Apple Inc. is getting ready to launch its own streaming-video service, Apple TV+, in the coming weeks. Compared to Netflix and other rival offerings, the new app will feature a rather skimpy lineup of viewing choices. That’s reigniting the will-they/won’t-they debate around Apple and the handful of Hollywood studios that look ripe for an acquisition.
The tech giant announced this week that Apple TV+ will launch on Nov. 1, beating Walt Disney Co.’s rival product to the market by 11 days. Apple TV+ will cost $4.99 a month, which is $2 less than Disney+, and on the face of it, significantly cheaper than Netflix and AT&T Inc.’s HBO Max, set to debut next spring. What’s more, Apple will let customers have the service free for a year when they purchase an iPhone, iPad, Mac or Apple TV console.
Much has been made of Apple TV+ undercutting competitors, but the price was set low to make up for the fact that, unlike rival services, it won’t contain a backlog of content out of the gate. Disney and AT&T both own immense libraries of films and TV shows and can stuff them into their streaming services even as they work to produce new original content exclusively for app subscribers. Remember, Disney owns Marvel, Pixar, “Star Wars,” “The Simpsons,” National Geographic and so on, while AT&T acquired Warner Bros., HBO and Time Warner’s other television networks last year. Apple TV+, on the other hand, will contain just nine originals on Day One and nothing else.
Apple’s lack of a library argues for the company to buy a production studio. Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. (which also owns the Starz premium channel), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. (known as MGM), Sony Pictures and indie studio A24 are all prospects. Even a combined Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp. – two content companies that are in the process of merging – could be an appealing option given their diverse set of assets, including Paramount Pictures, MTV, BET, Nickelodeon and Showtime. (Shari Redstone, the billionaire who controls Viacom and CBS, would likely be a willing seller.)(1)
It all depends, though, on how Apple CEO Tim Cook sees streaming video fitting into the company’s future. Is the goal to build a bona fide competitor to Netflix, available on anything with a screen? Or is Apple TV+ a loss leader meant to help drive sales of Apple devices? This week’s unveiling seemed to suggest the latter. After all, Apple’s revenue from iPhones decreased by $19 billion in the latest fiscal year, my colleague Shira Ovide noted in her column this week. In 2017, she wrote that Apple should try bundling software – such as video and music subscriptions – with its hardware to help boost sales. Apple is essentially doing just that by giving TV+ as a freebie for buying a new Apple product. “They’re doing it to sell hardware,” Marci Ryvicker, an analyst for Wolfe Research, said in a phone interview. “This isn’t Apple’s core business.”
It’s noteworthy that Cook, while on stage Tuesday, compared the Apple TV+ fee to the cost of renting a single movie on demand – not to the price of other streaming subscriptions. That may provide some insight into his thinking. At $5 a month, Apple TV+ is also a long ways from making any money. That’s another reason it looks more like an internet add-on than a stand-alone product intended to take on Netflix, a business running on negative cash flow and junk debt.
The cost of going all-in on streaming is steep. Disney, for example, doesn’t think its own $7-a-month app will start turning a profit until 2024, by which point it expects to have at least 60 million global subscribers. Even then, Ebitda for Disney+ may be just $51 million, a paltry 1% profit margin, according to a model by Alan Gould, an analyst for Loop Capital Markets. In 2025, he sees that figure jumping to $2.6 billion, though it still pales in comparison to the roughly $10 billion of Ebitda that Disney’s traditional TV and film businesses generate.
Still, some analysts see Apple TV+ topping 100 million subscribers within five years, and it’s already planning to spend billions of dollars on content. It could be that Apple doesn’t know exactly what it wants from Apple TV+ yet. If it turns out to be successful early on, that may be what leads Cook to acquire a studio. Dan Ives, an analyst for Wedbush Securities, made the same bold prediction at the start of the year, and he told me this week that he’s sticking to it.
“Right now, they’ve built a house with no furniture,” said Ives, who interprets Apple’s aggressive pricing strategy as a sign that it’s changed its past thinking and is ready to commit to streaming content in a big way. “It’s hard to envision them being massively successful in streaming without doing a major acquisition.”
I agree. The question is, does it plan for Apple TV+ to be massively successful? This week may have signaled “no,” but when it comes to M&A, never say never.
(1) Viacom is also said to be the front-runner to buy a stake in Miramax films.
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Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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