AppleTV+ and HBO vs. Netflix
Back in July after AT&T bought Time Warner, the WarnerMedia CEO John Starkley said this about how the purchase would effect HBO, a subsidy of Time Warner:
We have a tremendous amount of great projects already in the funnel…They’ve not been in a position to say yes to because of constraints on certain resources. We’re attempting to open up those constraints on high-quality top projects. [The goal is to] balance out the schedule in way that creates a more engaging consumer experience over the course of the year.
I was thinking about this quote again watching yesterday’s Apple event where the company announced their new streaming services, Apple Channels and AppleTV+. The pair of services combine partner content from companies like HBO, Stars, and Showtime with new, original content produced in-house by Apple. When the service launches later this year, Apple will have almost a dozen original television shows of its own, from some of Hollywood’s buzziest names including J.J. Abrams, Octavia Butler, Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, and Oprah.
Apple TV+ is being compared — and rightfully so — to Netflix and is framed as a competitor to the streaming giant.1 It’s too early to tell what kind of shows Apple will produce — we only saw a very brief montage of footage — or how the service will eventually fit in to our new streaming world but I’ve found myself returning to this quote from Starkley and how nervous it made me. I don’t want HBO to be more like Netflix. I don’t want Apple to be more like Netflix. Watching yesterday’s keynote, I kept thinking that for Apple to produce a streaming platform people truly want — to produce a streaming platform that is truly Apple — their content should feel less Netflix and more HBO.
The former NBC executive Bob Greenblatt had this to say about Netflix when he took over as CEO of HBO last month:
Netflix doesn’t have a brand. It’s just a place you go to get anything — it’s like Encyclopedia Britannica. That’s a great business model when you’re trying to reach as many people on the planet as you can.
What he’s saying here is not that Netflix isn’t a brand name — of course it is. I don’t think he’s even saying Netflix doesn’t represent something in culture (Netflix and chill). What I think he’s saying is that Netflix doesn’t have a unified brand when it comes to programming. Netflix has everything: television and movies, comedies and dramas, reality television and late night comedy. And they have tons of it. Some of it is good — really good, in fact — but a lot of it isn’t. Much of it is, to me, mostly forgettable. Netflix’s content doesn’t all rise to the same standard. Netflix has created a few buzzy shows but have they ever captured a cultural moment like HBO has?2 The most watched shows on Netflix, supposedly, are The Office and Friends. In trying to be everything for everyone, Netflix risks being for no one.
This is why I get nervous when I hear the CEO of WarnerMedia suggest he wants to make HBO more like Netflix. I watch most of HBO’s programming3 and when they announce a new series, I’m almost always inclined to give it a try. Take a show like Barry — Bill Hader’s dark comedy about a hit-man turned actor — I went into skeptical but came away from the first season completely blown away. By curating a smaller slate of programming, and working closely with writers, directors, and producers, they’ve earned my trust in a way Netflix hasn’t4. Here’s the difference: if someone recommends a show to me and says it’s on HBO, I’ll likely watch it where if they say it’s on Netflix, I might give it a try eventually. An HBO show — though in content and genre might vary — is known for a certain level of production value, a refinement in storytelling. They have proven track record of quality over quantity that Netflix does not have.
As I anticipate the AppleTV+, I’m curious to see who’s model Apple follows. For the last year, leading up to this event, Apple’s released a trickle of press releases announcing shows with various people — Speilberg! Big Bird! Oprah! — but will these get lost in a flood of content? Apple would benefit, I think, from following HBO, focusing on quality shows over quantity. This, of course, is the ethos Apple has followed with their hardware for years.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in late nineties, he famously discontinued many of their products — a product line that grew increasingly convoluted while he was gone. (Remember Apple printers?). The story goes that he drew a vertical and horizontal line on a white board, creating a two-by-two grid. Above the top two boxes he wrote “PRO” and “CONSUMER” and next to the two left boxes he wrote “DESKTOP” and “LAPTOP”. This would be Apple’s new product matrix — two desktops and two laptops, one of each geared towards the professional market and one geared towards the consumer market. For years, at least until the iPod, this was Apple’s entire product line. My hope is this extends to their approach to media.
As Apple paraded out star after star yesterday morning, I got the sense that Apple was interested in this quality over quantity, creating a new network basically from scratch. They announced there would be new content each month. There’s still a lot we don’t know — in addition to what the shows are like, we don’t know how much they’ll cost either — but I hope Apple sticks to the ethos that has shaped their products for the last twenty years: high quality, curated, top-tier storytelling.
Supposedly Apple employees referred to the service internally as a “Netflix-killer”. ↩
Except Game of Thrones. Never seen an episode of it. ↩
Stranger Things is arguably the most popular Netflix show; certainly the buzziest, the most culturally signifant but I’m not sure I’d call it great. (But, honestly, I think my favorite Netflix show is still the two-season comedy American Vandal.) ↩
I’d argue that FX has followed this playbook in recent years. Some of my favorite recent shows — Atlanta, Fargo, Legion, The Americans — have all been on FX and have an HBO-this-is-high-quality-tv vibe. ↩