After two months, Apple TV+ lacks a breakout hit
As Apple's largest ever new service launch, Apple TV+ has brought us a strong stable of good shows. It just hasn't had that all-important breakout hit yet — but that could be about to change.
You can't say that Apple TV+ started quietly. Except that after Apple spent most of the year hyping it up, the service ultimately launched with just a few shows — and they haven't been gigantic successes.
Out of the whole slate of series that Apple TV+ has rolled out in its first two months, though, none of them have yet become breakout hits. None of them have crossed that line into being talked about in mainstream media.
This is because, in most ways, it's one thing to have a good series like "Dickinson." It's another to have one that is watched by a lot of people. And it's yet another to have a show that breaks out into being part of the culture. In other words, there is no Baby Yoda on Apple TV+ yet.
Those breakout hits did happen more often when there were just ABC, CBS and NBC to watch. And it's incredibly rare now that we instead have hundreds of places to see TV.
Only, if you can't manufacture a cultural icon, and if you can only try to persuade enough people to watch your show, both of these things do depend on the series being good. And here, Apple is doing well.
Apple TV+ has plenty of good series
Compare it to any broadcast network's September season, ever, and it's actually quite remarkable how consistently good Apple TV+ series are. The whole reason we all got so used to mid-season replacements every January was that so many September launches would fail.
The definition of a failure on network TV, though, is and always was entirely in the viewing figures, not at all in the quality of the series. Very good shows died on the air before they found their audience. Networks get blamed for pulling shows too soon, yet it's not as if any network wants a show to die. Producer Alan Spencer told AppleInsider that, for instance with his show, his network kept it going.
"ABC showed great patience with 'Sledge Hammer!' because now shows are canceled during the first commercial break," he said.
The pressure on shows is because of the pressure on networks and their need to win the hour slot against their rivals. Apple doesn't have that, it doesn't have to so frantically chase ratings.
Apple does know precisely how many people watch any given show, but it isn't then trying to deliver that audience to advertisers. No one sets out to make a poor series, but if Apple TV+ has a dud, it does not have the same urgent reason to pull it after a couple of episodes and burn off the rest on late nights in the summer.
The odd poor series sitting in Apple TV+'s library isn't going to cause a problem. A lot of poor series would. If all you ever saw when you turned on Apple TV+ was dud after dud, each bad show would be cumulatively damaging.
Whereas it only takes a single great show to make a service a success.
Previously on TV
We forget this now, but "House of Cards" was not just a very good Netflix series, it was an advertisement for the service. The success of that single show, the amount of buzz it created, lifted the whole of Netflix and helped get it noticed.
To a lesser degree, "Transparent" did the same for Amazon Prime.
This uplift from a single show is not limited to streaming services, either. HBO has been around since the early 1970s, but the reason you've heard of it is "The Larry Sanders Show" in the 1990s. You may not have seen that series, perhaps you don't even know the name now, but what it did back then was ignite the cable service.
"The Larry Sanders Show" attracted viewers to the service, and the presence of viewers meant that HBO was then also attracting talent. Producers would already have known that HBO supported more interesting fare than network TV, and now they could see that there was an audience.
Apple has attracted talented creatives right from the start. You can be certain that Oprah's phrase of "a billion pockets y'all," or something similar, was said by Apple at every first meeting with every producer.
And you can be certain that every producer was already conscious of how much money Apple has.
The money, the audience, and the lack of adverts interrupting shows, all mean that the Apple TV+ service launched with very good people doing their best to make very good television.
It does not follow automatically that they succeed, but you don't get a hit without trying.
Right now, Apple TV+ has the likes of "For All Mankind," "Dickinson," and "Snoopy in Space" that are well-received. It's got "See," which has had perhaps the weakest reviews of them all so far, and it has "The Morning Show."
That series is the closest Apple TV+ has to a hit, and it's the only one to be nominated for any awards so far.
Everyone wants a hit
"The Morning Show" is not a breakout hit, though. It is getting mentioned on other TV talk shows, it is getting some news value from its awards and reviews. It's just not yet making such a noise that "Entertainment Tonight" is desperate to feature exclusive news from the set.
For the moment, though, two months into the service, Apple TV+ feels like HBO in its early days. It has a reputation for high quality, but it hasn't had its Larry Sanders or Baby Yoda moment.
Let's not downplay that point about quality, though. Making television is unlike anything Apple has ever done before.
Since November 1, it's brought us ten series across drama, comedy, children's and Oprah's Book Club. Assuming that Oprah Winfrey gets renewed, as her series surely must, then half of that slate is already coming back for a second run.
You can't entirely trust that a show getting a second series got it through being a success. It can just be that the original deal was for more than one run.
Nonetheless, quantitatively it's the sole metric we currently have or are even likely to get unless Apple decides to reveal its ratings.
Qualitatively, more visibly, and actually more surprisingly, none of the series so far have been complete duds.
And that's what is going to get Apple success in television. Its shows are lacking buzz so far, but they're not lacking in quality and we are already seeing how that has changed things.
AppleInsider sources in television long ago told us that Apple had been intent on signing exclusive deals with TV creators and, at launch, it had singularly failed to do that. Now, though, having seen how Apple TV+ works, and knowing from other creatives what is involved, it's changing.
Neither is as well known on screens as, say, the Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston partnership that produced "The Morning Show."
But the shows and films they make are extraordinarily good, to the extent that both of these deals are true coups for Apple.
Apple TV+ just needs one great hit to get those billion people reaching into their pockets, and that first hit is going to come from attracting more and more talent to the service.