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Apple TV Plus: How to sign up and everything else to know

Apple TV Plus and its splashy shows are out -- and free.

Apple TV Plus has arrived. The subscription streaming service featuring Apple's original TV shows and movies launched early Friday. The content popped up in the company's TV app, which comes preloaded on hundreds of millions of iPhones. You can sign up online or in Apple's TV app

It costs $5 a month, but everyone can access it free today: It has a seven-day free trial, and Apple is offering a free year-long subscription to anyone who's purchased an Apple device since Sept. 10. Apple is also bundling Apple TV Plus with its Apple Music student-discount plan, giving it away to a swath of young people at no extra cost.

That one-free-year deal, though, has some terms that may raise eyebrows. Your service is set to automatically renew at the end of the free year. If you cancel it before the end of that term, the service will shut off immediately and cannot be reinstated. You must wait until the day before the deal runs out to cancel or you forfeit any remaining free viewing time. 

Apple TV Plus launched with nine titles. The service, which has a reported budget of $6 billion to rope in some of Hollywood's biggest stars, is staking the most on The Morning Show, its marquee drama starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston with an eye-popping $300 million reported budget. But its adult-oriented programming also includes Oprah's Book Club, a book-focused talk show with celebrity Oprah Winfrey; See, a post-apocalyptic thriller starring Jason MomoaFor All Mankind, an alternative retelling of the space race; and Dickinson, a comedy about poet Emily Dickinson starring Hailee Steinfeld and targeting a younger audience. 

Early reviews of these high-priced shows are varied. The reception of The Morning Show is mixed: Critics generally have praised the actors' performances and some call it fun and intriguing. But other reviews throw some gut-punching descriptions like brutally dull, rudderless and a kludge, with one saying both the show and the service both "don't need to exist." Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes score The Morning Show at 58% and 59%, respectively. 

See has had the coldest critical reception so far: It rates 37% on Metacritic and 43% on Rotten Tomatoes as of Friday. But faring better are Dickinson at 76% on Rotten Tomatoes and For All Mankind at 73%

The other programs available on Apple TV Plus at launch are a Sesame Street spinoff called Helpsters; a kids program called Ghostwriter; animated series Snoopy in Space; and The Elephant Queen, a documentary film that the company acquired at the Toronto Film Festival.

After launch, those nine programs will be expanded with another five that Apple confirmed will arrive in the coming months.

Apple CEO Tim Cook isn't playing at modesty. In March, he heralded Apple TV Plus as "unlike anything that's been done before." Below is everything we know.  

What's Apple's TV service like? 

Apple TV Plus is a subscription streaming service to watch the company's original series and movies exclusively. 

Like Netflix, it won't have ads. 

Unlike Netflix, it doesn't have a library of licensed shows or movies, nor will it release full seasons of its shows all at once in a binge-able bunch. "Most" Apple TV Plus series will premiere three episodes followed by one new episode every week. Full seasons of "some" series will drop all at the same time, though. 

Apple TV Plus programming resides inside Apple's TV app. In the app's "Watch Now" tab, Apple TV Plus shows sit next movies and shows to rent and buy, as well as other video subscriptions such as HBO or Starz. 

Apple TV Plus is available in more than 100 countries and will also be part of Apple's family-sharing feature, which allows you and up to five family members to share a plan. Apple originals are available in 4K, HDR and Dolby Vision, and most titles also offer Dolby Atmos sound, according to this Apple support page.

We haven't heard anything about whether Apple will package Apple TV Plus with other subscriptions -- such as Apple Arcade, Apple News Plus and Apple Music -- into a discounted bundle a la Disney Plus being packaged with Hulu and ESPN Plus.  

How much does it cost?

Apple TV Plus costs $5 a month, or $50 for an annual subscription, and it offers a standard seven-day free trial. People who buy an iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, iPod Touch or Mac starting back on Sept. 10 qualify for a free subscription for one year. Current Apple device owners aren't grandfathered in. 

Apple TV Plus talent gathers with CEO Tim Cook in the lobby of the Steve Jobs Theater.

