Apple TV+ makes Facebook Watch look like a joke

Apple flexed its wallet today in a way Facebook has been scared to do. Tech giants make money by the billions, not the millions, which should give them an easy way to break into premium video distribution: buy some must-see content. That’s the strategy I’ve been advocating for Facebook but that Apple actually took to heart. Tim Cook wrote lines of zeros on some checks, and suddenly Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Oprah became the well-known faces of Apple TV+.

Facebook Watch has…MTV’s The Real World? The other Olsen sister? Re-runs of Buffy The Vampire Slayer? Actually, Facebook Watch is dominated by the kind of low-quality viral video memes the social network announced it would kick out of its News Feed for wasting people’s time.

And so while Apple TV+ at least has a solid base camp from which to make the uphill climb to compete with Netflix, Facebook Watch feels like it’s tripping over its own feet.

Today, Apple gave a preview of its new video subscription service that will launch in fall offering unlimited access to old favorites and new exclusives for a monthly fee. Yet even without any screenshots or pricing info, Apple still got people excited by dangling its big-name content.

Spielberg is making short films out of the Amazing Stories anthology that inspired him as a child. Abrams is spinning a tale of a musician’s rise called Little Voice Witherspoon and Aniston star in The Morning Show about anchoring a news program. Oprah is bringing documentaries about workplace harassment and mental health. Apple even has the Seasame Street gang teaching kids how to code.

This tentpole tactic will see Apple try to draw users into a free trial of Apple TV+ with this must-see content and then convince them to stay. And a compelling, exclusive reason to watch is exactly what’s been missing from…Facebook Watch. Instead, it chose to fund a wide array of often unscripted reality and documentary shorts that never felt special or any better than what else was openly available on the Internet, let alone what you could get from a subscription. It now claims to have 75 million people Watching at least one minute per day, but it’s failed to spawn a zeitgeist moment. Even as Facebook has scrambled to add syndicated TV cult favorites like Firefly or soccer matches to free, ad-supported video service, it’s failed to sign on anything truly newsworthy.

That’s just not going to fly anymore. Tech has evolved past the days when media products could win just based on their design, theoretical virality, or the massive audiences they’re cross-promoted to. We’re anything but starved for things to watch or listen to. And if you want us to frequent one more app or sign up for one more subscription, you’ll need A-List talent that makes us take notice. Netflix has Stranger Things. HBO has Game Of Thrones. Amazon has the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Disney+ has…Marvel, Star Wars, and the princesses. And now Apple has the world’s top directors and actresses.

Video has become a battle of the rich. Apple didn’t pull any punches. Facebook will need to buy some new fighters if Watch is ever going to deserve a place in the ring.

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YouTube denies that it is canning scripted series, plans to launch ad-supported slate in coming weeks

On the heels of Apple announcing paid, monthly subscription services for video, games, and news, YouTube says it is also doubling down original video content. Parent company Google has denied a report in Bloomberg that YouTube has stopped accepting pitches for scripted shows. But it also confirmed another aspect of the same report: it plans a big focus on paid subscriptions by introducing an ad-supported slate that will include new and existing series in the coming weeks.

It seems that for now the plan is for this to exist alongside YouTube Premium, its $11.99 ad-free subscription service that provides access to YouTube Music and original video content and films, which is not going away. Reports about YouTube’s changing content monetization strategy, moving content out from behind the paywall, have been going around for months.

We’ve also been able to confirm that part of the shift will indeed include cancelling two existing shows, Origin and Overthinking with Kate & June, which will not be on the new slate — one of the other details reported by Bloomberg.

The move signifies that Google is rethinking how it competes in the world of streamed video as the landscape gets increasingly crowded with a selection of options from which to choose. That’s happening not on one but two levels.

Many of the biggest existing services, as well as those that are now coming online, are putting millions into commissioning original movies and series. Netflix alone is estimated to be putting some $15 billion into its own slate this year. In other words the ante is very high for snagging big names and then investing in the production of films and series with them, and with competition the prices are getting higher.

Interestingly, $15 billion is also how much in advertising revenues that YouTube generated last year, and that is the second area where YouTube is changing up how it is planning to compete. With a number of companies now vying for for a share of your entertainment budget with monthly subscription fees or one-off payments for specific items, YouTube is exploring a no-fee approach, playing to its strengths and offering its original TV content not as part of subscriptions but as an ad-supported free service.

