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Apple TV Plus: Everything to know about Apple's streaming service

CNET logo CNET 10/16/2020 Joan E. Solsman
a hand holding a cellphone: Apple TV Plus launched Nov. 1, offering a yearlong free trial to people who purchased Apple gadgets. Sarah Tew/CNET © Provided by CNET Apple TV Plus launched Nov. 1, offering a yearlong free trial to people who purchased Apple gadgets. Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple TV Plus is the Apple's subscription video streaming service featuring original TV shows and movies. It costs $5 a month, but many people can unlock it free for as long as a year -- and the first wave of people who signed up for that promotion are getting their trial periods extended three months. With the first expirations of those free trials approaching on Nov. 1, Apple's is emailing free-trial subscribers that their free Apple TV Plus subscriptions have been extended until Feb. 1. 

"We're giving you extra time to discover the latest Apple Originals and catch up on shows returning for a second season," Apple TV Plus said in emails to trial members. "You don't have to do anything -- just keep watching for free until February 2021. 

text: Apple is extending the free trials of its earliest subscribers until Feb. 1. Screenshot by Joan E. Solsman/CNET © Provided by CNET Apple is extending the free trials of its earliest subscribers until Feb. 1. Screenshot by Joan E. Solsman/CNET

With a reported budget of $6 billion to rope in some of Hollywood's biggest stars, Apple TV Plus was the first to the battle lines in the so-called streaming wars, a period of months when media giants and tech titans released a raft of new streaming services to take on Netflix. These battles -- pitting rookies like Apple TV Plus, HBO MaxDisney Plus and NBCUniversal's Peacock against heavyweights like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video -- have spurred huge corporations to pour billions of dollars into their ambition to shape the future of television. 

Of its originals, Apple TV Plus seemed to stake the most on The Morning Show, its marquee drama starring Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, with an eye-popping $300 million reported budget. Apple TV Plus launched with just nine total programs, but since then it has expanded to about 40 shows and movies. 

Some of the most popular additions include Defending Jacob, a thriller miniseries starring Chris Evans about a family dealing with the accusation that their 14-year-old son is a murderer; Ted Lasso, a fish-out-of-water workplace comedy about a college football coach from Kansas hired to coach a Premier League soccer in England, based on a character spun off of an NBC Sports ad campaign (really); The Banker, a movie about African American entrepreneurs who take on racist real estate practices in the 1960s, starring Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson; Mythic Quest, a comedy series about a dysfunctional video-game studio; and Little America, an anthology series telling stories of immigrants in America.

graphical user interface, website © Connie Guglielmo/CNET

But unlike rivals Netflix and Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus doesn't have a big back catalog of things to watch. It focused on new, original content, even if that meant having much less programming for subscribers to choose from versus competitors. But Apple switched gears earlier this year and began licensing some older programming. So far, the licensed titles are very limited -- it released the original Jim Henson TV series Fraggle Rock to stream, for example, as a complement to its own new series of shorts based on the 1980s show. 

To soften the sting of such a limited library, Apple TV Plus is available free for many people. Apple is offering a free yearlong subscription to anyone who's purchased an Apple device. Apple is also bundling Apple TV Plus with its Apple Music student-discount plan, giving it away to a swath of young people at no extra cost.

That one-free-year deal, though, has some terms that may raise eyebrows. Your service is set to automatically renew at the end of the free year. If you cancel it before the end of that term, the service will shut off immediately and cannot be reinstated. You must wait until the day before the deal runs out to cancel or you forfeit any remaining free viewing time. 

And Apple kicking the can down the road with its free trials doesn't signal confidence in Apple TV Plus' traction thus far. Apple has never disclosed how many people are subscribed to Apple TV Plus; issuing three-month extensions to free members will certainly be welcomed by customers, but it may be interpreted as a sign Apple had meaningful doubts about those free members converting to paid one.  

Below is everything to know about the service.  

What does Apple TV Plus cost?

Apple TV Plus costs $5 a month, or $50 for an annual subscription, and it offers a standard seven-day free trial. By comparison, Disney Plus is $7 a month, with a large library of movies and shows available immediately. Streaming channels based on cable networks, like Showtime or HBO Max, usually range between $9 and $15 a month. Smaller, niche streaming services often are priced around $5 or less. And Netflix, the world's biggest subscription streaming service, prices its most popular plan at $13 a month in the US; it offers other tiers at $9 and $16 a month.

