According to a couple of reports this week, Apple executives have begun meeting with television production studios about acquiring or producing shows that would be exclusive to a souped-up Apple TV streaming service capable of competing with a burgeoning number of Internet-based video services led by Netflix (NFLX - Get Report) and Time Warner's (TWX) HBO Now.
To attract subscribers to its yet-to-be-revealed streaming service, CEO Tim Cook must offer owners of his iPhones and iPads something they can't get anywhere else. In other words, original programming. HBO successfully developed this model 30 years ago, and Netflix has used the same strategy to build the world's foremost streaming service.
But just because Apple wants to enter the TV business doesn't mean it will own it. Unlike the digital music business it transformed when the iTunes Store was introduced in 2003, the video streaming market is already very crowded.
Netflix has become the market leader, while HBO Now is demonstrating that its premium channel offerings have wide appeal as a standalone online service. Add to that an ad-free offering from Hulu, Amazon's (AMZN - Get Report) Prime, CBS (CBS - Get Report) Showtime's new streaming platform, Comcast's (CMCSA - Get Report) Millennial-focused Stream and Verizon's (VZ - Get Report) Go90, and it's clear that Apple will be entering a very competitive market.
"They are late to the TV game," Scott Ferber, founder of the advertising technology provider Videology, said in a phone interview. "This is nothing like music. They took the music world by storm, they superseded it, jumped ahead of everyone. This is going to be much harder."
Apple officials declined to comment.
Clearly, Apple wants to do the same thing to television that it did to music. Apple's iTunes forever changed the way music was bought and sold, and in the process, record companies were forced to change their business model as the iTunes Music Store supplanted CD retailers the world over.
Yet unlike iTunes, Apple will be seeking to sell subscriptions to a video platform that is unlikely to look much different from Netflix or HBO Now, though its offerings are likely to be impressive. For all of the usual bells and whistles that accompany its handsome products, a reinvented streaming service is still unlikely to change video consumption as iTunes changed the music industry 12 years ago.
"The Steve Jobs magic touch doesn't exist," Shahid Khan, co founder of Mediamorph, the New York-based media industry software and data provider, said in a phone interview. "Under Steve Jobs, Apple was an innovator, they were first to launch things. Now they're following other people. The Music app isn't original, it's a follow. Same with original TV programming. Apple has lost its touch."
Indeed, Apple Music, introduced in June, was supposed to destroy Pandora (P) and Spotfiy, but so far, that hasn't happened though 11 million iPhone users have signed up for a free four-tweek trial of the service. The company has also had issues with some of its apps, including Apple's Map app, which stumbled out of the gate. It's not like the old days when seemingly everything Apple did was a huge hit.
But what Apple may lack in timing and even execution, it can more than make up for in money. Apple has a market capitalization of $640 billion and is sitting on around $203 billion in cash and cash equivalents. That's enough to open a Hollywood studio, or even a handful of Hollywood studios.
Apple clearly has to enter the content business for no other reason than to give its iPhone and iPad owners another reason to keep buying newer models of its hardware and to generate additional revenue. The fourth-generation Apple TV unit for the home is expected to be unveiled on Sept. 9 and retail for $149, according to 9to5Mac.
The streaming service will likely offer users a bundle of programming, possibly including live sports, for a monthly subscription. TheStreet's Ron Grover reportedin April that Disney would like Apple to carry a package of its channels, ostensibly to give Apple access to ESPN, the sports powerhouse.
In a sense, TV programming could serve a loss leader for Apple, though CEO Tim Cook would probably prefer that the subscription business is profitable. "Apple has to go into original programming -- think of all the hardware sales they're going to miss if they don't," Ferber said.
But where is Apple going to get its content. The usual content producers are sick and tired of doing business with a start-up that later eats their lunch. That's what Netflix has done to CBS, Viacom (VIAB - Get Report) , Disney (DIS - Get Report) , Starz (STRZA) , Comcast's NBCUniversal and 21st Century Fox (FOXA) . Apple may be getting the cold shoulder from traditional content makers, or at least very big demands to licensing its shows and movies.
"Nobody wants to sell Apple content rights," James McQuivey, a media analyst at Forrester Research said in an e-mail. "And why would they? After watching what happened to the music business when Apple was given the keys to the kingdom, video producers and programmers are more than gun shy about handing the same power to Apple in the world of TV shows."
Starz CEO Chris Albrecht admitted that his company made a huge and crucial mistake of taking short term revenue from Netflix in exchange for licensing its legacy shows. By handing Netflix content, the TV industry created a monster that has become its biggest competitor for original content. Add Amazon's Hollywood-based Amazon Studios to the mix and it's clear that the fight for top talent and shows is driving up programming costs.
Yet Apple has not choice but to dive in. "If you want to succeed, and acquire and maintain new customers, you don't really have a choice but to delve into original programming," Khan said.
The question for Apple is can they be a hardware company and a Hollywood studio. Sony (SNE - Get Report) , one of the world's largest manufacturers of televisions and other electronics, has had its highs and lows running a film studio. This year has been one of its worst. As for Apple, it wants to become the biggest shopping mall for video content. That way it can dictate to video creators the terms of any licensing deal, much as it did with the music industry years ago.
This time, however, it might not be as easy.
"Apple is coming into the game after Netflix and Amazon have already bid up programming costs," McQuivey added. "Apple's opportunity to shape the market is gone, they're just joining this program already in progress."