One of the notable aspects of building original content plays for streaming services is that it means the provider sidesteps some of the more tricky, expensive and time-consuming aspects of negotiating regional deals with rightsholders. YouTube appears to be hoping to tackle this as well, from what we understand, by developing new series and formats that will appeal (and be accessible by) a global audience.

YouTube is easily Google’s most successful and popular effort in the world of social media, and beyond that it’s one of the most popular destinations on the web.

But the report and Google’s quick refutation underscores an ongoing issue for the company. One of the more persistent challenges for Google has been figuring out the best way to leverage YouTube’s audience and platform that has essentially been built around user-generated content — with its huge emphasis on user-created or user-uploaded videos that are by default presented with comments, ads, and carousels of further videos to watch — into one that can also be seen as a home for more finely-tuned premium video content, to create a one-stop-shop at a time when the several others are building services that can pull viewers away.

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Apple’s new ‘Sesame Street’-themed TV show will teach kids coding basics

The original “Sesame Street” TV show taught preschoolers basics like numbers and letters, but Apple’s new Sesame Street-themed show will instead focus on teaching kids coding basics. Introduced on stage today at Apple’s press event by none other than Big Bird himself, the Sesame Workshop-produced show is one of the new arrivals to Apple TV+, the company’s just-announced streaming TV service and Netflix rival.

The new kids show will focus on coding, because “coding fosters collaboration, critical thinking skills, and is an essential language that every child can learn,” Apple announced today by way of a muppet called Cody, who has learned to speak in PR soundbites.

“By teaching preschoolers about coding, we’re giving them the opportunity to change the world!” the muppet exclaimed.

The show will also have “cool music” and “funky dance moves,” Cody added.

Apple, of course, directly benefits by helping inspire the next generation of coders, as its ecosystem of apps – and the billions of dollars they generate – are built by millions of third-party developers. For Apple to retain a dominant position in the app industry, it needs to continue to build out its pipeline of new coders.

To date, the company has been pushing its coding language, Swift, by hosting educational sessions at Apple Stores, funding school programs and nonprofit initiatives, offering course materials to teachers, and through its own learn-to-code app, Swift Playgrounds. But this new kids TV show is designed to spark interest in programming at an even earlier age.

“You’re helping kids grow up to be smarter, stronger, and kinder,” said Big Bird to Cody, touting the series on stage at the press event.

Because Apple didn’t show a trailer for the series, it’s unclear how the coding tutorials will be presented to viewers. But at a high level, it will use the big ideas behind coding to solve problems.

Apple’s deal with Sesame Workshop had been announced in June 2018, and was said to include both live action and animated TV. But none of the actual shows were announced until today. The deal, it’s worth noting, does not include “Sesame Street” itself, as HBO made a five-year deal with Sesame Workshop for that title back in 2015.

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Oprah offers more details about her partnership with Apple

Apple’s event today, where it announced its streaming plans and more, ended with a whole bunch of celebrities taking the stage to talk about the shows they’re making for the new TV+ service. The boldface names included Steven Spielberg, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston — but for the big finish, Apple brought out Oprah Winfrey.

Apple said last year that it had signed “a unique, multi-year content partnership” with Winfrey. That announcement, however, didn’t include any details about the programs she’d be making.

Winfrey described two documentaries today. First, there’s “Toxic Labor,” looking at the effects of sexual harassment in the workplace. There’s also an untitled, multi-part documentary about mental health.

Winfrey also said she’s working on a new version of her book club, which she said will be “the biggest, most vibrant, the most stimulating book club on the planet.” The idea is that by working with Apple, her interviews with authors can be streamed to Apple stores and devices around the world.

“I want to literally convene a meeting of the minds, connecting us through books,” she said.

More broadly, Winfrey said with her Apple content, “I want to reach that sweet spot where insight and perspective, truth and tolerance, actually intersect.” And she’s excited to use their platform to get her message out to an enormous audience: “They’re in a billion pockets, y’all. A billion pockets.”

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The ethics of internet culture: a conversation with Taylor Lorenz

Taylor Lorenz was in high demand this week. As a prolific journalist at The Atlantic and about-to-be member of Harvard’s prestigious Nieman Fellowship for journalism, that’s perhaps not surprising. Nor was this the first time she’s had a bit of a moment: Lorenz has already served as an in-house expert on social media and the internet for several major companies, while having written and edited for publications as diverse as The Daily Beast, The Hill, People, The Daily Mail, and Business Insider, all while remaining hip and in touch enough to currently serve as a kind of youth zeitgeist translator, on her beat as a technology writer for The Atlantic.

