Last week, Apple finally hired a head of video programming — actually two — in a moment that Hollywood had been waiting for since Netflix and Amazon crashed into Los Angeles with billions of dollars to spend on TV shows and movies.
By hiring veteran Sony Pictures Television execs Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, who were responsible for hits like “Breaking Bad” and “The Crown,” Apple sent a signal that it’s looking to become a major player in the market. The pair of execs will be Apple’s equivalent of Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, or Amazon’s Roy Price, and oversee “all aspects of video programming,” reporting to Apple services boss Eddy Cue.
These hires help clarify a video strategy that was murky to people both inside and outside of Apple.
Up until now, Apple had been taking a bunch of meetings, and had a few TV-quality projects in development, including its “Shark Tank”-style show “Planet of the Apps,” which debuted this month on Apple Music. But in conversations with half a dozen people who worked for Apple or on Apple productions, there was a lack of clarity about who was spearheading Apple’s overall video efforts.
Cue, along with music industry legend Jimmy Iovine, VP of content and media apps Robert Kondrk, and Apple Music content boss Larry Jackson, were all involved in ways that varied between projects. And Apple’s participation in the production of the shows varied as well, with the company sometimes being almost completely hands-off, while at other times taking a more active role in a show’s creation.
Put plainly: Apple’s first forays into TV didn’t feel like part of a cohesive strategy to disrupt the industry. What we’ve seen over the past few months have been a handful of TV projects tied to Apple Music, some of which have been delayed or re-shot, and the first of which was walloped by critics.
Apple wasn’t trying to become Netflix, yet.
“The idea that Apple is chasing Netflix, that’s the wrong way to think about it,” a former Apple Music manager told Business Insider when describing its video efforts and the upcoming “Carpool Karaoke” in particular. “They are not. No one gives a sh– … I think what is happening is that Jimmy [Iovine] sees a way to, not just within music, connect to the brand promise of Apple.”
Iovine, the Interscope Records cofounder who became involved in Apple when it purchased Beats for $3 billion in 2014, has been preaching the marriage of technology and pop culture for years, the former Apple manager said. Video was one piece of that.
But by hiring Sony veterans Erlicht and Van Amburg, Apple has taken a step in a more expansive direction, and looks to be marshaling for a video effort that transcends music.
The Apple way or the highway
Apple’s TV saga didn’t start with Iovine or Apple Music; it’s been a hot topic in tech and entertainment for the better part of a decade.
For years, Apple has tried intermittently to get together its own TV bundle, particularly a so-called “skinny bundle” which would give customers a small number of marquee channels for a lower price. But Apple’s plans never quite came together. One reason multiple Apple insiders cited was Apple’s tendency to negotiate in a way TV execs didn’t like.
“Eddy [Cue] is extremely smart,“ a former Apple Music staffer said, but Cue is “very aggressive” in negotiations with people outside Apple. “In that area , Eddy negotiates like they need Apple. Not everybody is on board that they need Apple.” With the music industry, Apple had a lot more leverage than with TV, this person explained.
“They were trying TV stuff, but things would always fall through with networks,” another former Apple Music employee said. This person said that everyone in Apple Music had a great deal of respect for Cue, and that he was a smart guy, but that he could be overbearing in negotiations (“like a dictator” was the exact phrasing).
With the entrance of Iovine in 2014, another exec was added into the TV mix. But though Iovine has deep connections in the entertainment industry and has been the catalyst for some Apple TV-style projects, he’s not a TV producer. He comes from music. Until last week, Apple didn’t have a TV big-shot to guide its programming strategy.
Still, Iovine has been a shot of energy in getting projects done.
“Jimmy is not a normal person, he is extraordinary,” one former Apple Music employee said. “A typical Silicon Valley person would underestimate him,” but Iovine moves seamlessly in the world of entertainment, something Apple has lacked.
Iovine sparked the conversations that led to “Planet of the Apps” and “Carpool Karaoke,” Apple Music’s first two big shows, he told Bloomberg in a recent interview. That spark and finesse in Los Angeles is probably something Apple is looking to get more of with Erlicht and Van Amburg.
Where is ‘Vital Signs?’
