Apple Is a Step Closer to Making Its Own TV Shows

The tech giant just hired two industry heavy-hitters as it tries to move into a realm occupied by Netflix and Amazon: scripted television.

The Apple TV box, through which you may watch its new scripted shows. (AP / Eric Risberg)

This year, Netflix will spend something in the realm of $6 billon on original programming, more than any media company apart from ESPN. Amazon is expected to spend $4.5 billion. Even Google, the owners of YouTube, are looking to spend hundreds of millions making TV shows this year. Streaming TV is no longer a fad—it’s a booming industry, one that’s competitive with cable and network television, and supremely attractive to artists who want to make their work with the least interference possible. Now, just as things have gotten crowded, another tech giant is looking to muscle in to the original-TV content world: Apple.

Though Apple, of course, has plenty of money to throw at scripted programming, it’s always seemed cautious about committing to the kind of onslaught that Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and others have engaged in over the past few years. Netflix is now basically offering an entire new season of a television series every week, on top of its original films and slew of comedy specials. Amazon, which provides shows like Transparent to all of its Prime subscribers, has a more democratic process in which it posts pilot episodes online and invites subscribers to watch and review them before ordering them to series.

It’s still unclear what Apple’s strategy is going to be—but the company has hired two of the biggest names in television production to oversee new positions in video programming. Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, the longtime presidents of Sony Pictures Television, are joining Apple this summer to begin work on something “exciting,” according to a statement from Apple’s senior vice president Eddy Cue. “There is much more to come,” he teased, providing no other information on their new responsibilities.

It’s pretty easy to guess what comes next. Sony Pictures Television is one of the most respected production companies in the industry, one that’s worked in all genres and mediums. Among the eclectic shows stewarded by Erlicht and Van Amburg since they took the Sony helm in 2005 are Damages, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Drop Dead Diva, Community, Justified, Happy Endings, Hannibal, Masters of Sex, and Underground.

Even before then, they were part of an initial movement toward offering challenging series on basic cable. They worked at Sony (below executive Steve Mosko) when it sold the shows The Shield and Rescue Me to FX, two of the earliest basic-cable programs to attract attention from critics and Emmy voters. That expanded the “Golden Age” of TV beyond premium-channel offerings like The Sopranos and Sex and the City, eventually spurring the rise of streaming networks. In general, the pair have a proven record of teaming up with interesting creators and shepherding projects with the kind of individual touch that stands out—exactly what is needed in the packed world of Peak TV.

The streaming boom is, first and foremost, auteur-driven: Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu attract well-known creators by offering them more artistic freedom than the world of network television. Shows like House of Cards, Transparent, and Orange Is the New Black are sold as distinctive items: not for everyone, of course, but appealing enough to draw in new subscribers eager to watch one particular show. Critical acclaim is only so important; Netflix CEO Reed Hastings long bragged about how the much derided Hemlock Grove attracted more subscribers than House of Cards, at first.

Erlicht and Van Amburg will now be tasked with defining Apple’s new original-TV brand. A statement from the pair said that Apple was looking to bring in programming of “unparalleled quality,” which of course doesn’t mean much; their hiring does seem to indicate that Apple will try to function as more of a traditional TV studio. Some rumors had indicated the company wanted to buy another production company, like Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment, outright, but instead Erlicht and Van Amburg will build something from the ground up.

Other questions remain: How will Apple present its new shows? Will you need an Apple TV device to watch them? Will the company introduce a subscription service mimicking Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, and if so, will it buy up the rights to various existing shows and movies to fill out its library? It could also go the route of networks like CBS, offering new shows like The Good Fight and Star Trek Discovery for a smaller monthly fee, or try something else entirely. Other details will come to light soon, but for now, Apple’s big hires suggest Peak TV’s rapid expansion won’t slow down anytime soon.