People who buy an iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, iPod Touch or Mac starting back on Sept. 10, 2019, qualify for a free subscription for one year. Previous Apple device owners aren't grandfathered in. 

a group of people posing for a photo: Apple TV Plus talent gathers with CEO Tim Cook in the lobby of the Steve Jobs Theater. Art Streiber/Apple © Provided by CNET Apple TV Plus talent gathers with CEO Tim Cook in the lobby of the Steve Jobs Theater. Art Streiber/Apple

The free-year offer applies to both new and refurbished models, including devices from the iPhone Upgrade Program, and it's not restricted to any specific sales channel, so it applies to both Apple Store purchases and those at resellers. It's available in all countries where Apple TV Plus launches. The first yearlong free trials for Apple TV Plus were set to expire Nov. 1 for anyone who signed up and unlocked the deal on the service's launch day, but Apple extended them to February. 

Free trials have long been the industry standard: Most streaming video services offer introductory free periods for new members, though that has begun to change for services like Netflix and Disney Plus, which no longer do. But Apple's one-year free period for gadget owners is atypically long. That tactic worked well for Apple Music -- Apple launched its music service with an extended, six-month free trial, and Apple Music quickly became the world's second most popular music service by subscribers behind only Spotify. 

Apple is also including Apple TV Plus with its Apple Music student-discount plan, now offering both streaming services in the $5-a-month deal at no extra cost.

Soon, Apple TV Plus will be available as part of a discount bundle of services called Apple One. Long expected since Apple began making subscription services a bigger strategy, Apple One is expected to launch sometime in the fall and ranges in price from $15 to $30 a month for different combinations of subscriptions. Apple TV Plus is included in all tiers of Apple One; depending on the tier, Apple One bundles may also including Apple MusicApple ArcadeApple News Plus, storage service iCloud and the coming guided-workout service Apple Fitness Plus. (Disney Plus had offered something similar by packaging that service with both Hulu and ESPN Plus.) 

What's Apple's TV service like? 

Apple TV Plus is a subscription streaming service to watch the company's original series and movies exclusively. Like Netflix, it doesn't have ads. 

Unlike Netflix, it doesn't have a big library of licensed shows or movies, nor will it release full seasons of its shows all at once in a binge-able bunch (for the most part). Most Apple TV Plus series premiere a small cluster of episodes, often three, followed by one new episode every week. Full seasons of some series drop all at the same time, though. 

Also unlike Netflix, Apple TV Plus doesn't have its own dedicated app. The Apple TV Plus programming resides inside Apple's TV app, which also serves as a hub to watch programming from other video subscriptions and to rent or buy movies and shows a la carte. 

Apple TV Plus is available in more than 100 countries and is also part of Apple's family-sharing feature, which allows you add up to five family members to share a plan. Apple originals are available in 4K, HDR and Dolby Vision, and most titles also offer Dolby Atmos sound, according to this Apple support page.

How do I sign up? And get that free year?

Apple TV Plus is associated with Apple ID, which is the same log-in you'd use for iCloud or downloading apps from its App Store. If you don't already have an Apple ID, you can create one here

If you already have Apple's TV app on an iPhone, iPad or Apple TV, you simply need to open the app and navigate to any of the places where Apple is prominently promoting its original shows. On newly purchased iPhones, for example, the app already knows you've purchased a new gadget to qualify for the deal. Whether you're starting Apple TV Plus with a year free or just the standard one-week trial, the shows start playing in the app after a few taps.

You can also sign up and watch online with a web browser at the Apple TV Plus site

The free-year deal is set up autorenew at the end of the free year.  And the service will shut off immediately when you cancel, even if you still have time left in the deal. You must wait until the day before the deal runs out to cancel or you forfeit any remaining free viewing time. 

The first yearlong free trials for Apple TV Plus were set to expire Nov. 1 for anyone who signed up and unlocked the deal on the service's launch day, but Apple extended them to February. 

When did it launch?

Apple TV Plus launched Nov. 1 in more than 100 countries and regions. 

The company said its originals will be subtitled or dubbed in nearly 40 languages, including closed captions for people who are hearing impaired, and Apple TV Plus series and movies will also be available with audio descriptions in eight languages.

What devices are supported to stream it?

Apple's programming is available on all Apple devices with the Apple TV app. 

In addition, Apple TV Plus is supposed to be available on some competitors' devices. Apple's TV app is available Roku and Fire TV, two of the most widely used streaming devices in the US, and for smart TVs from Samsung and LG. You can watch it on Sony and Vizio smart TVs via airplay, and the TV app is coming to those smart TVs during the summer. 

Subscribers will also be able to watch Apple TV Plus on the web at tv.apple.com.

Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston are posing for a picture: Reese Witherspoon (left) and Jennifer Aniston revealed the name of their Apple TV Plus series, The Morning Show, at Apple's event in March. Claudia Cruz/CNET © Provided by CNET Reese Witherspoon (left) and Jennifer Aniston revealed the name of their Apple TV Plus series, The Morning Show, at Apple's event in March. Claudia Cruz/CNET

But the Apple TV app isn't available on any mobile devices except iPhones or iPads. That means Apple TV Plus subscribers with non-Apple phones -- meaning, the huge population of people with Android phones -- need to stream to their mobiles via the web, rather than in an app. 

