Apple’s new streaming service reportedly has a $1 billion budget, but apparently it can’t buy some nerve. The company has long censored its walled-garden offerings on platforms like the App Store, and per a report in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday, Apple is still aiming to keep its content offerings squeaky clean, with little “gratuitous sex, profanity or violence.” The desire to keep everything family-friendly is reportedly delaying or interfering with many projects. and the Journal writes that Apple’s own staff in Los Angeles have begun referring to the streaming project as “expensive NBC.”
The Journal wrote that CEO Tim Cook personally shot down Apple’s first scripted drama Vital Signs, about the life of hip-hop magnate Dr. Dre, after he watched the already-filmed show and was alarmed to see scenes featuring cocaine use, an orgy, and “drawn guns”:
It’s too violent, Mr. Cook told Apple Music executive Jimmy Iovine, said people familiar with Apple’s entertainment plans. Apple can’t show this.
Across Hollywood and inside Apple, the show has become emblematic of the challenges faced by the technology giant as it pushes into entertainment. Apple earmarked $1 billion for Hollywood programming last year. But in the tone CEO Mr. Cook has set for it, whatever Apple produces mustn’t taint a pristine brand image that has helped the company collect 80% of the profits in the global smartphone market.
(Previous reports have indicated that Vital Signs was delayed because Apple and Dre weren’t happy with the quality of the finished product.)
Unhampered by the need to protect a mainstay product line that wants to remain as uncontroversial as possible, Apple’s competitors in the streaming arena like Netflix, Amazon, and HBO have all released grittier content on much fatter production budgets. Entertainment doesn’t need to be full of blood sprays and naked bodies to be entertaining, obviously, but the Journal’s report suggests that Apple’s desire to keep even the sternest of brows unfurrowed has hurt its lineup and could ultimately delay launch day.
Apple has bought “more than a dozen shows, favoring broadly appealing, family-friendly fare,” the paper wrote, which include a program about Emily Dickinson, a presumably wholesome “Friday Night Lights-style drama” on the life of NBA star Kevin Durant, an unspecified Oprah Winfrey program, and something with the creators of Sesame Street. These projects do have some big names attached, but if the list elicits a bit of a yawn, no one could blame the yawner.
According to the Journal, Apple’s Hollywood executive team on the streaming project (Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, likely best known for their involvement with hit drug-war show Breaking Bad) have to “devote considerable time to winning a nod for shows from Mr. Cook and Eddy Cue, a senior vice president who oversees services, said someone well-versed in company dynamics.” That included watering down a show proposal from, um, M. Night Shyamalan, whose post-The Sixth Sense career is not exactly considered edgy, to remove crucifixes:
Messrs. Van Amburg and Erlicht have successfully pushed some edgier shows. Apple signed a deal for a series made by M. Night Shyamalan about a couple who lose a young child.
Before saying yes to that psychological thriller, Apple executives had a request: Please eliminate the crucifixes in the couple’s house, said people working on the project. They said executives made clear they didn’t want shows that venture into religious subjects or politics. Mr. Shyamalan wasn’t available for comment.
According to the Journal, Apple also outbid rivals for a costly (up to or over $12 million an episode) drama about a morning news program starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. The show is now delayed after issues with an executive producer, but also because Apple “wanted a more upbeat show and took exception to some of the humor proposed, according to people working on the project.” Finally, Apple also found new showrunners for Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories after concluding it was too “dark,” the paper wrote.
One can’t account for taste! But show business isn’t really like the App Store or an iPhone commercial, where Apple’s prudish attitude at least makes more sense on business grounds. One key lesson of Netflix’s success was that the streaming format allowed it to air the kind of content previously relegated to premium cable channels like HBO. Narrow sensibilities—specifically Cook’s sensibilities, apparently—could mean the difference between Apple becoming a threat to its streaming rivals or a flop. In the latter scenario, bundling the new service with other stuff like news subscriptions, as Apple has been widely reported to be planning, isn’t going to turn the tables.
Time will tell!
On the plus side, there’s no mention that Apple execs are interfering with its planned adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation trilogy, which is long overdue for the Hollywood treatment.