There could have been hundreds of millions of subscribers to Apple TV+ worldwide by now. Instead, Apple has been arguing that it should pay production company staff less because there are so few people watching.

From November 2019 until July 2021 everyone who brought a qualifying Apple product was given a free subscription to Apple TV+. That freebie was initially supposed to last a year, but Apple actually extended it for a few extra months - so those who started their free trial in November 2021 actually wangled 19 free months of Apple TV+ access.

It's hard to estimate how many qualifying products were sold in that time frame, but it would have been a lot, which should mean that there would be a lot of people watching Apple TV+, right? Not really - and that's when it was free.

Apple is thought to have sold 34.9 million iPhones in 2020, which makes the fact that Apple only had 40 million TV+ subscribers in the US by the end of 2020 (according to Statista estimates) rather underwhelming. Especially when you consider that those choosing to take up the free subscription could also have purchased iPads, Macs and Apple TV.

It might actually be even worse than that: In July 2021 Apple 'admitted' to having only 20 million subscribers to TV+ in North America. (This was part of a fee negotiation with a trade union which we will come back to later.)

While Apple doesn't reveal how many subscribers it has worldwide it's fair to say Apple's numbers will be underwhelming when compared with Netflix (209 million worldwide by spring 2021), Prime Video (175 million worldwide by April 2021), or Disney+ (over 100 million worldwide subscribers by May 2021). The vast majority of Apple's 40 million subscribers would undoubtedly have been benefiting from the free trial - they weren't even paying for the content.

Now that those free subscriptions have ended Apple will no doubt be hoping that the arrival of a number of second seasons (which had been delayed because of COVID-19) and a much larger catalogue of original content than the handful of shows that had been available at launch, will be enough to entice customers to actually start paying the $4.99/£4.99 subscription for the service.

Before I explain why Apple has failed to turn Apple TV+ into a service that people will choose to subscribe to - and, crucially, that they will continue to subscribe to (it being so easy to end a subscription to any Apple product) - a bit of history:

Steve Jobs: cracking TV and transforming music

Steve Jobs

Last week we were remembering Apple's co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs who died ten years ago in October 2011. One thing Jobs did before he died was share his story with his biographer Walter Isaacson. One of the biggest revelations from that authorised biography 'Steve Jobs' was that regarding TV, Jobs claimed: "I finally cracked it."

Here's what Jobs told Isaacson: "I'd like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use… It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud… It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it."

At the time everyone got very excited, seeing this as evidence that the Apple TV was set to transition from the "hobby product" Apple described it as into something much bigger. Ten years later and it looks like Apple's strategy to "crack" television was simply a new interface for the Apple TV hardware. The ability to search for content on any service you subscribe to in one place. This was no doubt part of Jobs' vision. Simple, intuitive interfaces being part of Apple's DNA.

However, those who are aware of how Apple saved the music market from music piracy (mostly via Napster) will be wondering if Jobs might have had something on that scale in mind when he was speaking about TV. Back in the early 2000s Jobs and co were negotiating deals with the record labels and making music available to download (for a price) on the iTunes Music Store. This was revolutionary.

The initial attraction of the iTunes Music Store, when it launched in 2003, was the simplicity with which you could buy music. But times change: eventually people started choosing to subscribe to music streaming services like Spotify (which launched in 2006) and Amazon Music (which launched in 2007). By 2015 Apple could no longer ignore the fact that people were choosing streaming over ownership of music and it launched Apple Music. Apple began by leading the market and ended up following it.

iTunes Music Store Old

At the same time as Apple was transforming the music industry it was getting into TV. The company launched the Apple TV set-top box in 2007 and started selling TV shows and movies (the latter also being available for rental) on the iTunes Store alongside music. Around this time the rumours that Apple was going to launch an actual television were rife, thanks to Apple analyst Gene Munster's absolute certainty that Apple would launch a television by 2011.

You will be well aware that Apple never did launch a TV set. Indeed, just as it did with music, Apple ended up following its competition - Netflix and Amazon - and launching a TV streaming service.

What went wrong with Apple and TV?

Having recapped on the history of how we got to where we are today with Apple and the television industry, it's pretty clear that for all of Apple's success with the initial transformation of the music industry, neither music or TV has become something that people prefer to buy on a per-episode or per-track basis. Apple's initial strategy was to sell us content so that we would own it. The rest of the industry gave people everything they wanted for a subscription.

What would Steve Jobs have made of this? It's impossible to say, of course, but perhaps Jobs would have seen what needed to change quicker than Apple did without him. Both Netflix and Amazon started streaming movies and TV in 2007, but it took until 2019 before Apple addressed the streaming market. This delay might have been forgivable if the entertainment market hadn't completely transformed during that time.

In the 2010s the way we watched TV changed dramatically. We went from watching TV when it was broadcast (or recordings of it) to sitting in front of the TV bingeing our favourite shows for hours on end via a web connection. The number of shows on offer increased as Netflix and Amazon expanded their catalogues; here in the UK people started to watch content online via services like iPlayer (launched in 2007), ITV Hub (2008), 4OD (2006) and so on. Apple responded to this by making it easier to find this content via the Apple TV interface, which is most likely part of what Steve Jobs had in mind when he talked about how the Apple TV would have "the simplest user interface you could imagine".

But, while Apple was priding itself on its interface that allowed it to present us with other people's content, Apple's competition was building up extensive libraries of content and starting to create their own shows. It turns out that what people want is good content, not a fancy user interface (that isn't nearly as simple to use as Apple would have us believe, based on the number of Apple TV+ subscribers who are confused by the fact that when they search for content they inevitably find that they have to pay for it).

