Customers gather as they take part in a class to learn how to use their iPhones at an Apple Store on January 7, 2019.

To succeed in entertainment, Apple may have to risk damaging its brand

Updated 9:57 AM ET, Mon March 25, 2019

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Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years, and has written four books on TV, including The Late Shift and The War for Late Night. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

Perspectives Bill Carter

It's the most anticipated announcement since ... Friday.

OK, it's not the same as the Mueller report, but the Apple report, due Monday in Cupertino, California, has the tech world slavering with anticipation, with the entertainment world in a similar lather.
What's it all about? Uh, money of course. Also: corporate warfare, tech pre-eminence, cultural impact and good old-fashioned show biz.
The long-awaited revelation of Apple's plan to join Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney, Warner and others in the streaming arena will have the requisite formula for a Hollywood opening: promised blockbusters and big star names like Reese Witherspoon, Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Anniston, Jason Momoa and M. Night Shyamalan.
Get a place down front.
But don't let the klieg lights blind you. Most of the real action is taking place behind the cameras.
    That's where Apple is building the service to accompany the sizzle. While much is being made about the $1 billion or more Apple has invested in programs to try to make a splash in a video business now dominated by Netflix (and Apple has certainly gotten Netflix's attention), the essence of Apple's big move is not going to be whether it can make hit entertainment programs right from the jump. Rather, it will be how Apple may take advantage of its gargantuan global reach in terms of devices — and thus a delivery system — to enhance its existing business as goliath in the tech world.
    If Apple gets more people buying its devices and using its services because it can now also offer the new version of "Amazing Stories" from Steven Spielberg, or that new comedy from the "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" guys, this move will create exceptional corporate synergy going forward.
    And that's the right strategy, because that's the business Apple knows exceptionally well. In contrast, Hollywood, as is now familiar to everyone since screenwriter William Goldman first explained it, is the place where nobody knows anything.
    Principally, nobody has a sliver of a clue what people will actually like enough to shell out money to see it. That's been the case throughout show business history. (Charlie Chaplin in 1931: "I give the talkies six months more. At the most a year. Then they're done.")
    The only thing longer than the list of hits first passed on as hopeless (recent examples: "American Idol," "The Sopranos," "Breaking Bad") is the one of "surefire" hits that incinerated studio money ("A Wrinkle in Time," "Mortal Engines," "John Carter").
    So Apple probably can't count on its impressive list of potentially fascinating new series to ignite its service the way, say, "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" has for Amazon or "Handmaid's Tale" has for Hulu.
    Apple will announce a batch of these shows Monday, and how many of them have been completed and will be ready to launch whenever the streaming service begins. However many there are — between 10 and 15 are expected — it will hardly be a threat to Netflix, which now has a dizzying program roster.
    Apple's approach has been typical of the late-comer awash in cash. Looking to grab attention, it has bought up high-profile talent, in actors and producers. More important has been the executive talent chosen to lead the effort.
      Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, who are overseeing Apple's video programming, had a good run leading the Sony television studio. That was good preparation because that studio — with no network affiliation — needed to cast a wide net to find the programs to satisfy a wide range of buyers.
      I interviewed both men on several occasions; they're smart, able program developers. Van Amburg especially gained a reputation in the TV business for creative vision.
      While at Sony, the partners had a direct hand in developing hit shows like "Blacklist" on NBC and "The Goldbergs" at ABC. The most spectacular success at the studio while they were there, and the show surely most ideally suited to electrify streaming consumers, was "Breaking Bad."
      Finding the true breakout show is a typical challenge for studios. After the final season, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan told me almost no one wanted to put on a drama about an unassuming chemistry teacher dying of cancer who becomes a meth maestro, killer and crime lord. Risky programs like that almost always scare off suitors, because they are concerned about things like their "brand."