No sex please, we're Apple: iPhone giant seeks TV success on its own terms

Of roughly two-dozen shows Apple has in development or production, only a few could veer into “TV-MA” territory, television’s equivalent of R-rated films
Tim Cook sat down more than a year ago to watch Apple’s first scripted drama, “Vital Signs,” and was troubled by what he saw. The show, a dark, semi-biographical tale of hip hop artist Dr. Dre, featured characters doing lines of cocaine, an extended orgy in a mansion and drawn guns.


It’s too violent, Mr. Cook told Apple Music executive Jimmy Iovine, said people familiar with Apple’s entertainment plans. Apple can’t show this.


Across Hollywood and inside Apple, the show has become emblematic of the challenges faced by the technology giant as it pushes into entertainment. Apple earmarked $1 billion for Hollywood programming last year. But in the tone CEO Mr. Cook has set for it, whatever Apple produces mustn’t taint a pristine brand image that has helped the company collect 80% of the profits in the global smartphone market.


Apple’s entertainment team must walk a line few in Hollywood would consider. Since Mr. Cook spiked “Vital Signs,” Apple has made clear, say producers and agents that it wants high-quality shows with stars and broad appeal, but it doesn’t want gratuitous sex, profanity or violence.


The result is an approach out of step with the triumphs of the video-streaming era. Other platforms, such as HBO and Inc., have made their mark in original content with edgier programming that often wins critical acclaim. Netflix Inc., which helped birth the streaming revolution, built its original-content business on “House of Cards,” a drama about an ethically bankrupt politician, and “Orange Is the New Black,” a comedic drama about a women’s prison. Both feature rough language and plenty of sex.


As a consumer-product company, Apple is especially exposed if content strikes a sour note, said Preston Beckman, a former NBC and Fox programming executive. For Netflix, the only risk is that people don’t subscribe, he said. “With Apple, you can say, ‘I’m going to punish them by not buying their phone or computer.’ "


Apple has twice postponed the launch of its first slate of shows, moving it to March from late this year, agents and producers said. One leading producer with projects at Apple expects the date to be pushed back yet further.


Hollywood routinely humbles big companies that try to join its club. In 2014, Microsoft Corp. closed its Hollywood unit, Xbox Entertainment Studios, before it got off the ground. Coca-Cola Co. , which owned Columbia Pictures in the 1980s, found its success with “Ghostbusters” and “Stand by Me” was outweighed by expensive flops such as “Ishtar.”


Entertainment is “irrational and unpredictable,” said Peter Sealey, a consultant who led marketing for Coke’s Hollywood business.


Apple excels at devices and Coke at soft drinks, he said, but “movies and TV are none of that. They’re emotional.” Mr. Cook told analysts in July that Apple wasn’t ready to detail its Hollywood plans, but he felt “really good about what we will eventually offer.” The company didn’t make executives available for interviews for this article.


Hollywood is central to Apple’s strategy. As growth slows in the number of iPhones sold, Apple is trying to accelerate its services business, which includes the App Store, mobile payments and entertainment, including its music-subscription offering. It wants shows to support a video service on its TV app that could be bundled with subscriptions such as iCloud storage, said the people familiar with Apple’s entertainment plans.


Apple’s arrival coincides with upheaval in Hollywood. Declining pay-TV subscriptions and the rise of Netflix have set off an entertainment land grab. Tech giants such as Amazon and Facebook Inc. are offering video services to deepen ties with existing customers. Traditional media and telecom companies are trying to fend them off with mergers, such as Walt Disney Co.’s deal for 21st Century Fox Inc. assets and AT&T Inc.’s acquisition of Time Warner Inc.


The tumult has fueled an explosion in the number of scripted shows, to 487 last year, up more than two-thirds in five years. There is a rush to sign up top show creators, as in Warner Bros.’s $300 million long-term deal to keep prolific producer Greg Berlanti. Apple has bought more than a dozen shows, favoring broadly appealing, family-friendly fare. They include a series about poet Emily Dickinson and a “Friday Night Lights”-style drama about basketball star Kevin Durant. Apple signed partnerships with Oprah Winfrey, perhaps entertainment’s most wholesome star, and Sesame Workshop, the producers of “Sesame Street.”


Of roughly two-dozen shows Apple has in development or production, only a few could veer into “TV-MA” territory, television’s equivalent of R-rated films.


Apple’s sensitivity affects how its top Hollywood executives, Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, approach their jobs. The duo, who previously shepherded “Breaking Bad” at Sony Pictures, devote considerable time to winning a nod for shows from Mr. Cook and Eddy Cue, a senior vice president who oversees services, said someone well-versed in company dynamics. Messrs. Van Amburg and Erlicht have successfully pushed some edgier shows. Apple signed a deal for a series made by M. Night Shyamalan about a couple who lose a young child.


Before saying yes to that psychological thriller, Apple executives had a request: Please eliminate the crucifixes in the couple’s house, said people working on the project. They said executives made clear they didn’t want shows that venture into religious subjects or politics. Mr. Shyamalan wasn’t available for comment.


