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Apple's streaming TV service: Expected release date, price, shows and launch content

Apple has been putting more than $1 billion into TV programming -- just where is it going to go? Apple will reveal its plans at a March 25 event.

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Apple is expected to unveil its rumored TV service at an event March 25 at its Steve Jobs Theater.

James Martin/CNET

Apple's been making it rain all over Hollywood for more than a year. Next week, we may finally find out what its $1 billion-plus worth of TV shows is all about. 

Apple is expected to unveil its rumored video service, as well as a news subscription service, at an event March 25 at its Cupertino, California, campus. The company has a pipeline of original programs with big stars -- including at least five shows that have wrapped shooting -- and it is reportedly scrambling to lock in deals with networks like HBO to offer a catalog of other programming alongside its own originals.

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For more than a year, the company reportedly has been soaring past its original $1 billion budget to recruit projects from high-profile film and television stars. Apple has nabbed big-name deals with J.J. Abrams, Brie Larson, Jason MomoaOprah WinfreyReese WitherspoonM. Night ShyamalanSteven Spielberg, among many others. The company also hired two top television executives to spearhead the effort. 

But Apple has been virtually silent about its ultimate plan for all this programmingCEO Tim Cook has made vague hints, saying on a conference call in January the company will "have something to say more on that later."

That day will come March 25. 

What will Apple's TV service look like? 

Nobody at Apple has breathed a word publicly yet.  Even people who are making shows for Apple have been kept in the dark about how and when their shows will be released. But plenty of people have theories.

Rather than putting all these shows on Apple Music (as it has in past with its other stabs at original video), Apple is planning a subscription service, along the lines of Netflix. The service will include the original content Apple has greenlit, which includes more than 30 known shows, and it has lined up a few known movies as well. 

Actor Jason Momoa smolders at the Premiere Of "Justice League"

Jason Momoa, who played Aquaman for Marvel and Daenarys Targaryen's first husband in Game of Thrones, is starring in Apple's fantasy epic See, which is reportedly in the midst of shooting now. 

Getty Images

But it may also will offer add-on video subscriptions so that members can watch their own bundle of video services in one place, similar to Amazon Prime Video and its Channels model, according to reports. 

In addition, it could have a library of licensed shows or movies. Apple is racing to finalize deals with networks like HBO, Showtime and Starz to license catalogs of already-released content that'll supplement its original shows, since the majority of Apple's programming still in development and won't be ready for launch. (Note: Showtime is owned by CBS, the parent company of CNET.)

But, as expected, Netflix won't be a subscription Apple offers. For one, Netflix doesn't participate in bundles like Amazon's Channels. Beyond that, Netflix doesn't even allow people who use its iOS app to sign up for a new subscription through Apple's in-app payment system. So it wasn't a shock when Netflix CEO Reed Hastings confirmed this week the company wasn't participating in Apple's service. 

Other speculation includes the idea Apple may create one bundle to rule them all. Apple plans to create a subscription news service built out of its takeover of Texture, a company that's a sort of Netflix for magazines. That's led to predictions that Apple may be building a bundle that packages all your digital content in one place. A combination of Apple Music, subscription Apple News and a video service could give consumers a one-stop hub for much of their online entertainment.

How much will it cost?

Rich Greenfield, an analyst for BTIG, believes Apple will give its $1 billion in programming away for free. 

If you own an Apple device, Greenfield anticipates Apple will provide free access to all these productions in the TV app on iOS or Apple TV. "Think of Apple's strategy along the lines of [Amazon's] Prime Video," he said in a September note. Apple's hope is that viewers will come for Oprah or Spielberg and then tack on other paid services to watch HBO, Starz or Showtime all in the same place. (Apple traditionally takes a cut of a service's subscription revenue when a user signs up through one of its storefronts.)

Octavia Spencer holds up her Oscar award statue

An Apple mystery series starring Octavia Spencer, who has won one acting Oscar and been nominated twice, may be one of the first shows available on the service. 

Dan MacMedan/Getty Images

But it's also reasonable to doubt that theory. Apple, known for premium products with price tags to match, would be acting out of character to give away $1 billion in free programming to device owners. 

However, Apple offering a free trial period is a safe bet. The company launched Apple Music with an extended free trial, and it's the industry standard: Most streaming video services offer introductory free periods for new members. The duration of that free trial may differ whether you own an Apple device or not, though. 

When will it launch?

After the expected unveiling in March, reports have indicated the service could launch in the summer in the US or even as late as the fall. Most reports indicate the service will launch with at least some original programming before the end of 2019. 

Apple plans to launch the service in the US followed by an expansion to more than 100 countries, according to a report.

What shows and movies will it have?

Apple's shows run the gamut of drama, comedy, documentary -- even undefined deals with a single big star attached. CNET keeps a tally of the more than 30 Apple shows known so far, and it has details on every program. 

