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Apple TV+ was announced five years ago on March 25, 2019

Apple TV+ being promoted in an Apple Store in 2019

Apple TV+ has now been with us for almost half a decade, and it appears to have been a success financially — but it's certainly a hit for audiences.

Unbelievably, it was back in 2019 when Oprah Winfrey revealed she was switching to the newly-announced Apple TV+. She also revealed why — "Apple is in a billion pockets, y'all," she said.

Apple TV+ is really only available on those of the billion who have subscribed, though, or are on a free trial. At times Apple has really pressed on that trial option, offering generous free months, or bundling it in with every tier of the Apple One bundle.

Being in pockets, though, is not the same as being watched.

Oprah may have discovered this as her first of several series didn't begin streaming until 2021. And then Apple and she ended their deal in 2022.

But maybe that was premature. By then, Apple TV+ was a hit — albeit because of one show.

Enter Ted Lasso

Apple TV+ actually began streaming from November 1, 2019, and Apple had spent the months leading up from the announcement to hype it as much as possible. The service got an Apple Event, which headlined stars ranging from Oprah to Sara Bareilles and Jason Momoa.

Despite a huge launch, and despite high expectations for series like "The Morning Show," shows tended to be well-received but not hits. Two months into its existence, AppleInsider noted that Apple TV+ had the same problem — and the same opportunity — as all television networks and channels.

Apple TV+ needed one breakout hit, one show that people not already watching would talk about.

Just one show can ignite a service. For Netflix, that series was "House of Cards," and long before that, "The Larry Sanders Show" did it for HBO.

With Apple TV+, that breakout hit was "Ted Lasso." The soccer comedy became a blockbuster success that crossed over into the mainstream, if not even into US culture.

You know you've arrived when TV shows on other networks reference you, because they won't ever do it until they know their audiences will understand the reference. "Ted Lasso" would routinely be referred to, ultimately to the extent of being the subject of an extended Stephen Colbert skit on CBS.

That wasn't the first time Colbert featured an Apple TV+ series on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," either. In 2022, Colbert presented himself in "deleted scenes" from "Severance."

If "Ted Lasso" was the first all-out success, arguably "Severance" was first truly critical one. "The Morning Show" rightly has its fans, and "For All Mankind" is a remarkable hit, but "Severance" seemed to strike more of a chord.

Hit after hit

Just as the Apple Watch became a health-focused device because that's what its owners were using it for, so Apple TV+ has become home to science fiction. Alongside "Severance," there is "Foundation," and "Silo."

In each case, strong writing is joined by hugely expensive production values and effects.

Science fiction producers can point to a track record now and know that Apple TV+ is a good home for this type of show. They can also look at what appears to be quite lavish spending, too.

Producers who have talked off the record with AppleInsider say that it's not true Apple has bottomless pockets. But it's also not true that the company's management interferes in shows as much as was originally rumored.

Instead, if a series appears to be going well, if Apple likes the footage being shot, then it backs a show and gives the creatives room to do their best. If the footage isn't looking good, though, then it's like Apple parachutes in an executive to micro-manage the production.

Apple is looking at the bigger picture

Arguably, Apple wouldn't micro-manage any show if it weren't focused on making hits. But then it has employed TV people to do this focusing and no one from the industry is going to stay hands-off when there is a perceived problem.

Success has many mothers, but problems have many executives.

Yet Apple actually could nod through its many series and films without even watching them. That the standard is generally so high, and that Apple arguably has a greater success rate for critically acclaimed shows, almost doesn't matter.

For Apple is unique amongst the streamers in that it does not actually require hits to be profitable — because Apple doesn't need the money. It can take its time, it can build up a small collection of high-profile shows, and it can ignore all recommendations to buy the libraries of existing studios or broadcasters.

Compare that to Netflix which has found that it must have hits on tap in order to keep people subscribing. Its gigantic library is a big draw, yet it appears to be new hits that keep people from cancelling.