House of Cards, the first Netflix Original show, came out in early 2013, but it wasn't until 2019 that Apple launched its own streaming service with original content, having built up a library of eight original series and a documentary. Apple proudly showed off a bunch of famous entertainers such as Steve Carell, Ron Howard, Rob McElhenney, Steven Spielberg, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Sofia Coppola, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and more "who together will define Apple TV Plus".

Apple Event launching Apple TV+

All very impressive, but what happened next is the problem. Apple didn't have enough content to make people care about Apple TV+ enough to even bother to watch it with a free subscription. At a time when people expect huge catalogues of content from their subscription services Apple TV+ looked like a vanity project.

Around the time that Apple TV+ launched Disney+ launched. In the US it launched in November 2019, just like TV+, but in the UK it launched on 24 March 2020 - about a week into the coronavirus lockdown. This is interesting timing, because where Apple's plans for TV+ were no doubt set back significantly by the pandemic, Disney+ benefited first from a wealth of great content - and tons that was perfect for all those kids who were out of school. Like Apple, Disney+ had to put productions on hold, but, taking the Marvel content as an example, in many ways Disney has actually benefited from having a bunch of content to stream while the cinema (theatrical) releases have been on hold.

The beginning of the end

While I'd argue that Disney+ has benefited from the pandemic, it's quite possibly been the death knell for Apple TV+, but it didn't have to be. The pandemic meant that Apple had to extend the free trial because production had been put on hold, so it didn't have enough content to get people to subscribe. Second seasons of shows were delayed, and other content that the company had shown off during the Apple TV+ launch event was still in production. But it isn't just the pandemic that should be blamed for this situation.

As I said above, when people subscribe to a service (even if they don't actually have to pay for it) they want to feel like they have more than one or two things to watch. Services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are successful because they have something for everyone. Apple TV+ has quite a varied selection of shows, but if you aren't a fan of horror or suspense and would rather watch comedy, historical drama, or shows targeted at children, you are going to run out of shows to watch after about a month.

This is why Apple needed the second seasons to get people to subscribe, and that's where the second issue with Apple TV+ comes in (aside from the pandemic). There were some great shows on Apple TV+ in the first year or so. I loved the first seasons of Mythic Quest and Emmy award-winning Ted Lasso for example. But the second seasons of those shows were disappointing to say the least.

I forced myself to finish watching the second season of Ted Lasso last night because I was planning to write this article. The second season of that show was everything I was concerned the first season would be - and yet the first season was actually enjoyable. When I first heard about Ted Lasso I remember thinking it would be one of those awful American-made shows that pretend to be British. Full of stereotypes and annoying personalities. It wasn't. Obviously someone decided that the second season needed to appeal more to the US audience or something, because it definitely felt like I was watching an American interpretation of life in the UK.

Perhaps the biggest example of Ted Lasso's inaccurate and annoying portrayal of UK life was the hideous Christmas episode. Not wanting to write too many spoilers, because if you want to suffer like I did you should watch the episode, but the main storyline was about a young girl with bad breath and a search for a dentist on Christmas Day. Let's just say that there was nothing at all about this episode that was anything like a Christmas Day in the UK. For a start the shops were open!

Honestly I could rant all day about how bad the second season of Ted Lasso was. From the fact that it felt a bit like it was ticking boxes to try and win awards: tackle mental health? Tick; inappropriate relationship (that was about as out of character as you can imagine)? Tick. To the surreal Beard episode that made no sense other than to give Ted's sidekick a bit of screen time in an attempt to explain why he is even in the series.

The second season of Mythic Quest was a disappointment too. I loved the first season and I loved the special pandemic episode they did. But the writing for the second season just wasn't as good and the storyline just annoyed me. So much potential. What went wrong?

Apple TV content

I think what went wrong is that the production companies behind these series got disillusioned by the fact that practically nobody is watching anything on Apple TV+. Back in September 2021 we wrote about how Apple had 'admitted' low subscription numbers for its TV+ service (mentioned above). The company conceded that it has fewer than 20 million subscribers in North America - and the reason for this admission was a fee negotiations with a trade union. Allegedly, the negotiations in July 2021 were because Apple wanted to pay a lower rate to its production workers than other streaming companies would, and 20 million subscribers is the magical number below which it can do so.

Imagine if you had been enticed by Apple's TV+ plans and promises and had agreed to make content for the service, only to find out that, once the reality distortion field had been removed, there was nobody watching and Apple wanted to pay you less. You worked your heart out for the first season, but by the second season you would probably be feeling a little disillusioned by everything. The result? Great shows become embarrassingly bad.

What if Apple had used the time when the pandemic was holding up production of its original content to buy content that already exists so that it could share a larger back catalogue with its subscribers? Had Apple been able to recreate Steve Jobs' determination to sign up the record labels as he did back in the early 2000s, perhaps Apple's offerings in the TV and film space would be more attractive. Apple failed to do this despite the fact that they already have deals in place to sell all this content on the iTunes Store. (Which in itself is leading to so much confusion among subscribers to Apple TV+ who can't understand why everything isn't free, but I already mentioned that.)

Had Steve Jobs been alive today Apple might just have had the guts to get this back catalogue of content that Apple TV+ needs so much.

Different Think is a weekly column, published every Tuesday, in which Macworld writers expose their less mainstream opinions to public scrutiny. We've defended the notch, told Apple to stop being so successful and argued that nobody needs a foldable iPhone. See you next week!