Bland Content Isn't Apple TV+'s Biggest Problem

By Alex Cranz on at

Apple has had a long slow crawl from hardware maker to entertainment service provider. First, there was iTunes and selling music online, then movies and TV shows. Later came Apple Music, a streaming service provided for a monthly fee, and earlier this year there was News+, a news service... provided for a monthly fee. Now Apple’s finally getting around to a streaming TV service, TV+. For $5 a month, you’ll get a handful of shows that a lot of people are talking about. You’ll also get insight into the weird disconnect at the heart of Apple’s move from hardware and software to services.

Apple TV+ is a pretty good deal if you like more than one of the shows available on the platform. But so far, Apple’s lineup is only okay, the TV app user interface is confusing, and its recommendation algorithm might give you more privacy but seriously hampers usability. What’s worse is, sometimes it feels like Apple is sacrificing its anti-ads bona fides just to put mediocre TV in front of you.

Apple clearly wants to be everything to everyone. It wants to be the brand you go to for your work computer and your personal phone and all your music, news, and other entertainment. That’s not surprising. Google and Amazon have the same plan – if different approaches. Even Netflix is working hard to own your eyeballs every free moment. What’s different is that Apple has to balance owning your time with a commitment to privacy that’s been a major selling point for the company in the last few years. While Google, and to a lesser extent Amazon and the rest, monetise your private data, Apple has insisted on protecting and anonymising your data.

Most companies are relying on user data to inform what shows they greenlight and which shows they recommend to which users. Apple’s reluctance to maintain that data immediately puts its shows in a very odd place.

The shows

There has been a lot of analysis over TV+’s lineup versus Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu’s earliest original series. Everyone likes to compare and contrast and examine Metacritic and Rotten Tomato scores to get a sense of how successful Apple has actually been. Yet that misses what Apple has been doing. It didn’t have years of data to learn from when deciding which shows it would greenlight. Instead, it went the more traditional broadcast route. That means consulting industry experts, studying the numbers for the talent involved, and considering what’s friendly for the Apple brand. Then trying to fashion shows with the broadest appeal possible. In that sense, it’s more like CBS’s All Access than any of the usual services its been pitted again.

Netflix and Amazon are both much more expensive monthly services with much more original content and enormous back catalogues. But in the US, CBS All Access starts at $6 a month, just $1 more than TV+, and while it has a large back catalogue of CBS shows (including all the NCIS and Blue Bloods you can watch) and the ability to watch CBS live depending on your location, its original series line up is much more modest. There are only seven shows as of this year, and an eighth, Picard, expected in 2020.

The Up Next feature in the Apple TV app gives you the ability to track content across the entire tvOS ecosystem.

Making my way through TV+’s lineup I found myself constantly thinking of CBS All Access. Especially when it came to TV+’s crown jewel, The Morning Show. It’s meant to be a very flashy, star-studded drama with stories pulled from very recent headlines – sort of like The Good Fight and its predecessor, The Good Wife. Only where The Good shows take a very deliberate stand when addressing touchy political subjects and nationwide moral crises, The Morning Show is content to saunter down the middle of the line, aggressively taking no sides, much like Reese Witherspoon’s character, libertarian reporter Bradley Jackson.

The way The Morning Show handles the #MeToo story at its centre is particularly heinous, primarily because it is so messy and unfocused. It feels like The Morning Show is so eager for a macro view of the situation that it can never settle back down into deliberate points of view. Which is honestly how most broadcast shows behave. The Good Wife was an exception when it premiered in 2009. Typically broadcast shows try to see the whole picture and eschew political and moral stands in their quest to appease everyone. It’s one of the reasons network TV has grown blander and blander and begun to lean more heavily on procedurals and sitcoms. If it wants to appeal to the widest audience and get the widest array of eyeballs in front of the TV set, it must be as bland, inoffensive, and politically scattershot as possible.

For All Mankind feels like it falls into the same trappings sometimes, giving us two tedious episodes of sexist astronaut men feeling sad they cannot astronaut before veering toward the actual premise of the show – a moon landing program revolving around women astronauts. See, meanwhile, is very inoffensive, but thus far not entirely engaging. Dickinson, about the early life of Emily Dickinson, is certainly the best of the bunch thus far, but it’s also the only one of which Apple dropped an entire season. You can binge the whole first season of Dickinson in a day. Only three episodes each of See, For All Mankind, and The Morning Show have premiered thus far, and the rest of the season orders will premiere every Friday over the next seven weeks.

The recommendation problem

The TV+’s biggest problem isn’t potentially mediocre content – it’s the user interface. It’s attractive at first glance, but lacking a lot of features we’ve come to expect and denying us other features.

