Apple found its role in the streaming wars.
Former HBO CEO Plepler announced on Thursday that he signed an exclusive, five-year deal with Apple to produce TV shows, movies and documentaries for the company's fledgling streaming service, Apple TV+. It comes less than a year after Plepler stepped down from his 27-year run at HBO, and amid reports that he clashed with the direction AT&T wanted to take WarnerMedia after its acquisition closed.
HBO's loss is Apple's gain. Apple now has the guy who guided HBO through the golden age of television, bringing along everything from "The Sopranos" to "Game of Thrones." Meanwhile, the new HBO Max streaming service will have... "The Big Bang Theory" when it launches in May.
Apple nabbed Plepler at the perfect time as it moves to fill the gap in prestige, must-watch TV that WarnerMedia is leaving behind in favor of a Netflix-like attempt at gaining a massive subscriber base. Yes, all the classic HBO stuff will still appear on Max, but it'll be mixed with bingeable content designed to have a broader appeal, ranging from network TV sitcoms to DC super hero movies.
There's an opening for Apple TV+ now that the streaming wars is all about volume and hoping one or two hits stick each year. (Just fire up Netflix and scroll through the glut of generic romantic comedies and reality shows eating up your home screen.) The curation and selectivity that made HBO HBO is all but dead in the streaming era, and WarnerMedia is about to fall into that same trap.
Apple's first attempt at TV production had some noticeable stumbles with lukewarm-to-disastrous reviews for dramas "The Morning Show" and "See," and several other programs that have failed to punch through the entertainment zeitgeist. (For what it's worth, I recently started watching "The Morning Show," and I'm enjoying it so far. It's not "Succession"-level good, but it's still fine.)
But that was all before Apple signed Plepler. There's no better signal from Apple that it plans to be the next HBO beyond the fact that it nabbed Plepler's projects exclusively for the next five years.
Beyond that, Apple TV+ doesn't have the same pressure to grow to a massive scale that HBO now does under AT&T. Apple is still the iPhone company, and every additional service or accessory — from AirPods to streaming video subscriptions — is another way to squeeze more cash out of each user on top of the $1,000 they drop on a new phone every few years. That's part of the reason why Apple gives Apple TV+ away free for a year when you buy a new gadget. It can lock you in now, and keep you paying over time after it builds up its streaming library.
So Apple has room to differentiate Apple TV+ from HBO Max, Disney+, NBC's Peacock and the rest. It doesn't need to chase scale. It already has the scale thanks to the millions of free Apple TV+ subscriptions everyone got when they unwrapped their new Apple gadget over the holidays.
Instead, Apple can create a compelling and unique library that'll keep you locked in for years to come. And with Plepler, Apple going to use HBO's former mastermind to do it.