Tuesday 22 October 2019

Tuning in for a bite of Apple TV

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks about Apple tv+ in California last week. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks about Apple tv+ in California last week. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Two years ago, I sat 50ft from Apple CEO Tim Cook when he said: "We believe that the future of TV is in apps." Last week, Apple unveiled the price for its new rival service to Netflix: €4.99 a month.

The downside is that it is only Apple-made shows and movies, which initially means a handful, rising to a few hundred over time.

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The upside is that it's free for a year for anyone who buys a new iPhone, iPad or Mac.

So will you consider subscribing to yet another online video streaming service?

Compared to a starting price of €8 for Netflix and €6 for Amazon, Apple's €5 looks pricey.

But value is completely subjective: if any of Apple's marquee series - The Morning Show with Jennifer Aniston, See with Jason Momoa, the upcoming Oprah Winfrey series - is a hit, €5 for a month of it seems cheap.

Would millions of Game of Thrones fans have paid €5 to stream the final season? No, they would paid a multiple of that. HBO and Sky, which own and license the series respectively, know this one show probably drives monthly subscriptions of €30, €40, €50 and more.

Even still, Apple is starting very late in the game. Netflix has some 150 million global subscribers, including an estimated 500,000 in Ireland.

Amazon Prime Video has become a major player too. Although it doesn't disclose its subscriber figures, it is likely in second place in Europe.

And we recently saw Disney announce its own online video service, which is virtually guaranteed to be a significant player because of all the kids' content it owns (and will now pull from rival services like Netflix).

That's not to mention services like Now TV, an online version of Sky's premium channels which lets you pick and choose between niches like sport and Game of Thrones.

So is there room for an Apple streaming service? And if so, who will subscribe? Has the company which rarely mis-steps with its products finally taken on an industry where it is outgunned?

Some analysts believe the foray into TV content is still part of Apple's original playbook: create services which help to sell hardware. The problem with this theory is that Apple is making TV+ content available on other hardware platforms, such as Samsung smart TVs, Amazon Fire devices and more.

Respected analyst Ben Thompson still thinks Apple has a longer-term goal, though.

"Apple TV Channels is a means to buy subscriptions to other streaming services, which makes a lot of money for Roku and Amazon in particular," he said of the company's move last week.

"Apple TV+ content is a reason to make Apple TV the default interface for video leading to more subscriptions via Apple TV Channels.

"This view also explains why Apple is going to bundle a year of Apple TV+ with all new Apple device purchases, which is also very much in line with the idea of Apple giving up short-term revenue on its products - or incurring contra-revenue in this case - for long-term subscription revenue."

Even still, when I ask myself the question 'are you going to subscribe to another video streaming service', I really have to pause to think about it.

Right now, I pay north of €100 for subscriptions, not including home TV, broadband or mobile.

That might seem like a lot until you break it down. These include things like Netflix (€12), Spotify (€15 family subscription), Audible (€10), YouTube Premium (€15), iCloud (€10) and Amazon Prime (€10).

They also include some news content, such as Stratechery (€8), and intermittent (month on, month off) subscriptions to newspapers. I have just added a new subscription, The Athletic (€30 on offer for the first year) for its specialist, high-grade sports writing.

Every few months, I'll browse through my monthly credit card statement and find a subscription I forgot to cancel or which has been triggered after an introductory free period. I'm betting several readers of this column would find the same if they check their bank statement right now.

But as steep as all of this sounds, I know that if Apple comes up with a hit show that everyone is talking about, I'll probably stump up the fiver, even temporarily. Once that happens, Apple has my attention and may succeed in selling me something else.

I can say this without feeling ashamed or beating myself up for being a mug.

Regardless of what some cynics will say, the market we have for things like phones and streaming services is pretty competitive. There are dozens to choose from, as traditional players such as RTÉ and the BBC will gloomily tell you.

So if Apple thinks it has a decent offering, who would bet against it?

The company has shown itself again and again to be adept at developing new income streams for itself.

Both its Watch (five years ago) and its AirPods (three years ago) had scores of people sniffing that the company had lost its innovative edge.

Today, the Watch is the best selling watch - of any sort - in the world and AirPods have fundamentally changed the earphones market.

More importantly, they now bring in close to €20bn a year by themselves, making them a bigger standalone business than almost any other in the entire tech industry.

It's a less visible, but similarly interesting story for Apple's 'services' category, which has gone from €20bn to €36bn in annual revenue.

So while the fate of Apple TV+ is absolutely dependent on quality, it would be crazy to dismiss Apple's nose for future revenue and profit.

Come November 1, when it launches, I'll likely tap open Apple's TV app to see what the quality is like.

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