With Apple TV+, Tim Cook peddles an antidote to toxic TV [Opinion]

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Tim Cook talks up the potential of Apple TV+ to change the world.
JP Morgan is particularly concerned about Apple TV+.
Photo: Apple

At a time when critically acclaimed TV shows serve up a steady stream of sex and violence, the upcoming Apple TV+ service proffers an unusual prescription for success: optimism, inclusion, creativity and inspiration.

Touting its upcoming streaming video service as “the new home for the world’s most creative storytellers,” Apple is carefully framing its upcoming Apple TV+ day as a healthy antidote to Hollywood’s toxic hellstew of nudity and mindless gore. The company even suggested its original shows could act as a tonic to heal a nation divided by the bitter partisan politics of the Trump era.

“We love TV,” Apple CEO Tim Cook gushed Monday from the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, California. “TV is more than just entertainment. It’s cultural. TV at its best enriches our lives.”

The flip side of that, left unspoken during Apple’s “It’s show time” event, is that many of the shows piped into our homes are totally toxic TV. And most of us regular people happily slurp up that crap like the futuristic morons from Idiocracy.

TV’s second Golden Age

This second Golden Age of Television, launched by HBO’s gripping crime drama The Sopranos in 1999 and pushed to a second stage by original shows on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, soared far past the boundaries of traditional network TV.

Freed from the censors in the Big Four networks’ Standards and Practices departments, TV shows on HBO really went there.

The Sopranos reveled in violence as it spun its tale of a conflicted New Jersey mob boss. Deadwood laced its historical fiction with enough foul language to make a cowboy blush. And gratuitous nudity, long a forbidden fruit served up by pay cable channels, became a staple of many streaming series.

The upshot is a verdant entertainment landscape that harbors a mine field of profanity, sex and violence. TV shows regularly tackle adult topics. And R-rated movies stream into homes, commingling serious works with mindless drug comedies and bleak torture porn.

Apple seems to think we’re all hungering for something a little more wholesome.

“Apple has always tried to make the world a better place, and we believe deeply in the power of creativity,” Cook said from the stage Monday. “Our products help people express their creativity, and to tell their stories. Because great stories can change the world. Great stories can move us and inspire us. They can surprise us, and challenge our assumptions. We feel we can contribute something important to our culture and to society through great storytelling.”

Apple frames Apple TV+ as ‘great storytelling’

The world’s formal introduction to Apple’s kinder, gentler vision for original content began with a literal throwback to a simpler time. Apple kicked off the event by showing a cute title sequence larded with Apple products, catchphrases and imagery.

It brought to mind a time when Hollywood, and particularly the TV industry, served up something more lighthearted and uplifting than the sludge that currently pours out of our devices.

The updated Apple TV app that will serve as the home for Apple’s original content is designed to simplify finding and watching movies and TV shows, Cook said. That means making shows from subscription services like HBO and Showtime easier to watch via new Apple TV Channels.

But making the ever-growing sea of video content easier to navigate on Apple devices is just the beginning. In fact, that’s merely a refinement of what Apple’s TV app already offered.

Far beyond that, Cupertino wants to give television an uplifting makeover in line with the company’s altruistic vision. To that end, Cook pitched the ad-free Apple TV+ subscription service as revolutionary.

“We partnered with the most thoughtful, accomplished and award-winning group of creative visionaries who have ever come together in one place to create a new service unlike anything that’s been done before,” Cook said.

Will Apple TV+ win with squeaky clean?

Cook, and the array of Apple executives and Hollywood A-listers he trotted out, never explicitly said the new service will be squeaky clean, as has been rumored. Nor did they mention the creative battles that Apple’s “intrusive” execs reportedly fought with Hollywood creatives.

But throughout Monday’s “It’s show time” event, a wholesome vibe seemed inescapable.

The big question is, does the world really want a high-minded TV service?

That remains to be seen (as do Apple’s actual shows, which we got a surprisingly skimpy peek at Monday).

The event could have been Apple’s Comic-Con International moment. Apple’s stable of storytellers could have wowed fans with tantalizing first-look trailers. A few hot clips could have sparked internet buzz about the company’s expanding slate of original content. Instead, the reaction on Twitter was mostly, “Meh.”

Instead of trying to dazzle us with trailers, Apple streamed an arty, black-and-white video. In it, top-tier directors including Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard offered earnest interpretations of the art of storytelling. And then, a handful of Apple’s virtuous “storytellers” recited carefully scripted descriptions of their shows. Apple showed no real footage until the end, when a brief montage gave us our first glimpse of the shows. (Watch it below.)

Apple’s original TV shows

Then, Apple brought some of those creatives onstage. First, Spielberg talked up Amazing Stories, the sci-fi reboot he’s crafting for Apple. The director, who created the original Amazing Stories series in the ’80s based on a sci-fi mag from the 1920s, reveled in the multigenerational appeal of storytelling.