But most of these series won't be ready to debut when the service launches. Only five reportedly have finished shooting

  • an Octavia Spencer mystery drama called Are You Sleeping?; 
  • a space drama from Outlander and Battlestar Galactica producer Ronald D. Moore called For All Mankind; 
  • an untitled thriller from Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan; 
  • a comedy from Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day, who created and star in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia; 
  • and a comedy about reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, played by Hailee Steinfeld from True Grit and The Edge of Seventeen.
elephantqueen-copy

Apple bought the rights to Elephant Queen, a documentary film about a matriarch elephant who must lead her herd to a new home on a journey that tests the survival of the family's youngest.  

Elephant Queen

The company's progress lining up movies for the service is less advanced, at least from what's publicly known. Apple has a partnership with film studio A24 -- known for such movies as Ex Machina, Moonlight and Room. Their partnership will include a film called On the Rocks starring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones and directed by Sofia Coppola. 

Apple has also acquired a few films at festivals to distribute on the new service. It picked up Hala, produced by Jada Pinkett Smitth, at Sundance and a documentary about elephants called The Elephant Queen at the Toronto Film Festival. 

The service has come under early scrutiny because of reports Apple is restricting its creators from making edgy content and aiming to keep all its programming family friendly. Family-friendly programming isn't a liability to success -- Disney built one of the reigning media empires on it -- but edgy shows have led other streaming services' to awards recognition that often drives new viewers to try a service and is frequently used as a barometer for a service's success. Apple's strategy could crimp it competitively on that front.

But that won't stop Apple from trying to score awards, apparently. The company is hiring strategists to help craft campaigns for awards like the Oscars and Emmys, according to a report. 

Who will Apple battle to win subscribers? 

Apple's forthcoming service would launch at a time when seemingly every major media property is putting out their own streaming option, from DC Universe's comic-flavored fare to a planned Disney offering, not to mention stalwarts like Netflix

Apple customers may be lukewarm about Apple's service. One survey found that the favored Apple service people would most most like to see is a virtual cable live-TV subscription -- exactly the kind of service that Apple failed to get off the ground. A Baird survey of 1,500 US respondents found that a Netflix-like offering -- the type Apple is widely expected unveil March 25 -- was second on the lists of the most-wanted Apple services. 

And Apple doesn't exactly have the best track record with TV. Its set-top box, Apple TV, was a "hobby" for years. Steve Jobs said he "finally cracked" how to create a connected iTV set in 2011, but it never materialized following his death that year. The company failed to pin down deals for a virtual cable service. Apple has already released two original video series on its music subscription service, Apple Music. But those shows -- reality competition Planet of the Apps and a spinoff of Carpool Karaoke -- were flops. 

Clearly, an Apple service with $1 billion worth of premium video will compete with the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and others that stream on-demand, high-quality productions. As Netflix likes to point out, on-demand video services don't just compete among themselves, they're going up against anything that's vying for your attention. So traditional television, YouTube and the parade of live-TV streaming service all make Apple's competitive field even more crowded. 

What's interesting is that Apple's dive into original programming comes as other giants are ramping up their own original video ambitions. 

Disney is expected to launch a Netflix-like service next year. Called Disney+, the digital service will be a home base for streaming all of Disney's blockbuster movies, multiple Star Wars original series and other programming. It'll cost "substantially" less than Netflix, CEO Bob Iger has said. 

Meanwhile, NBCUniversal and HBO-owner WarnerMedia are both building their own streaming services. And Facebook has been pouring money into original video for the Watch section of its app. 

Basically, if you're interested in subscribing to all of these services, you may want to start saving up now. 

Apple is a gadget giant. Why does it want to become Netflix? 

Haven't you heard? Everybody wants to be the Netflix of something. (Podcasts! Fitness! Clothes! Games! Even demand management.)

Apple is taking aim at original video because it could be a crucial enticement for people to buy more iPhones and other gadgets

You can't overstate the importance of the iPhone to Apple. The phone, one of the most popular in the world, still accounts for more than half its sales and was critical to Apple's march to become the first US company worth $1 trillion

But Apple is on a deadline to double its services revenue to $50 billion before 2021. 

Apple quickly established its bona fides in subscriptions businesses with Apple Music. But the content on Apple Music is essentially the same as every other music service. They all have tens of millions of songs. Apple Music has been successful largely because of its presence on the iPhone, already in the pockets of millions of people. It hasn't been nearly as successful working the other direction, acting as a lure to buy the latest Apple gadget.  

Original video from big-name stars and creators you can't watch anywhere else, however, could be different. 

Apple clearly has a hunch it will be.

This piece was originally published Sept. 8, 2018, and is updated as new details come to light.