One big question mark around Apple’s TV-style efforts on Apple Music has been the whereabouts of “Vital Signs,” helmed by Dr. Dre, who, like Iovine, came into Apple’s orbit with the acquisition of Beats in 2014. “Vital Signs” was meant to be Apple’s first scripted show, in the form of a six-part semi-autobiographical series about Dre’s life.
“Vital Signs” began shooting back in February, 2016, a person who worked on the production told Business Insider. But it still hasn’t arrived, or gotten a firm release date from Apple.
“American Gods” and “Deadwood” star Ian McShane, who is in the series, talked about the show recently on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
“Dre was great, this was an Apple project, by him,” McShane said. “It’s about his sort of story … There’s three of us … We play parts of Dre’s imagination who actually come to life at various points in this … Sam Rockwell plays ego, who’s very funny, and Michael K. Williams, the charismatic Omar the gay assassin from ‘The Wire,’ plays negativity, and I play vengeance.”
At the time “Vital Signs” was shot, there didn’t seem to be much Apple involvement on the ground, according to sources close to the production.
“From my experience, and what I saw on-set and in-office, Apple was almost completely hands-off,” a person on the “Vital Signs” production told Business Insider. “My guess would be that Apple was a bit green around the ears in terms of film production and may not have realized the importance of a studio or financial backer in their position to be invested with eyes and ears on the ground, especially when they have final approval on the product,” that person continued.
Even beyond Apple input, Dre wasn’t satisfied with the product. Multiple sources said that there were reshoots on “Vital Signs” after the initial filming. A source close to the production characterized the reshoots as part of Dre’s creative process, and “Vital Signs” as his passion project.
Ian McShane said during his Seth Meyers appearance that “Vital Signs” will be out in August, but Apple hasn’t said anything, and other Apple insiders aren’t clear about a time frame. It’s also good to note that Dr. Dre fans had to wait over a decade for him to release his last album, and when it arrived it wasn’t called “Detox.”
Apple doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to get “Vital Signs” out the door until it’s happy with it, and that may continue to an even greater extent in the era of Erlicht and Van Amburg, since it’s not their project.
“Vital Signs” isn’t the only Apple Music series to have had timeline hiccups.
“Carpool Karaoke,” Apple’s spinoff of the popular sketch on the “Late Late Show with James Corden,” was delayed four months, though Apple did not specify why.
Late last month, Eddy Cue announced that the show would be airing on Apple Music starting August 8. This announcement came after a premiere party in March, and then a launch party in April, were both cancelled.
Enter the critics
The Apple Music show that has already arrived, “Planet of the Apps,” has not exactly been greeted with fanfare.
You can think of “Planet of the Apps” as a “Shark Tank” for app developers. App makers get help from celebrity mentors like Jessica Alba and Will.i.am, and then pitch venture capital firm Lightspeed Venture Partners, hoping they’ll invest some of the $10 million Lightspeed promised to the show.
Apple appears to have been more involved with “Planet of the Apps” than with other projects, which makes sense given the topic. Apple’s VP of content and media apps, Robert Kondrk, is not listed as an executive producer on the show, but essentially played that role. Apple also collaborated on building the set, which involves an escalator from which contestants pitch their app ideas.
But Apple was still hands-off in some ways. Gwyneth Paltrow, one of the celebrity judges, told The Hollywood Reporter that Apple wasn’t that involved in the creative process. “They were pretty hands off,” Paltrow said, though she did add that Apple execs were more involved with how the show would be distributed. The 10-episode series is available on Apple Music, for subscribers only, with a new episode debuting at 9 p.m. PST every Tuesday (from June 6).
The poor critical reception for the first “Planet of the Apps” episode means that Erlicht and Van Amburg’s hiring comes at an opportune time, since they bring firm hands with proven TV programming chops to Apple.
And with that in place, along with Apple’s pile of over $250 billion in cash, Apple has the opportunity to make compelling video that might not be possible other places.
One former Apple Music staffer mentioned “808: The Movie,” which shows the impact of Roland’s TR-808 drum machine, as a special moment that’s happened already, without Erlicht and Van Amburg.
“That’s a really remarkable piece of work,” the former staffer said. “It only could be created at a place like Apple.”
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