One reason for that is when Netflix can't, or doesn't want to, release every episode of a show at once. If its plans or the show's licencing deal requires a weekly release, then an audience who is hooked is hooked for weeks.

Broadcast television has the same benefit, at least in keeping people coming back to watch adverts week after week. But without new hits, broadcast networks see audiences vanish.

For instance, in 2023, before the Writers' Guild and SAG-AFTRA strikes were even over, CNN was estimating that the networks had collectively lost $6 billion.

Only Disney+ should really be in the same position as Apple for not requiring immediate hits, because it does have the massive mouse empire to support it. Then, too, while every streamer has more material than Apple, Disney's collection dwarfs almost all of them.

Yet Disney+ is costing Disney a lot, and despite that gargantuan library, it had to compete to buy "Hamilton," and most recently it's rumored to have paid out $75 million for Taylor Swift's Eras tour concert video.

Money counts

Everyone knows that Apple has a lot of cash, and it is true that it will spend to outbid rivals. However, what's less considered is that Apple is also used to owning worldwide rights in everything it does.

That combination has made a significant difference to Apple's success.

Specifically, there was literally no other production company that could afford the multi-national epic "Pachinko." Every other company approached would have had to partner with at least one or two others, but then Apple just said yes.

Apple funded "Pachinko" all by itself, and consequently has all of the prestige, all of the publicity for the show. Prestige and publicity is normally a very big deal financially for a non-streaming show, but even though Apple doesn't sell its shows on to other broadcasters, this series is likely to have boosted Apple TV+ subscriptions.

While Apple never releases viewing figures for its shows, the uplift from a success is enough that it has spent millions on them even after production is complete.

Doubtlessly there are many examples of this, but the one that has been reliably reported, is "CODA." Apple did not make this film, it bought the rights to it after the movie was completely finished.

Or rather, it tried to.

Apple spent a huge amount of time, effort and cash to secure the worldwide rights to "CODA," and it failed. It got most of the world, but there are territories where firms who had already bought it, would not sell their rights.

The film was too valuable to them and their future catalog, but Apple believed it was also valuable for its streaming service.

Apple was right. "CODA" won the Best Picture Oscar at the 2022 Academy Awards. It was the first film by a streaming service to win the award.

That may be the most high-profile award Apple TV+ has had, but Apple itself says it has won 451 other awards. it's been nominated for over 2,000 awards.

Harder than it looks

Perhaps Apple fans expected the company to do television well, and certainly everyone figured it had the money required. But television industry professionals know that TV is nothing like making iPhones.

In retrospect, Apple TV+ was fortunate to launch when it did, because shortly afterwards we were all quarantining because of COVID. Consequently, a lot of television was watched — but if it hadn't been any good, there were plenty of alternatives to Apple TV+.

The most prominent of the new streamers that have launched in recent years is Disney+. Arguably the least prominent is Paramount+.

And both of them have problems that Apple TV+ does not. Paramount+ is struggling for viewers and subscribers, and Disney saw its subscriptions explode staggeringly quickly — and yet it's having to raise prices to survive.

Then Disney's financial problems are such that it has taken to cancelling shows for tax reasons. It is pulling completed series off its service permanently, to save on paying out royalties to cast and crew.

Apple TV+ has cancelled many shows, as all streamers and all networks do, but it has never actually removed a series. Once it's on Apple TV+, it stays on, which is good for viewers — but also reassuring for producers.

Today a producer might want to try Netflix first, but they will surely pitch series to Apple TV+ before they do to Disney+. Apple TV+ was where producers took "Slow Horses" after the BBC abandoned its development of the thriller.

By working solidly, arguably even slowly, Apple TV+ has built a small but very strong library — and that strength is attracting both viewers and future producers.

We'll never know Apple's business model for Apple TV+, the company will never tell us how its spreadsheets say one hour of TV equals two more iPhones sold, or whatever. Plus we'll never know anything of the financial demands for series, or for the service.

What we may well find out soon, though, is that Apple realizes Apple TV+ is a prime target for advertising.