In the six years since it has started making original content, Netflix has—sing along if you know the lyrics—upended the television business.* Producing shows at a previously unheard-of volume and budget, the one-time specialist in sending DVDs through the mail has become the name-brand streaming service, a content behemoth, a new kind of network in an age when the old kind barely matters. Netflix’s rise has been the entertainment business story of the 2010s—but it’s all a prologue to what comes next. The streaming wars are about to get real.
In addition to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, CBS All Access, YouTube Red, Facebook, and a number of other services even less known to the general public than those last three, customers will be able, starting this week, to pay a monthly fee for TV shows from Apple TV+, and soon after Disney+, HBO Max, and some kind of NBCUniversal offering called Peacock—to say nothing of Quibi and other goofily bespoke offerings. Paying individually for all of these may not add up to a monthly cable bill, but this is still more streaming services than any American who is not an actual potato seeking sustenance from couch cushions could ever need. We won’t hit peak TV until we hit peak streaming service, but, at this rate, peak streaming service can’t be that far off.
Any company already in the business of making content knows this, will have surveyed the content landscape, realized it is overcrowded and competitive, and concluded: We have to launch a streaming service anyway. It must flee the land it currently inhabits, the land of linear television and movie theaters, where entertainment airs at a certain time on a certain night, and where only live sports and superhero movies can thrive. Not all of the new streaming services are going to survive, but any content company that doesn’t try to launch one is already dead.
The state of affairs facing linear television and broadcast networks, specifically, is addressed in the first episode of The Morning Show, the marquee series on the new Apple TV+. The show, which stars Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, is set behind the scenes of a long-running Today-like morning news program just as one of its long -running anchors, played by Steve Carell, is fired for sexual misconduct. “It’s kind of funny how the entire world of broadcast could just fall off a cliff in a few years, unless we reinvent it,” says powerful network executive Cory Ellison (Billy Crudup). “We’re all going to get bought out by tech unless something changes.”
Throughout the series, the buoyantly overconfident Cory cheerfully delivers lectures on the state of the television and news business like he knows what he’s talking about. Does he though? His remarks about broadcast TV are a tipoff: He’s way late. Broadcast is already in freefall, and with Apple TV+, the second wave of tech is here. Unlike present and future competitors, Apple is new to content creation, and it is choosing to get into the TV game at a time of great saturation because it wants to—i.e., thinks it’s strategically wise and necessary—and not because it has to—i.e., it will cease to exist as a functioning company if it doesn’t figure out streaming. The lack of urgency is apparent in the offer: For $4.99 a month, customers will have access to a handful of new shows—five to start, with more arriving later in the year—and no back catalog, a scoffably scant amount of content
But it doesn’t matter. Apple can afford to dip its toe into streaming. The company has nearly $250 billion in cash, a mere billion of which it has been earmarked for this project. Like Amazon, another extremely lucrative tech company that has patiently bankrolled a streaming service, Apple can afford to throw money at the problem almost indefinitely. Whereas linear channels that have to make a profit have been going gray competing against Netflix, which doesn’t have to make money so long as its subscriber growth convinces shareholder it eventually could, they can now tear all their hair out competing against another company with Scrooge McDuck–style reserves.
Imagine that all of these streaming services are marching into the Thunderdome: There’s fierce and imposing Disney+, the world’s most famous entertainment company, powered by a back catalog that includes most of the Disney and Fox archive, as well as the Pixar and Marvel movies, and is launching with a new Star Wars TV show. There’s the limping NBC, maybe hoping to become some other company’s bionic arm. And then there’s Apple, off to the side, a gazillionaire putting $20 bills into a paper shredder, waiting to see if all that shredded money doesn’t eventually take the shape of something worth watching.
The Morning Show, which cost Apple $300 million, both is and isn’t that something: It’s not good, but it’s bad in an extremely satisfying (to me) way. Like The Newsroom and Smash before it, it is an earnest, mediocre, insider-y look at an insular entertainment world of extreme interest to New York media types and thus perfectly positioned to get —fingers crossed!—a lot of overexposure in my Twitter feed. But if a hate-watch falls on a brand new streaming service, will it make a sound?
