How Apple plans to win the streaming wars without ‘Friends’ or ‘Game of Thrones’

Yvonne Villarreal
Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles — Roughly two years ago, Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg stood in front of a blank wall at Apple’s content division in Culver City and began mapping out, with taped notecards, the tech giant’s plan to take on Hollywood.

The former Sony Pictures Television presidents, freshly installed as heads of worldwide video programming for Apple, started brainstorming with an assembly of employees. Hit shows and movies of the moment — including, yes, “Game of Thrones” – were part of the patchwork. Then came guiding principles, words like “humanity” and “simplicity.”

Two years later, seated in Erlicht’s office amid the frenzy leading up to the launch of Apple’s subscription streaming service, Apple TV+, the pair elaborated on those values.

Oprah Winfrey speaks during an Apple product launch event at the Steve Jobs Theater.

“Simple ideas that allowed you to go deeper and express yourself more,” Van Amburg said. “ It’s sort of at the core of a lot of what Apple products do. They feel simple, but they allow you to do incredibly complex things.”

“We had a very diverse representation of shows on the wall, and it wasn’t about what were our favorite shows,” Erlicht said. “It became a psychological examination of, ‘Why is that your favorite show? What are the various levels that you enjoy watching for?’ Because we got obscure shows that very few people had ever seen, but to the individual, they spoke on a deeper level — and that’s what we really started homing in on. Like, ‘OK, we need to find the subtext. We need to find the deeper levels. We need to find the additional meaning in our shows because that’s what resonates with people.’”

What Apple defines as that “deeper level” — and whether it translates for viewers already inundated with content from a proliferating number of platforms — will determine whether the Silicon Valley mammoth, whose gadgets draw lines that snake around its stores, can become a major force in entertainment too. The first crop of projects (nine in total) that executives felt aligned with this set of guiding principles makes its debut Friday with Apple TV+ — several years after Netflix, Amazon and Hulu established themselves as key players in TV, not to mention regular Emmy contenders. The ad-free subscription service will be available in more than 100 countries.

There’s a lot riding on the strength of Apple’s initial slate, which must lure subscribers to the $4.99-a-month service. Unlike the Big Three streaming veterans or new entrants like HBO Max and Disney+, Apple’s service doesn’t include a deep bench of popular library titles such as “Friends,” “The Golden Girls” or even “Lizzie McGuire” to help buoy its limited offerings at launch.

“We’re focusing only on high-quality, original content,” Erlicht said. “We’re not focusing on library. We’re not focusing on any other agenda. We think that’s where the real opportunity is. We think the other networks, especially at this volume, have more of a spread-out focus, and therefore we can event-ize better than anyone.” In addition to children’s and family programming, the company’s first batch of premieres features a number of adult-oriented series aimed at making it a player in the prestige TV arena — one familiar to Erlicht and Van Amburg, who previously worked together at Sony TV, where they shepherded shows like AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.”

The slate will expand moderately over the next year, with programming from M. Night Shyamalan, J.J. Abrams and Damien Chazelle.

“We wanted to be leaders, and we wanted to be innovative and show up differently,” Van Amburg said. “I think that’s why our shows feel unique. I hope they don’t feel like we’re following in the footsteps of something else.”

Whether prospective Apple TV+ subscribers will agree remains to be seen. But the reaction of the critics, which plays a vital role in shaping the profile of prestige series, has been tepid. “The Morning Show” has garnered decidedly mixed reviews despite its timely subject matter — allegations of sexual misconduct that upend a morning news show — and high-profile cast, which features Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell.

Other Apple series available at launch came in for similar treatment. Some critics were confounded by the tone of “Dickinson,” a historical coming-of-age comedy starring Hailee Steinfeld as poet Emily Dickinson; “See,” an epic sci-fi drama led by Jason Momoa set in a world where humans have lost their sight, has faced criticism of its strange plot choices.

Leading the charge to build Apple into a formidable player in Hollywood is a climb Erlicht and Van Amburg recognize has only just begun: “We had to scale something from nothing,” Van Amburg said.

The pair said they didn’t think of the Apple TV+ viewer in any ideal terms or target demographics — instead viewing their core audience as anyone ages 2 and up.

“We don’t think of it in terms of a singular demo,” Van Amburg said. “We think of it in terms of: How do we make sure that there’s something consistently showing up for you, whoever you are, however you define your taste? That has been the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenge.”

It’s an open question whether a clear programming “brand” is even achievable in an age of TV when viewers are toggling among devices, channels and subscriptions. But analysts are bullish on the service’s potential in the streaming market. Wedbush Securities analyst Daniel Ives predicts the service will have more than 100 million subscribers within its first three years, while Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty predicted in a recent note that the service will have more than 130 million subscribers by 2025.

For their part, Erlicht and Van Amburg are conservative about setting expectations.

“What happens Nov. 1, in terms of the success of what we’re building, is such a small, small, small factor,” Erlicht said. “The reality is, there’s no information that’s going to come Friday that’s going to be an indicator of the wild success of this service that’s going to happen over time.”