Why Apple TV+ is succeeding with quality as other streaming giants fail

The Apple streaming service is now the best curated streaming outlet, and that’s largely because it sticks to adapting books and using literary writers for source material.Tony Avelar/The Associated Press

On Monday, voting closed for this year’s Emmy Award nominations. It will be weeks before they are announced, but there are some certainties.

In the drama category, expect to see Better Call Saul (AMC), Squid Game (Netflix), Stranger Things (Netflix), and Succession (HBO). And in limited series, expect The Dropout (Hulu / Disney +), Maid (Netflix) and The White Lotus (HBO). Many acting categories will be won by actors on those shows.

But there is likely at least one surprise coming. That’s Apple TV+’s Severance in Best Drama series, and possibly a passel of acting nominations from the platform’s Pachinko or The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. Come the Emmy awards of 2023, you may well see nominations for Apple TV+’s Roar, Shining Girls, The Essex Serpent and Black Birdwhich is coming next month.

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The Apple streaming service is now the best curated streaming outlet, and that’s largely because it sticks to adapting books and using literary writers for source material. It will be news for some, but there’s more to Apple TV+ than Ted Lasso. (The comedy had 20 Emmy nominations last year.) What’s happening is an interesting case study of critical success, while Netflix and other services are desperately searching for an identity and floundering.

Apple TV+ was launched in November, 2019 to considerable skepticism. It promised a selection of original-production film and television series called Apple Originals, but it had no library of existing material – unlike Netflix, which had the rights to countless shows and was storming ahead with original series and movies, and unlike the soon-to-be-launched Disney+, which had the vast Disney library. Many thought Apple’s service would be a micro niche and depend on the users of Apple products to gain any traction.

Its first glitzy, attention-grabbing original was The Morning Showboasting a cast led by Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell. It took a while for that show to transcend its soapy start, and it certainly did. But there was a hint of Apple’s strategy in those early days. The Morning Show is loosely based on the book, Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV, by Brian Stelter. Apple’s other and rather odd early series was Dickinsonwhich takes all manner of dramatic liberties with the life and writings of poet Emily Dickinson. The literary roots underpinning Apple TV+’s approach were there to see.

Taron Egerton in Black Bird, premiering globally July 8 on Apple TV+.APPLE TV+

In contrast, Netflix aimed for macro content and major spending. The year Apple TV+ launched, Netflix spent US$14-billion on content worldwide. Its philosophy was closer to “spend or die” than the business mantra, “innovate or die.” The quality-control wielded by some executives – which led to such acclaimed hits as House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Stranger Things and The Queen’s Gambit – eventually evaporated. Those standards haven’t been matched since.

The people who run Apple Studios are far less visible than their counterparts at other services. They have, however, a clear plan in terms of TV content. The material commissioned, greenlit and produced has continued to have a pronounced literary quality.

This year’s releases alone include The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, written by novelist Walter Mosley; Slow Horses, derived from the novels of Mick Herron; The Essex Serpent, based on the gothic romance period novel of the same title by Sarah Perry; Roar, based on the short stories of Irish writer Cecelia Ahern; Shining Girls, an adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Lauren Beukes; and Black Bird, written for TV by novelist and screenwriter Dennis Lehane, and based on the 2010 autobiographical novel In With The Devil by James Keene.

In television, whether cable or streaming, this reliance on books and authors as a source of storytelling has become rare. Netflix famously brought on board TV creators and showrunners at enormous cost, and gave them free rein and the promise of a vast international audience. This hasn’t exactly worked out smoothly. The first Netflix series from Shonda Rhimes, Bridgertonwasn’t a Rhimes original, but based in an existing series of novels. Then came Inventing Annawhich drew a large audience but also derision for its length and meandering story.

The case of Ryan Murphy, who had such success at Fox and FX, is even more piquant. Murphy is responsible for Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story, Scream Queens, American Crime Story, Feud and Pose. But nothing that has come from his US$300-million deal with Netflix has matched his best work.

It’s not that Apple doesn’t have the money to spend, obviously. What it has that’s more important is taste and discipline. As a curated outlet, it is now matching HBO for inventive, serious-minded content, and that’s thanks to a shrewd bet on old-fashioned storytelling in this new digital, streaming age.

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