Just when you think there's too much television content, there's more.
Earlier this month, Apple formally announced that it would be making two original scripted series. One isn't exactly original. It's a revival of the Steven Spielberg-produced anthology series Amazing Stories. The second is, however, definitely new and an indication that Apple plans to spend big, attract known stars and make a very noisy entry into the TV-content business.
That new show doesn't have a title but it has two announced stars – Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston. Loosely based on CNN reporter Brian Stelter's book Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV, it will be about two battling hosts of morning TV shows. Apple has ordered two seasons of the series, which will be written and produced by Jay Carson (House of Cards), with both Witherspoon and Aniston serving as executive producers.
That's typical, the exec-producer title. What's not typical is the lack of an explanation of how the shows will be offered to viewers. Will Apple partner with an existing broadcaster? Will it offer these series on iTunes only? Will potential viewers have to be Apple customers in order to see the series?
Nobody knows. And the bigger unknown is this – when is there too much TV for viewers to consume?
The further unknown is how the vast resources of a company such as Apple might turn the TV-content world upside-down.
At the time of this year's Emmy Awards in early September, 342 scripted series had aired or screened on network, cable and streaming services in the United States (not counting PBS, which is not a commercial operation) in 2017. The previous year, at the start of the fall season, 325 series had been offered. Between the Emmys and the last day of 2017, another 80 series are expected to appear.
Here's the thing – Netflix needs content to keep its customer base and expand.
That's how it justifies spending billions on original movies, series and specials that are great, good, bad or indifferent. It's a content-factory with a lot of money to spend.
Apple doesn't need TV content to survive. Essentially it sells hardware and devices that allow customers access to content created by others. Now it is reported to be ready to spend $1-billion (U.S.) on content in the next two years. Amazing Stories is reported to have a budget of $5-million an episode.
Either this is the start of an epic battle to control access to TV content, or it is madness.
It is also, some might say, the end of what some of us called the golden age of TV.
Over the past 20 years, what has changed television, pushing at the boundaries of conventional storytelling and character development, is originality and creative verve. What made TV the defining storytelling medium of the start of the 21st century is carefully curated quality, whether it was at HBO or FX or AMC. Creators, writers and specific series were nurtured, given space to grow.
What Apple is doing is aiming for blockbuster content. It has money to burn and might set fire to the entire, fragile structure of this golden age. We have already seen, with Netflix, ridiculous amounts of money spent on ridiculous shows that almost evaporate as soon as they start streaming. Hands up anyone who thought the hundreds of millions spent on Baz Luhrmann's The Get Down was money spent on great television? Exactly. A waste of money and talent. The days of nurtured, curated series are coming to an end, perhaps, and Apple's money is just hastening the end.
The Apple announcement came just before Amazon announced it had purchased the global rights to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings for some $329-million (U.S.) and would be turning it into a TV series for its streaming service. Five seasons are planned and a spin-off series.
Why? Good question. And there is no reasonable answer. Except perhaps we can conclude this – Amazon wants its own Game of Thrones but can't be bothered to nurture the writing, talent and execution and instead it grabs the rights to an existing blockbuster franchise.
Apple is surely doing much the same by hitching itself to Spielberg and spending enough to pull Jennifer Aniston back to television. The money and star power will attract attention but there is no guarantee of quality or originality. This might be a good time to ask Amazon how it feels about the reported $80-million it spent on Woody Allen's series, Crisis in Six Scenes, which was either ignored or loathed.
Maybe it's all about drawing attention to a product, whether it is Apple's existing products or Amazon's online shopping. Maybe it works as a business model that somebody with an MBA can explain.
It is better to be suspicious, though. Spending vast mounts of money for blockbuster talent or existing franchises goes against the grain of everything in this golden age of TV. Nobody had really heard of most of the people involved in Mad Men, The Sopranos or The Wire before they came into existence and became classics.
Besides, who has the time to consume all this content? Don't bother asking Apple. It's too busy disrupting yet another creative arena and might be about to do to TV what it did to the music industry.