Lorenz is in fact publicly busy enough that she’s one of only two people I personally know to have openly ‘quit email,’ the other being my friend Russ, an 82 year-old retired engineer and MIT alum who literally spends all day, most days, working on a plan to reinvent the bicycle.

I wonder if any of Lorenz’s previous professional experiences, however, could have matched the weight of the events she encountered these past several days, when the nightmarish massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand brought together two of her greatest areas of expertise: political extremism (which she covered for The Hill), and internet culture. As her first Atlantic piece after the shootings said, the Christchurch killer’s manifesto was “designed to troll.” Indeed, his entire heinous act was a calculated effort to manipulate our current norms of Internet communication and connection, for fanatical ends.

Taylor Lorenz

Lorenz responded with characteristic insight, focusing on the ways in which the stylized insider subcultures the Internet supports can be used to confuse, distract, and mobilize millions of people for good and for truly evil ends:

Before people can even begin to grasp the nuances of today’s internet, they can be radicalized by it. Platforms such as YouTube and Facebook can send users barreling into fringe communities where extremist views are normalized and advanced. Because these communities have so successfully adopted irony as a cloaking device for promoting extremism, outsiders are left confused as to what is a real threat and what’s just trolling. The darker corners of the internet are so fragmented that even when they spawn a mass shooting, as in New Zealand, the shooter’s words can be nearly impossible to parse, even for those who are Extremely Online.”

Such insights are among the many reasons I was so grateful to be able to speak with Taylor Lorenz for this week’s installment of my TechCrunch series interrogating the ethics of technology.

As I’ve written in my previous interviews with author and inequality critic Anand Giridharadas, and with award-winning Google exec turned award-winning tech critic James Williams, I come to tech ethics from 25 years of studying religion. My personal approach to religion, however, has essentially always been that it plays a central role in human civilization not only or even primarily because of its theistic beliefs and “faith,” but because of its culture — its traditions, literature, rituals, history, and the content of its communities.

And because I don’t mind comparing technology to religion (not saying they are one and the same, but that there is something to be learned from the comparison), I’d argue that if we really want to understand the ethics of the technologies we are creating, particularly the Internet, we need to explore, as Taylor and I did in our conversation below, “the ethics of internet culture.”

What resulted was, like Lorenz’s work in general, at times whimsical, at times cool enough to fly right over my head, but at all times fascinating and important.

Editor’s Note: we ungated the first of 11 sections of this interview. Reading time: 22 minutes / 5,500 words.

Joking with the Pope

Greg Epstein: Taylor, thanks so much for speaking with me. As you know, I’m writing for TechCrunch about religion, ethics, and technology, and I recently discovered your work when you brought all those together in an unusual way. You subtweeted the Pope, and it went viral.

Taylor Lorenz: I know. [People] were freaking out.

Greg: What was that experience like?

Taylor: The Pope tweeted some insane tweet about how Mary, Jesus’ mother, was the first influencer. He tweeted it out, and everyone was spamming that tweet to me because I write so much about influencers, and I was just laughing. There’s a meme on Instagram about Jesus being the first influencer and how he killed himself or faked his death for more followers.

Because it’s fluid, it’s a lifeline for so many kids. It’s where their social network lives. It’s where identity expression occurs.

I just tweeted it out. I think a lot of people didn’t know the joke, the meme, and I think they just thought that it was new & funny. Also [some people] were saying, “how can you joke about Jesus wanting more followers?” I’m like, the Pope literally compared Mary to a social media influencer, so calm down. My whole family is Irish Catholic.

A bunch of people were sharing my tweet. I was like, oh, god. I’m not trying to lead into some religious controversy, but I did think whether my Irish Catholic mother would laugh. She has a really good sense of humor. I thought, I think she would laugh at this joke. I think it’s fine.

Greg: I loved it because it was a real Rorschach test for me. Sitting there looking at that tweet, I was one of the people who didn’t know that particular meme. I’d like to think I love my memes but …

Taylor: I can’t claim credit.

Greg: No, no, but anyway most of the memes I know are the ones my students happen to tell me about. The point is I’ve spent 15 plus years being a professional atheist. I’ve had my share of religious debates, but I also have had all these debates with others I’ll call Professional Strident Atheists.. who are more aggressive in their anti-religion than I am. And I’m thinking, “Okay, this is clearly a tweet that Richard Dawkins would love. Do I love it? I don’t know. Wait, I think I do!”

Taylor: I treated it with the greatest respect for all faiths. I thought it was funny to drag the Pope on Twitter .

The influence of Instagram

Alexander Spatari via Getty Images

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