Apple signaled that it’s dead serious about becoming a power player in the TV business Wednesday when it beat out Netflix and Showtime to scoop up one of the most anticipated projects currently in development. Apple debuted two original series this year, both heavily dependent on the appeal of pre-existing shows: the Shark Tank–inspired Planet of the Apps and a 15-minute version of James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” with a rotating cast of celebrity hosts. But the tech giant’s latest move into original television appears to be far more ambitious than also-ran programming whose chief objective is to sell more songs or games on iTunes. Starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, this as-yet-unnamed foray into scripted drama—centered on the behind-the-scenes turmoil of an a.m. news show à la Good Morning America—already looks like a possible conversation starter and awards contender.
So why does this deal feel like such a gamble on all sides? On the surface, it’s a triumph for the show’s creative team and for Apple’s ecosystem-expanders: The female-led drama has secured two 10-episode seasons—most shows only get one season order at a time—and already enjoys the buzz and goodwill generated by Witherspoon’s Emmy-sweeping HBO miniseries Big Little Lies, which the Oscar-winning actress starred in and executive-produced. (Witherspoon and Aniston will serve as executive producers of their new series.) But Apple may be courting the wrong audience—and the show’s creators may have chosen the wrong outlet for their latest prestige play.
Arguably the one with the most to lose is Witherspoon, who’s been riding high the past couple of years as a champion of women’s stories in Hollywood. In addition to Big Little Lies, she can count among her producing victories the films Wild and Gone Girl—a portfolio strong enough to make her something of a producer-as-auteur. With more promising projects on the way (including an adaptation of Jessica Knoll’s bestseller Luckiest Girl Alive), Witherspoon would certainly survive a fizzle. But the Apple deal underscores how unnaturally her personal brand (with which the upcoming morning-news drama squarely aligns) fits with the tech company’s vision of its TV future. In order to watch Planet of the Apps or Carpool Karaoke today, you’d have to subscribe to Apple Music for $9.99/month, then watch it on your phone (ugh), or iTunes (the now bug-laden app you probably avoid using whenever possible), or hook up your computer to the TV (my kingdom for an unlosable HDMI cable). Apple TVs streamline this process, but obviously they account for a tiny minority of televisions.
That’s a lot of hassle (and one more monthly subscription) for stans of the 41-year-old A-lister who, at least based on Witherspoon’s lifestyle brand Draper James, appear to be rich moms. Despite Friends’ recent revival as a high-school phenomenon, Aniston’s fandom probably doesn’t skew much younger. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are already integrated into a lot of smart TVs, and more importantly, their content is easily accessible on a browser. By partnering up with Apple (provided that the tech company doesn’t make any drastic improvements to Apple Music), Witherspoon will be asking fans to jump through a few extra hoops to find her show in an era when entertainment already feels so often like homework.
The app-ification of TV is real. But the app-ification of prestige TV probably hasn’t happened yet because, in a hypercompetitive field like television, creators don’t want to make it harder for audiences to find or watch their shows. And in the still-revving era of Peak TV, Witherspoon and Aniston’s drama would have to be truly exceptional for audiences to seek it out on a newfangled service many people haven’t heard of. Just ask Seeso, PlayStation, or Spotify how their attempts at original programming turned out.
Apple’s deal for Witherspoon and Aniston’s series follows the tech giant’s planned resurrection of Amazing Stories, Steven Spielberg’s 1980s anthology program. That Apple is chasing boldface names for its original content is obvious and logical. But if beloved icons like Witherspoon and Aniston can’t get viewers to flock to Apple Music (a name that should go if the service starts investing heavily in TV), the company might have trouble down the line attracting talent that can find a home in a traditional network or on one of the streaming sites.
Which isn’t to say Apple and Witherspoon’s gamble couldn’t pay off. Demographic incompatibility or not, Witherspoon’s taste is probably as good as anyone’s to bet on. But for her show to find a significant audience, Apple will probably have to become a little less, well, Apple-y. And that means, above all, making it easier for people outside of the Apple ecosystem to watch. Two notorious control freaks enter. I hope one of them makes it out OK.