There are no previews for upcoming episodes of TV+ shows or any kind of acknowledgement that more episodes are coming. I finished the third episode of For All Mankind and had zero idea whether that was the end of the season or if and when more episodes would premiere. I had to Google it to learn that episode four would premiere November 8.

As programmer Steve Troughton-Smith noted over the weekend there’s also a lack of personalisation data gathering. There’s no way to tell Apple which shows you watched that you actually like, which Apple can be pretty stupid when suggesting what to watching next. By and large, it’s often just more TV+ content.

Ostensibly some kind of algorithm is at play in the Apple TV app, so it shouldn’t be completely stupid about suggestions. Here’s what Apple says about its algorithm in the privacy policy of the TV app:

“For example, we recommend movies that we think will be of interest to you based on movies you’ve previously watched. To provide personalisation, we use information including what you watch, your purchases, downloads, browsing, and other activities in the Apple TV app.”

But, again, Apple isn’t acquiring a lot of data. It can see what you watch and how long you might look at the summary of something before clicking on it or clicking out. That’s certainly data that can be used to anticipate what you like and dislike, but it’s not enough data to create a whole picture. If I watch an entire show because I’m a completionist but actually hate it, Apple’s algorithm will only note I watched the whole damn thing.

For example, I watch a wide variety of movies, but I tend to only use the TV app when watching really dumb and super mainstream stuff. I view a lot of arthouse flicks and documentaries via screeners, Blu-ray, or Netflix, which isn’t supported by the Apple TV app. So the app never suggests documentaries or arthouse flicks. It just suggests The Lion King and the Pokemon Movie – neither of which I have any interest in.

The TV show suggestions are a little better, but the algorithm never surfaces new stuff. It seems to just suggest stuff tangentially related to what I already watch. So Arrow because I watch Supergirl, and Watchmen because I watch Game of Thrones, and Grey’s Anatomy because I watch How to Get Away With Murder. It’s not helping me discover content as much as reminding me content exists and I can watch it on TV.

Up next...

For most people, the best element of the TV app is the ability to track what you watch regardless of channel or Channel via a feature called Up Next. For example, if you subscribe to Spectrum and have the Spectrum app on your iOS, iPad OS, or tvOS device, then you can track specific shows you might watch, like The Good Place or Batwoman, and immediately be notified of when they’re available to watch via the Spectrum app. Same with Amazon or Hulu. (Netflix is the only notable app not supported). The Up Next feature handles all of the tracking, and it’s typically so seamless an experience that I’ve found myself relying on it almost exclusively to keep up with the wide range of shows I watch weekly.

However, in September, Apple launch tvOS 13 and effectively broke two key components of the Up Next feature. First, it made it impossible to select which app you watch which content in. If you have Hulu and PS Vue you can’t choose which app it will automatically open the content in. Instead, Apple makes the decision for you. This is ostensibly to make watching content easier – no thinking! But in my experience, it frequently chose apps with lower quality streams or more commercials – like choosing the PS Vue app, which has a lower bitrate and commercials I can’t skip, instead of Hulu, which has a higher bitrate stream and where I pay to skip commercials.

Highlighting the TV app now presents you with trailers for content, instead of a list of content you’ve already added to your Up Next queue.

When asked for comment, Apple told me it was working as intended. Only it seems to be the same vein of “working as intended” as Microsoft’s Clippy.

The other change was to the main menu in tvOS. Typically apps on the top row of tvOS take advantage of the skybox directly above the apps. Mouse over an app and the skybox might fill with what’s up next in your Netflix or Plex queue, or previously watched channels on Spectrum.

With the latest tvOS update, the TV app skybox content switched from your Up Next queue to advertisements for curated content. Now every time I leave the cursor on the TV app, I’m met with advertisements for TV+ shows I’ve already watched, movies I have little interest in, and even stuff I try to avoid – like scary movies.

It’s might be a very minor infuriating thing in the grand scheme, but it speaks to a major concern I have about TV+ and Apple’s TV strategy overall. Here is a very clear instance of Apple prioritising ads over usability. That’s something that shouldn’t happen at Apple. The company has proudly targeted obnoxious in-app ads and dangerous website cookies and fashioned itself as a champion of usability who will sacrifice a little revenue just to make users’ lives easier.

The TV skybox change suggests another modus operandi, one I’m not keen to see Apple embrace. It’s got a lot of work to do to make TV+ a big deal and a rival to Amazon and Netflix. There are the UI gaffes that still need to be resolved, and content that still needs to be churned out, but if Apple starts sacrificing the bits of itself that have so ingratiated us all, to begin with, will it really be worth it? What’s the point of moving into this new potential revenue stream if it sacrifices loyalty and user goodwill along the way?