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Why Apple is giving Apple TV Plus away for free

Commentary: Because nobody's gonna pay another $5 a month for eight shows and a documentary.

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Jennifer and Reese are streaming to your new Apple gadget for free.

Apple
This story is part of Apple Event, our full coverage of the latest news from Apple headquarters.

One of the biggest surprises at Apple's iPhone 11 event concerned the price of its new Apple TV Plus service. No, we're not talking about the normal price: $5 per month, with the first shows starting streaming on Nov. 1. 

We're talking about the throw-in price: free.

Apple TV Plus will be free for the first year -- ostensibly a $60 value -- with any purchase of an iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Mac or iPod Touch starting now. In its press release, Apple says the offer applies "to both new and refurbished models, including devices from the iPhone Upgrade Program, is not restricted to any specific sales channel (e.g., Apple Store, resellers) and will be available in all countries where Apple TV Plus will launch." Apple did not announce when the offer would end, but it does characterize it as a "limited time offer."

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The free offer casts a really wide net. You can get a refurbished Apple TV for $129 from Apple, and some of those devices, like the iPod Touch, are potentially even cheaper as refurbs. Meanwhile, despite peaking iPhone sales, Apple will still sell millions of brand-new iPhones, iPads and Macs for the 2019 holiday season and beyond.

That means most Apple TV Plus watchers won't have to pay a dime for its shows until November 2020 at the earliest. For nearly everyone who will watch its initial slate of shows, Apple TV Plus is free.

Read more: The cheapest way to get Apple TV Plus for free

Free: The right price for Apple TV Plus

$0 is just about how much Apple TV Plus should cost initially. That's because it will only launch with nine titles.

Some of those shows have star power thanks to Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell (all on one show) as well as involvement from creators like Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams. It has some slick-looking trailers and some cool concepts like an Emily Dickinson comedy and an alternative historical drama where Russia puts the first person on the moon. There's also a documentary film starring a mama elephant. And Apple named a slate of five other titles to follow in succeeding months.

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Apple CEO Time Cook paces the stage in front of the Apple TV Plus lineup.

Screenshot/CNET

Compared to the massive lineups on Hulu, Prime Video and HBO, however, that ain't much. And versus Disney Plus, with its family-, Star Wars- and Avengers-fueled lineup that's so good $7 a month seems like a bargain, it's tiny. And compared to "rival" Netflix, a streaming behemoth with 150 million worldwide subscribers and approximately that many shows (we kid, but you get the idea), it's about a tenth of a blip.

As far as we know, every show on Apple TV Plus is a global exclusive to Apple TV Plus. In that way it's more like HBO: known primarily for original programming like Game of Thrones and Succession, as well as a back catalog including The Sopranos and The Wire and numerous documentaries. But HBO also has a big selection of licensed Hollywood movies in addition to original shows, further justifying its monthly price. For many viewers HBO is a must-have, and the same can be said for Netflix or Hulu.

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No matter how good The Morning Show turns out to be, it's hard to imagine Apple TV Plus being a must-have. Asking people to pay another $5 a month for its small slate of initial offerings is inviting failure as well as subscription fatigue.

Since Plus is a brand-new service with a tiny catalog consisting of unproven, only exclusive shows, Apple's decision to give it away for free to millions of Apple hardware buyers is a smart play. Given Apple's scale and high expectations, it's arguably the only play. Apple will probably push the free Apple TV Plus offer to eligible buyers with notifications and emails and a simple sign-up process linked to Apple accounts that makes it easy to take advantage of the offer. 

After a year (or more) of perhaps millions -- possibly tens of millions -- of Apple users signing up for free, the big question will be how many decide to cancel once the $5 monthly subscription cost kicks in. Part of that depends on how much everyone likes the shows, but a lot depends on whether they set reminders in their calendar apps to cancel. Because once the free year ends that monthly charge kicks right in, whether you're actually watching the shows or not.

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