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Apple's TV Plus put on a hell of a show. It just wasn't for us

Commentary: The star-studded theatrics were mostly for the stars themselves.

Art Streiber/Apple

Walking up the blustery path to Apple's big event Monday, I had a lot of questions about the gadget giant's big-league streaming TV ambitions. But I left the Steve Jobs Theater with few answers.

Apple stopped putting on a show for me, a tech reporter at her first Apple event, the moment the lights went up to reveal Steven Spielberg to a standing ovation. And it wasn't putting on a show for you -- the customer and prospective subscriber -- anymore either. If it had been, Apple might have told us how much the streaming service will cost, whether its shows' episodes will drop at once or how many programs will be available at launch.

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Instead, from Spielberg to Oprah Winfrey and all the stars in between, Apple brought its Hollywood talent to Cupertino, California, to publicly worship them and their craft.

Don't believe me? Apple literally put them on pedestals.

"It appeared to be an advertisement to the industry that they're able to attract high-quality talent and they're willing to spend," BTIG analyst Walter Piecyk said in an interview Thursday. "They weren't selling this to end users." 

The stars and filmmakers on display Monday served as a reminder that Apple loves the creative community -- and the feeling is mutual. Not only did it get Hollywood icons and up-and-comers to praise Apple, Monday's presentation showed Apple itself has enough star power to get Oprah- and Spielberg-level wattage to show up and effuse about their excitement to work with the company.

Despite my hopes, Apple's event didn't set its talent loose to start gabbing about their projects publicly. Apple's event lifted the veil of secrecy over its programming -- but quickly dropped it back down. I contacted representatives for more than 30 actors, actresses and filmmakers present in the Steve Jobs Theater that day. None would share reactions to the event on the record.

But it did mean the assembled celebrities could litter their social feeds with warm fuzzies for Apple

The result is a hard reset on the perception of Apple's relationship with its talent.

Reporting leading up to this week often depicted Apple as a clueless meddler in the high-octane shows it's booked. Carpool Karaoke, one of Apple's first stabs at original programming on its Apple Music subscription service, was sent back to creators to remove "foul language and references to vaginal hygiene," according to Bloomberg. Apple executives allegedly were "intrusive" about how its programs depict technology, with one of Tim Cook's frequent notes to one producer reportedly being, "don't be so mean!"

Apple didn't respond to a message seeking comment for this article.

Putting all those stars on stage meant "it sounds like [Apple's] great to work with," Laura Martin, senior internet and media analyst at Needham and Co., said Thursday. "You can't buy Steven Spielberg... You're not going to get Oprah to work with you unless you're great to work with."

But Apple doesn't face much of a battle getting Hollywood talent on board.

For one, it's paying top dollar. Even Netflix, a company that constantly puts much of traditional Hollywood on edge, still has talent flocking to its big budgets and huge base of viewers. Even among the Apple stars assembled at Cupertino this week, several are Netflix talent too.

Michelle Dockery, best known as Lady Mary on Downton Abbey, will star in Apple's Defending Jacob, after she was nominated for an Emmy for Netflix's Godless. Days before Brie Larson was posing for that eye-popping group photo in Apple's sleek theater lobby, she was posting the trailer to her directorial debut, Unicorn Store, from Netflix. 

On the flip side, some are already interpreting Spielberg's appearance at Apple -- and his past dismissiveness about Netflix as a film distributor -- as the legendary director taking a side in the coming Apple vs. Netflix heavyweight bout.

Unlike Netflix, Apple doesn't have a single video subscriber yet. But it does have 900 million active iPhones in everyone's pockets and what's estimated to be a $2 billion annual budget for programming. Even without Apple's sheen, any company with that kind of distribution network and that much money to invest wouldn't sweat scoring meetings with Hollywood's elite.

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If Apple's message to customers was that it had molded itself into a programming giant to rival HBO or Netflix, it delivered that message mostly with sleight of hand. Apple's celebrity presenters had the chance to create excitement about their projects -- and Apple's time-tested stagecraft certainly put all its talent in the best possible light.

But ultimately we only learned crumbs of new information. We learned the titles of some shows and the general plots to some episodes of Spielberg's Amazing Stories series and Kumail Nanjiani's Little America. Sure, Apple gave us a sizzle reel with snippets from many of its shows. But with multiple shows already in the can, Apple couldn't put together a trailer or two?

Whatever Hollywood thought of the show Apple put on Monday, we -- the people who would be its viewers -- are still waiting for Apple to put on a show for us. If Apple TV Plus is really, as Tim Cook put it Monday, "unlike anything that's been done before," it has more explaining to do.

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