If anyone can make it happen, it’s Jennifer Aniston. There’s an Alanis Morrissette verse to be written about The Morning Show, a streaming TV series about the drama and intrigue of network television, headlined by the ultimate network sitcom star in her long-awaited return to TV. As with much of Aniston’s work post-Friends, she’s trying to complicate her own stifling likability by playing a famous woman, as known to the public as Rachel Green and “Jennifer Aniston,” who is more complicated and human than she appears. Her character, Alex Levy, is a longtime morning show host who, underneath her competent, relatable persona, is isolated, lonely and hard. Witherspoon, meanwhile, plays to her own, inverse type: the disagreeable woman—in this case a brash and hard-charging news reporter named Bradley Jackson—who, deep down, is supremely loveable.
The Morning Show is Aaron Sorkin lite: neither as verbally dexterous or infuriating. In addition to prominently featuring a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep,” like The Social Network, it contains a number of mediocre Sorkin-esque harangues, as when Witherspoon goes off at a protest at a coal mine with what turns out to be your basic Both-Sides-Have-a-Point aria: “It’s just a big wheel that goes around: Liberals add sanctions, conservatives remove those sanctions, and they just keep fighting because all they want to do is hear themselves talk, they just want to win, and there’s a human cost!” There’s also a Studio 60 problem, wherein the show occasionally tells the audience that something really special is happening—Aniston’s Alex is just really reaching through the camera and connecting with America; or Witherspoon’s Bradley standing up to questions in a way that is electric—but it’s not. I’ve seen Aniston connect with an audience and Witherspoon go electric and … this ain’t it.
Still, a TV show doesn’t have to be good to hit the spot. I am here for an Aniston and Witherspoon show that contains two to three cockamamie speeches about the state of media per episode. I suspect I am not the only person with this (very basic B) feeling, which means The Morning Show might be worth every penny Apple spent on it—all 30 billion of them—though I do think it could have saved at least a couple hundred thousand by opting not to license Don McLean’s “American Pie,” which plays for all of 15 seconds before Witherspoon snaps it off with an “I hate that song!” On the other hand, you can only tell if it’s really committed to putting all that money on the screen if some of what ends up on screen is totally needless.
What you can’t tell from watching The Morning Show, or any of Apple’s other new offerings, is whether it was any kind of struggle to find content that would fit the brand. A year ago, Apple nixed a show based on Dr. Dre’s life because it contained cocaine abuse, orgies, and drug violence—and Apple feared it would alienate the people who buy its products. (I wonder how much Apple has thought about the potential for alienating the young professionals and yuppies who are slavishly loyal to those products if it launches a streaming service that isn’t cool.) Apple was said to be looking for “high-quality shows with stars and broad appeal, but it doesn’t want gratuitous sex, profanity or violence,” but at this point, that describes most of what’s on streaming services.
In the months and years to come, many of us will be watching TV differently, by which I mean on different streaming platforms. But I’m not convinced at all that we’ll be watching different kinds of TV. The experimental days of streaming, such as they were, are more or less behind us. There has been a consolidation and focus on perfectly fine TV product across the board—whatever subscription you pay for. The first batch of Apple shows aren’t anything special, but on average, they fit right in. All Mankind, set in an alternate history where Russia got to the moon first and so the space race stayed tense and important, is stately and extremely boring.
The Elephant Queen, a beautiful documentary about elephants, contains lots of nice footage of elephants. See, a post-apocalyptic series set in future world where the earth was once ravaged by a virus that rendered everyone blind, is violent, grim, and exceptionally silly. It’s Bird Box meets Game of Thrones, but stupider, a show about a society of blind people who still wear feathers in their Stone Age–looking caps. Apple’s aversion to violence apparently does not extend to hand-to-hand combat and spear-play conducted at close quarters by armies of tribesman who cannot see but are still slitting throats real good.
I did save the best for last: Dickinson, which stars Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson, is a contemporary teen show in period clothing. Emily and her friends speak as we do and revisit sitcom tropes with enthusiasm. Emily and her siblings throw a house party when their parents leave town, and everyone takes opium and acts like it’s molly. Emily flirts with death, is in love with a girl, and eye-rolls her way through constricting conventions. While it’s hard to imagine this Emily is introspective enough to be any kind of poet, let alone Emily Dickinson, the show is unassuming and charming, mixing things up to convey the jarring weirdness of being ahead of one’s time. I think it would be a hit on Netflix.
Correction, Oct. 30, 2019: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of years Netflix has been producing original content. It is six, not five.