“Kids enter into the booming confusion of life with a prodigious capacity for amazement,” Spielberg said. “And that amazement, that capacity, is a human birthright. It’s our inheritance. It’s how our interaction with the marvelous world around us gets sparks flying across our brains.”

More than a whiff of social justice accompanied the spiels about upcoming Apple shows. Comedian Kumail Nanjiani, who hit the big time with 2017 movie The Big Sick, said Little America will tell true “human stories that feature immigrants.” (I’m guessing this won’t be an advertisement for building President Donald Trump’s “wall.”)

Helpsters, a show for preschoolers from Sesame Workshop, will teach youngsters about coding — “giving them the opportunity to change the world,” said perky puppet star Cody. Even The Morning Show, a newsroom dramedy starring Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell, sounds like it might serve up as many sermons about gender politics as unbridled belly laughs.

The Morning show is a high-velocity thrill ride in which we pose questions without easy answers,” Witherspoon said,
“and shine a light on the fault lines in our society at this very complicated cultural moment.”

Oprah Winfrey wants to ‘heal our divisions’

Oprah Winfrey says Apple TV+ can have a genuine impact on humanity.
Oprah Winfrey says Apple TV+ can have a positive impact on society.
Photo: Apple

For Monday’s big finale, Apple brought out its highest-profile hire: Oprah Winfrey. Like a motivational speaker, she talked up TV’s potential to “heal our divisions.”

“There has never been a moment quite like this one,” Winfrey said. “We have this unique opportunity to rise to our best selves in how we use, and choose to use, both our technology and our humanity. We’re all at a crossroads where we get to decide if we want to reach beyond the borders of our heart and mind to face the daunting challenges of our time.”

She joined forces with Apple, she said, “to make a genuine impact.”

Her first two projects: A documentary about sexual harassment and assault in the workplace (tentatively titled Toxic Labor) and a multipart series on mental health.

Can good TV be good for you?

With its push into original content, Apple faces a conundrum that’s as old as entertainment itself. Artists want free expression. The high-minded among us call for uplifting messages that lift humanity out of the muck and the mire.

And the normal people? We just crave entertainment that will take our minds off the day-to-day grind for a couple of hours.

There’s a part of me that hopes Apple can fan the flames of righteous creativity with thoughtful, meaningful entertainment. That’s the part of me that mists up a bit during a soul-satisfying scene in a Pixar film.

That’s also the part of me that adds highbrow shows to my Up Next playlist. Unfortunately, I frequently pass over those titles and stream something like The Walking Dead or The Punisher instead. I’m not proud of it, but violence and gore can prove incredibly entertaining.

Apple’s golden rule: Make humanity better

Can Apple stand out in a sea of slime by serving up compelling stories that warm our hearts and feed our minds?

Perhaps the biggest challenge will be attracting “storytellers” who want to make movies and TV shows under the shadow of potential meddling from Silicon Valley types. (Challenge No. 2: avoiding the kind of pablum hawked by the Hallmark Channel.)

Apple already reportedly balked at including “mature content” in its shows. Cook himself reportedly spiked Vital Signs, a semi-autobiographical series revolving around hip-hop legend (and Beats co-founder) Dr. Dre.

Already, Cupertino supposedly suffers from a reputation in Hollywood as “conservative and picky.” Why? A desire to produce content with “broad appeal” that’s clean enough to stream in an Apple store.

And rumors indicate Cupertino remains deeply concerned about the depiction of technology in its shows. Apple apparently wants to avoid the dark tone of popular series like Netflix’s Black Mirror.

That begs the question: How would Apple have reacted to the benign menace of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Apple’s big bet on family friendly TV

In some ways, Apple’s “It’s show time” event seemed designed to reassure creatives. It seemed more like a play to lure writers and directors into the fold, rather than to get viewers stoked about the streaming service, which Apple plans to roll out this fall. (A more cynical take? Cupertino desperately wants to sell Wall Street on the moneymaking potential of Apple’s subscription services push.)

By differentiating its streaming video platform in this way, Apple is setting a high bar — and placing a big bet on family-friendly content. The company will face a potent opponent in that arena when The Walt Disney Company launches its Disney+ streaming service later this year. That service likely will seem like a slam dunk for parents, since it will include Disney’s stellar catalog of animated movies. And those classic films will sit alongside the super-popular Star Wars and Marvel movies, as well as content from National Geographic and Twentieth Century Fox.

But, as with Apple Music, Apple will benefit from its massive platform. As Winfrey pointed out, every iPhone user will have Apple TV+ right at their fingertips.

In the end, it will come down to the strength of the stories crafted by Apple’s lineup of “the world’s most creative storytellers.”

If Apple can pull a Pixar — delivering fresh, creative tales that make us laugh, make us cry, and let families do those things together, without fear of hearing a dirty word or seeing a mobster get his teeth bashed out — Tim Cook could make his own dent in the universe.