Art Streiber/Apple

The free-year offer applies to both new and refurbished models, including devices from the iPhone Upgrade Program, and it's not restricted to any specific sales channel, so it applies to both Apple Store purchases and those at resellers. It will be available in all countries where Apple TV Plus launches.

Apple is also bundling Apple TV Plus with its Apple Music student-discount plan, now offering both streaming services in the $5-a-month deal at no extra cost.

By comparison, Disney Plus, the highly anticipated streaming service from the entertainment giant, will launch Nov. 12 for $7 a month -- with a large library of movies and shows available immediately. Streaming services based on cable networks, like Showtime or HBO Now, usually range between $9 to $15 a month. Smaller, niche streaming services often are priced around $5 or less. 

And Netflix, the world's biggest subscription streaming service, prices its most popular plan at $13 a month in the US; it offers other tiers at $9 and $16 a month.

Free trials are the industry standard: Most streaming video services offer introductory free periods for new members. Apple's one-year free period for gadget owners is atypically long. That tactic worked well for Apple Music -- Apple launched its music service with an extended, six-month free trial, and Apple Music quickly became the world's second most popular music service by subscribers behind only Spotify. 

How do I sign up? And get that free year?

Apple TV Plus is associated with Apple ID, which is the same log-in you'd use for iCloud or downloading apps from its App Store. If you don't already have an Apple ID, you can create one here

If you already have Apple's TV app on an iPhone, iPad or Apple TV, you simply need to open the app and navigate to any of the places where Apple is prominently promoting its original shows. On newly purchased iPhones, for example, the app already knows you've purchased a new gadget to qualify for the deal. Whether you're starting Apple TV Plus with a year free or just the standard one-week trial, the shows start playing in the app after just a few taps.

You can also sign up and watch online with a web browser at the Apple TV Plus site

The free-year deal is set up to keep people within the service after the term ends. Your service is set to autorenew at the end of the free year, and the service will shut off immediately when you cancel, even if you still have time left in the deal. You must wait until the day before the deal runs out to cancel or you forfeit any remaining free viewing time. 

When did it launch?

Apple TV Plus launched Friday in more than 100 countries and regions. 

The company said its originals will be subtitled or dubbed in nearly 40 languages, including closed captions for people who are hearing impaired, and Apple TV Plus series and movies will also be available with audio descriptions in eight languages.

What devices are supported to stream it?

Apple's programming is available on all Apple devices with the Apple TV app. 

In addition, Apple TV Plus is supposed to be available on some competitors' devices. Apple's TV app is confirmed to be supported on smart TVs from Samsung, and it's supposed to become available this year on Roku, Amazon's Fire TV devices and smart TVs from SonyLG and Vizio. Subscribers will also be able to watch Apple TV Plus on the web at tv.apple.com.

03-reese-witherspoon-jennifer-anniston-for-apple-tv-plus-at-apple-event

Reese Witherspoon (left) and Jennifer Aniston revealed the name of their Apple TV Plus series, The Morning Show, at Apple's event in March. 

Claudia Cruz/CNET

But the Apple TV app isn't available on any mobile devices except iPhones or iPads. That means Apple TV Plus subscribers with non-Apple phones -- meaning, the huge population of people with Android phones -- will need to stream to their mobiles via the web, rather than in an app. 

What shows and movies does it have?

Apple's shows run the gamut of drama, comedy, documentary -- even undefined deals with a single big star attached. It's also spending big to get top Hollywood names: WinfreySteven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams and other heavy hitters are on board. CNET keeps a tally of the Apple shows known so far, and it has details on every program. 

At launch, Apple TV Plus has nine titles: 

At a preview screening of Dickinson in September, creator Alena Smith described the show as a "crazy psychedelic" version of the 1850s, where Steinfeld plays the young poet cursing in contemporary slang while wearing a corset, and rapper Wiz Khalifa shows up as a personification of death in the first episode. John Mulaney will appear later as Henry David Thoreau, one of Dickinson's heroes who turns out to be a "total phony," according to Smith, and Zosia Mamet will guest star as Little Women writer Louisa May Alcott, who apparently visits the Dickinsons for Christmas. 

