn’t cross, and if you wanted to get close to those lines, you’d need to fight someone. Today, those people can go to Netflix (and some other outlets with similar philosophies) and just make the show they want with minimal interference. By having stricter standards, Apple will find itself at a disadvantage when recruiting the biggest-name talent.
But here’s the funny thing: Apple’s not Netflix and it isn’t going to be. There’s nothing wrong with Apple’s executives having a clear vision about what the vibe of their content should be. For Apple’s video service to be successful, it should be a set of programs that fit a particular worldview. The best networks have an identity and their programmers know exactly what it is.
Netflix tries to be everything to everybody, and spends tens of billions of dollars to do that. So far, as I can tell, Apple’s not going that direction. It needs to choose. Apple’s video service will benefit from a clear brand identity, and if that brand identity is bright, optimistic, and broadly appealing, with standards more like broadcast TV than premium cable, that won’t preclude it from finding an audience.