Before Steven Spielberg walked on stage for Monday morning’s Apple special event, Steve Jobs Theater already had more stars than Washington D.C.’s annual July 4th parade.
Cameras filming the event for the livestream captured the faces of actors Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer in the audience. Backstage, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston were likely rubbing elbows with Jason Momoa and Kumail Nanjiani. Even Big Bird was there, recruited to bring a high-wattage spotlight to the Apple TV Plus announcement. And when it was all over, Apple CEO Tim Cook handed the stage over to Oprah Winfrey, who revealed her own streaming video projects for Apple and then threw up her hands and shook the hall with a version of her patented holler, “Appleeeeeee!”
But Spielberg was chosen to kick off Apple’s streaming video reveal, teasing his reboot of the 93-year-old Amazing Stories anthology, a magazine that inspired him as a young boy. Pointing out that Amazing Stories started as a magazine in 1926 was a perfect way to thread Apple TV Plus with the new Apple News Plus, the iPhone-maker’s new subscription service for online news.
But thin on details like price, price, and, well, its price, it’s hard to see how Apple TV Plus is “not just another streaming service,” a phrase that Apple executive Jamie Erlicht used on stage.
To know what Apple TV Plus is, you first have to understand what it isn’t. It’s not Apple TV, which is the name of the company’s little black box for televisions. It’s also not an online marketplace for subscribing to other channels like HBO, CBS All Access, or Britbox—that’s the all-new Apple TV Channels. It’s also not an app (well, not directly), because the already-existing Apple TV app is a unifying interface for all video content flowing through Apple, making streamed shows from services like Amazon Prime Video appear next to programs from the PBS Kids app, so users can quickly decide what to watch.
When Apple TV Plus launches in 100 countries later this fall, its ad-free content will be accessible via the Apple TV app and feature original shows like Spielbergs’ Amazing Stories, Ninjiani’s immigrant anthology series Little America, and a Sesame Street-themed show for little viewers. All of this video content makes Apple TV Plus sound an awful lot like a streaming service, but it doesn’t have a huge back catalog made by other studios, like Netflix does. So in that way, it’s not.
In addition to being accessible on Apple TV boxes, the Apple TV app—and presumably the Apple TV Plus service—will be available on other Apple screens, including Macs. But in an unconventional move by the company, Apple is abandoning its usual walled garden approach of restricting (or at least premiering) its services to its own hardware. Instead, the company will install the Apple TV app on smart televisions by LG, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio. In fact, it will even come to Roku devices and the Amazon FireTV, which again, really makes Apple TV Plus seem an a lot like a streaming service.
So how is Apple TV Plus not a streaming service? That’s unclear, probably because a streaming service is exactly what it is.
“Life often makes no sense,” director JJ Abrams reassures viewers at the start of a marketing video heralding Apple’s new (non) streaming service. “There’s something about stories that gives a sense of order and purpose to the world, and allows us to live other lives than the life we’re living.”
Fair enough, but consumers crave sense—especially when they are trying to save money by cutting cable television out of their lives, and now are being asked to subscribe to one more thing, without being told the cost. Presumably Apple will reveal a cost before it launches. Until it does, Apple TV Plus is little more than a sizzle reel, though a star-studded one, at that.
Will Apple TV Plus be free to Apple device owners, as has been rumored? Or will it be a part of a bundle of services, a model that Amazon has made a killing with? There’s no answer to those questions right now.
Instead, there’s Oprah—standing on stage, enlisted to inspire and tell viewers that there’s never been a moment quite like this one. “We have this unique opportunity to rise to our best selves in how we use—and choose to use—both our technology and our humanity,” she says before talking about the documentary, mini series, and book club that she’s contracted to make for Apple.
Then, as only Oprah can, she encourages everyone watching “to move together, one billion plus strong, into a future of our own design, all connected by Appleeeeeee.”
Or was it AAPL? It was hard to make out what she meant, amid all the hype.