Apple just entered an exclusive partnership with Richard Plepler, one of the chief architects of HBO’s last two decades of success. According to the New York Times, Plepler’s new production company has a five-year exclusivity deal with Apple’s TV+. If Apple’s entertainment executives aren’t worried about what the incoming titan’s arrival means for their jobs and the platform’s future yet, they probably should be. At least from where I’m sitting.
For some context, here, Plepler departed his role as chief executive of HBO last year following AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner. At the time, it was reported that Plepler found the merger minimized his autonomy, as AT&T bosses stepped in and immediately started tinkering with HBO’s highly successful entertainment model. Reports last year detailed a new regime under which the business model would be closer to Netflix’s than HBO’s—namely, churning out more content instead of necessarily good content.
Plepler left after nearly three decades at HBO. But AT&T’s loss was evidently quickly interpreted to be a potential gain for Apple TV+. In many respects TV+ competes more directly with HBO than it does other streaming competitors. Apple’s own executives have described TV+ as a sort of antithesis to Netflix.
According to a New York Times interview with Plepler about the move, Apple’s Eddy Cue reached out to the former HBO head soon after he left HBO last February. Those talks landed Plepler at the company with a five-year producing role for series, documentaries, and films produced for Apple TV+. Cue, who oversees Apple’s services business, including TV+, previously brought on Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlich to oversee the TV+ division over two years ago.
Plepler told the Times that a condition of his arrival at Apple is that Van Amburg and Erlich were game. This makes sense on Plepler’s part, given that corporate dust-ups appear to be the driving force behind his leaving HBO. Based on Plepler’s statements to the Times—specifically that all he wants to do “is run my own little PT boat”—that probably also involved ensuring some creative autonomy for his direction.
But Plepler’s Apple deal—to be clear he is not running TV+, just contributing—also feels significant in light of the reception of Apple’s new tentpole service. TV+ just hasn’t popped on the cultural landscape like Apple might have wanted. And there were issues early on, like axing a show based on Dr. Dre’s life because it was too violent, and canceling one about Richard Gere on a shooting spree because it wasn’t friendly enough.
But the initial launch of TV+’s 2019 slate is where the real problem lies. Despite The Morning Show’s Golden Globe nods, the show—Apple’s biggest bet for its debut content offerings—generated mixed reviews, as did much of Apple’s other original content. It didn’t get anywhere near the attention that it, in theory, should have.
For All Mankind, the platform’s science fiction drama series about the space race from Hugo- and Emmy Award-winning showrunner Ron Moore, made nowhere near the splash it should have. Yet it is exactly the kind of weird, alt-historical series that should have been a contender during awards season.
Part of the issue with this series—as with virtually all of Apple’s content offerings—is that Apple’s typical shroud-of-mystery and tight-lipped approach to its product rollouts is fundamentally at odds with how you make people give a shit about entertainment. There was virtually zero buzz about these respective shows prior to launch because we knew nothing about them. All viewers knew prior to launch day, based on rumors, was that Apple TV+ amounted to nothing more than an “expensive NBC.” That we’ve still heard little about its 2020 lineup doesn’t exactly help its cause.
For a company that hopes to position itself as a kind of taste-making kingpin for news, entertainment, and music, its thin slate of content upon launch hinted that Apple’s own hubris may have impeded its ability to meet the expectations it had fanned for viewers and critics.
Mark Duplass, who stars as Chip in The Morning Show, said as much in a recent interview this week. “I think Apple knows this now, but they didn’t do a very good job of welcoming critics into the process because they’re used to keeping their product secret, When you’re dealing with critics, you don’t keep secrets,” Duplass told The Hollywood Reporter during a red carpet review for Bombshell. “The critics did not like that, and I think they lashed out a little bit.”
As The Hollywood Reporter noted, there’s a pretty big discrepancy between audience and critical reception of that series in particular. (Your feelings on Duplass’s show may depend, in part, on your individual response to it using a real national tragedy as the backdrop for a cringe-worthy plot device.) But there’s no doubt the platform as a whole could use some work, and there’s a reason that so many other of Apple’s debut series were snubbed for their own awards nods.
The deal with Plepler feels like a desire to alter course for Apple. Plepler did tell the Times explicitly that he does “not want to run anything again” and instead wants to focus on producing. Still between TV+’s muted debut and his deal, if I were running TV+ right now I might be worried.