The Problem with Apple as Creator and Curator

I haven’t watched much at all of Apple TV+‘s con­tent, so this isn’t about whether their shows are good or not. Hell, they’re win­ning Emmys after all.

One thing I used to love about the Roku is that it had no incen­tive to make you watch one thing over anoth­er. There was no “Roku store,” so its mak­ers weren’t moti­vat­ed to put paid con­tent front-and-cen­ter in the UI.

I gave that up once I switched to Apple TV, but I knew that, although Apple was incen­tivized to encour­age me to watch things that I could buy or rent through them, at least it was­n’t direct­ing me toward spe­cif­ic things for that rea­son; Apple does­n’t care whether I rent Bar­ton Fink or Trans­form­ers, as long as I rent it from Apple (and their library is exten­sive).

I love the TV app for its “Up Next” sec­tion, remind­ing me what I want to watch and where I left off. I even like the remain­ing rows, high­light­ing con­tent that is either being talked about (recent award win­ners, for instance, or big shows that are end­ing soon), or that is pos­i­tive­ly reviewed, or that is sim­i­lar to things I’ve expressed inter­est in in the past. With so much to watch these days, it’s nice to have dif­fer­ent ways for con­tent to be sur­faced.

On the oth­er hand are Ama­zon’s and Net­flix’s UIs, which late­ly seem to almost exclu­sive­ly show you con­tent pro­duced by them, to encour­age you to stay in their ecosys­tems. The “home page” of the Net­flix app has got to be one of the most valu­able adver­tis­ing spaces on earth, and they take advan­tage of that. (See: Bird­box.)

But unfor­tu­nate­ly what has taint­ed the Ama­zon and Net­flix UIs is now a prob­lem on Apple TV, for two rea­sons: Apple TV Chan­nels and Apple TV+.

Because Apple TV Chan­nels is lim­it­ed to a small hand­ful of net­works — CBS, AMC, HBO, etc. — Apple is strong­ly incen­tivized to pro­mote shows from those net­works to encour­age me to sub­scribe to them through Apple. And with orig­i­nal con­tent being pro­duced for Apple TV+, they’re also incen­tivized to rec­om­mend their own shows to me, some­times with an entire row of con­tent in the UI.

This destroys what trust I once had in the con­tent cura­tion. It would be naive to think the rec­om­men­da­tions weren’t at all pre­vi­ous­ly moti­vat­ed by sales, but now when I see an Apple TV+ or CBS show high­light­ed, I know it’s effec­tive­ly no dif­fer­ent from an ad. They would rec­om­mend “The Morn­ing Show” to me whether or not it was good.

I almost wish they had an “edi­to­r­i­al depart­ment” who curat­ed the con­tents of the TV app and were not behold­en to the oth­er teams at Apple what­so­ev­er.