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Apple's streaming TV service: Expected release date, price, shows, movies and bundles

Apple's event Monday should home in on the gadget giant's vision for streaming video. With Apple pouring more than $1 billion in TV programming, where will it all go?

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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. 

The company is expected to unveil its rumored video service, as well as a news subscription service, at an event March 25 in the Steve Jobs theater at its Cupertino, California, campus. Its pipeline of original programs with big stars -- including at least five shows that have wrapped shooting -- has been fueling speculation for more than a year. 

Reportedly, Apple is also scrambling to lock in deals with networks like HBO to offer other programming alongside its own originals, and its strategy may start out as more of a storefront selling discounted bundles of other company's streaming services. (Just not Netflix.)

Regardless, Apple spent this week clearing the decks of hardware news -- be it big, like the reveal of new AirPods Wednesday, or small, like incremental changes to the iMac and iPad. That suggests the flashy presentation Monday will be all about services.  

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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 Shyamalan, Battlestar Galactica producer Ronald D. MooreSteven 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 arrives Monday. 

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 widely expected to launch a new vision for it original video. The new strategy will include the original content Apple has greenlit, which includes more than 30 known shows and 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 the shape this offering takes only gets murkier as the day draws nearer. 

While Apple continues working on its originals, its video strategy at first may focus on 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. Apple may launch these bundles at a discount, perhaps even tossing in its originals as a perk.  

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 that Apple offers. It wasn't a shock when Netflix CEO Reed Hastings confirmed this week that the company wasn't participating in Apple's service. For one, Netflix doesn't participate in bundles like Amazon's Channels. Beyond that, Netflix doesn't even allow people to sign up for a new subscription in its iOS app, turned off by Apple's in-app payment fees. 

Others speculate 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 Abrams and then tack on other paid services to watch HBO, Starz or Showtime all in the same place. (Apple 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 high price tags to, would be acting out of character to give away $1 billion in free programming to device owners. 

Apple may try to create its own kind of discounted bundle -- packaging a group of about 15 video services, including paid streaming networks (think Showtime and Starz) and free digital channels like Cheddar and Tastemade. It may throw in its short list of finished originals as a bonus, at least initially.

HBO's participation is still a question mark, according to reports. 

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. 

When will it launch?

After the expected unveiling in March, reports have indicated a Netflix-ish service with Apple's originals could launch in the summer in the US or even as late as the fall. Most reports indicate a 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.

Initially, Apple may launch a reimagined video storefront in advance of that. While Apple keeps working to accumulate a sizable library of its own content, it may focus initially on being a aggregator of other company's channels. 

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.
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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 company also bought the rights to Wolfwalkers, an animated movie from Cartoon Saloon and Melusine Productions. 

Apple has come under early scrutiny because of reports it's 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

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. 

Should Apple focus on bundling other digital networks, then Amazon Channels is its key rival. But Apple is also going up against wireless companies like AT&T that offer VRV, a co-op of niche genre streaming services. 

The bundling model even brings Apple in competition with traditional cable. Thursday, Comcast announced a $5-a-month service called Xfinity Flex, which lumps together a streaming box, a voice remote and a digital interface to navigate all your video options in one place -- Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and HBO, as well as free ad-supported shows and options to rent or buy programming -- as well as throwing in controls for music services and connected security cameras in your home.

As Netflix likes to point out, video services don't just compete among themselves, they're going up against anything that's vying for your attention. Traditional television, YouTube, the parade of live-TV streaming services -- even gaming phenoms like Fortnite -- all pack Apple's new competitive field. 

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. 

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.)

For one, 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.