Not every moviemaker has found Apple imposing boundaries. Early work on a comedy called “Little America” with Kumail Nanjiani “feels like a typical development process,” said co-producer Lee Eisenberg.


And graphic content certainly isn’t the only path to success in TV and streaming. There’s little or none in some of Netflix’s hits, such as “Stranger Things,” and in some popular broadcast-TV shows such as “The Big Bang Theory.”


Still, there’s no shying away from nudity, politics and raw language at cable networks such as FX, TNT, HBO and Showtime or at Netflix and Amazon Prime. Even Disney, which built its business on animated films for children, is bringing R-rated content like the raunchy “Deadpool” superhero films into its fold with its pending 21st Century Fox acquisition.


Where Apple draws the line isn’t clear, say producers, agents and writers. “I’m not sure myself what they’re after,” said producer Shawn Ryan, whose credits include the FX hit ”The Shield.”


“I do adore Zack and Jamie and trust in their taste. I think we’re all curious to see what it’s going to be."


Apple is making big commitments to win projects. It outbid Netflix and CBS Corp.’s Showtime to land a drama about a morning news show starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, ordering two seasons and skipping the usual requirement of a pilot episode. The show’s price could top $12 million an episode, according to people familiar with it.


Apple’s venture entails behind-the-scenes drama unusual for the tech company’s typically regimented operations. Apple replaced the person in charge of the Aniston-Witherspoon show, known as the showrunner, before filming. The executive producer’s inexperience was an issue, but Apple also wanted a more upbeat show and took exception to some of the humor proposed, according to people working on the project. The show now is delayed and is having scheduling issues with Ms. Witherspoon, who has other commitments, they said.


Apple also replaced showrunners for a reboot of Steven Spielberg’s anthology "Amazing Stories,” finding the original team’s vision a little dark, said people familiar with that project. Apple’s handful of TV-MA projects include “Shantaram,” about a former heroin addict who smuggles guns to Afghanistan, and a potential show about the late pop star George Michael.


Mr. Cook, better known for memorizing spreadsheets and detailing supply costs, makes an unlikely Hollywood kingpin. His favorite TV shows are relatively tame fare such as “Friday Night Lights” and “Madame Secretary,” say people he has spoken with about it.


 Mr. Cue acts as Hollywood translator. He made his mark leading Apple’s iTunes business with a tough negotiating style that cemented the 99-cent price for songs. Mr. Cue has said shows he enjoys include HBO’s violent and sex-filled “Game of Thrones” and the sci-fi “Westworld.”


The two men started exploring a video-programming strategy almost three years ago. With investors calling for Apple to buy Netflix, and Apple’s effort to launch a bundle of cable channels foundering, the executives invited in Hollywood executives such as Creative Artists Agency people and award-winning producer Brian Grazer, said people involved in the discussions. Apple wanted to know about how the business works, who was doing well and why.


Apple discussed with CAA afterward a confidential initiative to procure and develop programming for its app store, according to these people. They said the talent agency secured funding for the effort and scooped up several projects, including a Keanu Reeves show about a hit man and a risqué Michael Fassbender show about a rally-car driver.


Apple Music pursued projects of its own. The division, built partly through the $3 billion 2014 acquisition of Beats Electronics LLC, was led by Mr. Iovine, who figured video would differentiate Apple’s streaming-music service. In addition to the ill-fated “Vital Signs” project with Beats co-founder and Apple executive Dr. Dre, Mr. Iovine worked on a show called “Planet of the Apps” and partnered with CBS on “Carpool Karaoke.”


Some content on both shows, which now are available on Apple Music, originally troubled Apple brass. The company edited out “Planet of the Apps” segments with swearing, frustrating stars of the show, said a person familiar with the editing.


In “Carpool Karaoke,” which won an Emmy this week, Apple sanitized comedian James Corden’s faux outrage in the first episode so the audience hears “What the [bleep]?”


As Apple Music’s video efforts struggled, Mr. Cue charted a new course, hiring Messrs. Van Amburg and Erlicht from Sony, where they had built a reputation for creative chops and business savvy. The mandate was to build a slate of original shows.


The duo visited talent agencies last fall encouraging agents to bring them quality ideas. One agent described the message as: “Don’t edit yourselves. We’re Apple, and we’re going to take big swings.” Agents soon began to question that, as Apple started signing up series with the broad appeal of network shows and ended discussions over the grittier projects starring Mr. Fassbender and Mr. Reeves, according to people familiar with those projects.


Messrs. Van Amburg and Erlicht amended their message, saying Apple was open to anything and everything so long as there was no gratuitous violence or nudity, according to talent-agency people. One agent said some members of Apple’s team in Los Angeles began calling themselves “expensive NBC.”


Recently, Apple initially expressed interest when it was pitched a politically charged show about a college ombudsman in the era of #MeToo, featuring comedian Whitney Cummings and the producer behind the Fox hit “Empire,” Lee Daniels. Apple subsequently sent word there was concern about the sensitive topics, and the sides had differing opinions on the show’s direction.


The show is now in talks to end up at Amazon.


Source: The Wall Street Journal

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