michael short/getty images
michael short/getty images
It was an early start for the thousand plus press and VIPs who were invited to sit in the famed Steve Jobs Theatre at Apple headquarters in Cupertino on March 25 for a (not so) mysterious ‘announcement’. Shuttles from nearby hotels started at 7.15am and early birds were disappointed to discover that all guests were escorted up the hill from drop-off to a completely round glass-walled building that housed the theatre downstairs. With appetizers and coffee but no chairs or tables, the restless crowd stood on the concrete floors for a few hours wondering if this was more of a cult than a press opportunity. Furthering that impression were the Apple employees in green shirts with the famous logo, clapping and shouting in their best voices, ‘have a great show!’
Inside the dimly lit theatre, the stage was dark except for the graphics of a spotlight on the Apple logo which was used on all the emailed invitations and confirmations. The room was flooded with the sound of happy music pumping in from a DJ who kept teasing, ‘one more song and it’s show time.’ As if we were waiting for the Rolling Stones, not Apple’s CEO Tim Cook to take the stage and answer the questions everyone has been asking about the beginning of Apple’s original TV programming.
After an animated video opening with faux credits including Production Assistant credit by Siri, “Executive Producer Apple Pay” and “Based on A Garage in Los Altos”, the simple words ‘And now for our feature presentation’ led to Tim Cook on stage in casual sneakers, pants, and Steve Jobs-inspired almost-turtleneck style sweater with a reception as if he was an evangelist. Cook prepped the crowd and introduced department heads as they came out to rapturous applause which made one suspect the theatre was full of strategically placed Apple employees. The CEO then pointed to a chart: Hardware, Software, and Services integration and shouted, “This is something Apple Does Better than anyone else!”
Like it or not, he may have been making a very valid claim after the 95-minute announcement that revealed four separate major new elements being added to Apple’s platforms. First up, Apple News Plus. This makeover of the popular Apple News app will now incorporate magazine and newspaper subscriptions in over 100 markets worldwide touting the fact it relies on ‘On-device intelligence’ to recommend what you want to read, rather than storing user data on company servers. This way, declared Cook, “Apple doesn’t know what you read and doesn’t allow advertisers to track you.” (This commendable feature apparently applies to the company’s credit and TV platforms as well).
Apple Pay introduced a new credit card add-on that offers a rewards program of ‘actual cash’ as they proudly pointed out, as well as low interest, no fees and if you find an outlet somewhere in the world that doesn’t take the app through Apple Pay, you can get your own Titanium credit card with your name etched on it too! Apple Arcade will be the new gaming platform. Since iOS devices already host more gaming apps than any other platform in the world, the new app will put them all in one place for a subscription fee.
And then it finally was the turn of Apple TV Plus as the company named its new TV viewing system. Cook presented it as a revolutionary concept to make TV watching easier – taking over 150 streaming apps across all devices and putting them all in one place, accessible on all devices from iPhone, iPad, Mac computers and even Smart TVs. Users will also be able to sign in to their own cable subscribers account and add the subscriptions to Hulu, Showtime and others. If you don’t have a subscription to any of them while you’re in the app, Apple will make it easy to have you signed up and watching Billions on Showtime in a few clicks.
The app looks similar to Netflix (the competitor markedly absent from Apple’s offering) with an ‘Up Next’ row and the capability to answer to Siri (e.g. “Siri, I want to watch A Star is Born.”) And if you don’t know what to watch, Apple’s “expert editors” (their terminology) will curate what they think are worth recommending under ‘What to Watch’, much like what already happens in Netflix world. This will naturally include their own robust programming that was highlighted in the final presentation, with the help of Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, Jason Momoa and even Big Bird from Sesame Street, on stage to pitch their shows and why they want to team with Apple (other than the reported $1million-per-episode fee many of them reportedly were paid.)
“Apple has always tried to make the world a better place and we believe deeply in the power of creativity,” Cook opined. “Our products help people express their creativity because great stories can change the world. We feel we can contribute something important through great story-telling so we’ve partnered with the most thoughtful group of creative visionaries in the world to create new series unlike anything done before.” Other stars announced for upcoming Apple TV shows during the presentation that were no big secrets having been announced and largely already filmed include M. Night Shyamalan, Ron Howard, Sofia Coppola, and Octavia Spencer.
Spielberg proudly announced, “Thanks to the team at Apple, my Amblin team and I are going to resurrect this 93-year-old brand, Amazing Stories, and offering a new batch of stories to a whole new generation.” Jennifer Aniston teased, “We take an honest look at the complex relationships between women and men in the workplace and engage in the conversation people are too afraid to have unless they are behind closed doors.” Steve Carrell made a well scripted ‘surprise’ appearance to crash the Aniston and Witherspoon presentation to be sure everyone knew he had an important role. “We can’t have a complex look at relationships with men and women without men in the show,” Reese Witherspoon laughed. Aniston added to a lot of whooping and hollering from the crowd, “All of this and the chance to collaborate with Reese has brought me back to TV again and I’m really excited!”
michael short/getty images
To finish off their insanely ambitious program, Apple pulled out two show-stoppers. JJ Abrams introduced singer Sara Bareilles – with whom he’s collaborating on a TV show based on her life as a woman in the music business – and she pulled out a keyboard to sing the theme song of Little Voice.
When everyone was ready to pack up and leave, Oprah Winfrey showed up to much fanfare and a standing ovation. “We have this unique opportunity to rise to our best selves in how we choose to use our technology and humanity,” she says. Winfrey confirmed two documentaries she’s producing for Apple TV, one exploring the toll of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace and the other multi-part series focusing on mental health and how depression, anxiety, addiction, and PST are devastating lives daily across the globe. “If we do our job right, we are going to replace shame and stigma with wisdom and compassion and honesty,” she added.
And with that the event, which basically amounted to the founding of a new digital studio, came to a close. There was time for just one last note from Oprah: that she’s building the “biggest, most vibrant, stimulating, book club on the planet”, a nod to Apple’s plan to use its stores to host conversations with authors that will be live streamed around the world. “I want to literally convene a meeting of the minds, connecting us with books,” Winfrey said as Tim Cook returned to the stage for another standing ovation with the pair closing the program.
Books don’t seem to have much to do with everything Apple is selling today, but who knows. Their global domination has only just begun.