Oprah's series -- with a new episode every two months -- homes in on a book in each episode, including an interview its author. Leading up to the show, Apple will promote that title in its Apple Books store. Apple said it will make a a contribution to the American Library Association for every purchase of an Oprah's Book Club title in its store. The first episode, which will be available on Apple TV Plus at launch Nov. 1, will focus on The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. 

After launch, Apple said five additional titles would be added in following months: 

  • Servant, a thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, who directed Sixth Sense, premiering Nov. 28
  • Truth Be Told, the mystery drama starring Spencer and Paul, premiering Dec. 6
  • Little America, from the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Kumail Nanjiani (you may know him as Dinesh on HBO's Silicon Valley) and Emily V. Gordon
  • The Banker, a movie based on a true story starring Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson
  • Hala, a movie produced by Jada Pinkett Smith that Apple picked up at Sundance

Shyamalan revealed details about his thriller Servant at a New York Comic Con panel in early October, saying he envisions the show as a 60-episode arc. (Apple hasn't confirmed whether it's made that scale of commitment to Servant.) The show, which delves into mysteries surrounding the death of a baby, will premiere Nov. 28 for a 10-episode season, with each episode running about 30 minutes. 

But the release plans for other Apple originals remain unclear. We still don't know when we'll be seeing shows like: Mythic Quest, a comedy from Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day, who created and starred in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia; Amazing Stories, an anthology series from Steven Spielberg; and Central Park, a cartoon musical from the creator of Bob's Burgers and packed with the voices of stars like Frozen's Josh Gad and Kristen Bell and Hamilton's Leslie Odom Jr. and Daveed Diggs.

In October, the company announced a new project: a limited-series thriller called Lisey's Story starring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore. The show, about a woman facing repressed realizations about her husband two years after his death, is being produced by Stephen King and has J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot production company attached too. 

Apple also struck an exclusive deal with Alfonso Cuarón for the famed director's first television projects. 

We don't know as much about Apple's film strategy

Apple has a partnership with film studio A24 -- known for such movies as Ex Machina, Moonlight and Room. The partnership will include a film called On the Rocks starring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones and directed by Sofia Coppola. 

In mid-October, Apple announced a second film as part of its A24 partnership. The Sky Is Everywhere is based on a young-adult novel by Jandy Nelson that follows a teenager as she grieves the loss of her sister and "accidentally falls in love," Apple said. Nelson will adapt the script, and experimental filmmaker Josephine Decker will direct. 

At the Toronto Film Festival last year, Apple also bought the rights to Wolfwalkers, an animated movie from Cartoon Saloon and Melusine Productions. 

A report in September said Apple may give theater runs to some of its films before streaming them on Apple TV Plus. 

Now playing: Watch this: Apple teases its original shows in new trailer
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Apple has come under early scrutiny because of reports that it's restricting its creators from making edgy content and aiming to keep all its programming family friendly. Family friendly programming isn't necessarily a bar to success -- Disney built one of the reigning media empires on it -- but edgy shows have led other streaming services to awards recognition that helps drive interest. 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 is Apple competing against for your dollars? 

Apple's service is launching at a time when seemingly every major media property is putting out its own streaming option, from DC Universe's comic-flavored fare to a planned Disney offering, not to mention stalwarts like Netflix. Meanwhile, NBCUniversal and HBO-owner WarnerMedia are both building their own streaming services.

Clearly, an Apple service with $6 billion worth of premium video competes with the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and others that stream on-demand, high-quality productions. 

Should Apple expand to bundling other digital networks, then Amazon Channels will be its key rival. Apple would also go up against wireless companies such as AT&T's VRV, a co-op of niche genre streaming services. A channel-bundling model would even bring Apple in competition with traditional cable. 

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

Disney will launch a $7-a-month Netflix-like service Nov. 12. Called Disney Plus, the digital service will be a home base for streaming all of Disney's blockbuster movies, multiple Star Wars and Marvel original series and other programming. Compared with Apple's nine titles at launch, Disney Plus will have at least 300 movies to stream plus thousands of TV episodes. 

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

Apple is on a deadline to lift 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.

Originally published Sept. 8, 2018, and updated as new information is revealed.