What shows and movies does it have?

Apple's shows run the gamut of drama, comedy, documentary -- even undefined deals with a single big star attached. It's also spending big to get top Hollywood names: WinfreySteven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams and other heavy hitters are on board. Apple also struck an exclusive deal with Alfonso Cuarón for the famed director's first television projects. 

Since Apple TV Plus resides in Apple's TV app, you can check out the selection there before signing up. You can also browse the catalog through third-party services like Reelgood

Apple TV Plus titles include: 

  • See, a post-apocalyptic thriller starring Jason Momoa

  • The Morning Show, the drama about a morning news broadcast starring WitherspoonAniston and Steve Carell 

  • Dickinson, a comedy about poet Emily Dickinson as a young woman starring Hailee Steinfeld

  • For All Mankind, an alternative-history retelling of the space race

  • Oprah's Book Club, a book-focused series with Winfrey
  • Helpsters, a Sesame Street spinoff 
  • Ghostwriter, a kids program about four youngsters who team up with a ghost in a neighborhood bookstore
  • Animated series Snoopy in Space
  • The Elephant Queen, a documentary film about a mother elephant
  • Servant, a thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, who directed Sixth Sense
  • Truth Be Told, a mystery drama starring Octavia Spencer and Aaron Paul
  • Little America, from the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Kumail Nanjiani (Dinesh from HBO's Silicon Valley) and Emily V. Gordon
  • The Banker, the movie based on a true story starring Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson
  • Hala, a movie produced by Jada Pinkett Smith that Apple picked up at Sundance
  • Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet, a comedy from Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day, who created and starred in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
  • Amazing Stories, an anthology series from Steven Spielberg
  • Central Park, a cartoon musical from the creator of Bob's Burgers and packed with the voices of stars like Frozen's Josh Gad and Kristen Bell and Hamilton's Leslie Odom Jr. and Daveed Diggs
  • Defending Jacob, the crime/drama miniseries starring Chris Evans
  • Greyhound, a World War II battleship thriller starring Tom Hanks

  • Little Voice, a series from J.J. Abrams and Sara Bareilles about a 20-something musician in New York

  • Ted Lasso, a comedy about a small-time college football coach from Kansas hired to coach a professional soccer team in England
  • Beastie Boys Story, a documentary about the band by director Spike Jonze
  • Boys State, a documentary about a high school mock-government exercise in Texas, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival
  • Fraggle Rock: Rock On, a reboot of the '80s Jim Henson kids series
  • Home Before Dark, a mystery series about a young woman investigating a small town's secrets
  • Tehran, a spy thriller about a Mossad agent who goes deep undercover in Iran
  • Tiny World, a nature documentary series narrated by Paul Rudd
  • Trying, a comedy series about a couple's infertility
  • Visible: Out on Television, a documentary series about how the LGBTQ movement shaped TV programming

On the film development side, Apple has a partnership with film studio A24 -- known for such movies as Ex Machina, Moonlight and Room. The partnership will include a film called On the Rocks starring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones and directed by Sofia Coppola, set to be released on Apple TV Plus on Oct. 23.  

At the Toronto Film Festival last year, Apple also bought the rights to Wolfwalkers, a movie from famed Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon and Melusine Productions. Wolfwalkers is set to be released Dec. 11. 

Apple also planned to give theater runs to some of its films before streaming them on Apple TV Plus, but the coronavirus pandemic has halted nearly all theatrical releases for the time being. 

Apple has come under early scrutiny because of reports that it's restricting its creators from making edgy content and aiming to keep all its programming family friendly. Family friendly programming isn't necessarily a bar to success -- Disney built one of the reigning media empires on it -- but edgy shows have led other streaming services to awards recognition that helps drive interest. Apple's strategy could crimp it competitively on that front.

Who is Apple competing against? 

Apple's service is launching at a time when seemingly every major media property is putting out its own streaming option, from DC Universe's comic-flavored fare to a planned Disney offering, not to mention stalwarts like Netflix. Meanwhile, NBCUniversal and HBO-owner WarnerMedia are both building their own streaming services.

Clearly, an Apple service with $6 billion worth of premium video competes with the likes of Netflix , Amazon Prime , Hulu and others that stream on-demand, high-quality productions. 

Should Apple expand to bundling other digital networks, then Amazon Channels will be its key rival. Apple would also go up against wireless companies such as AT&T's VRV, a co-op of niche genre streaming services. A channel-bundling model would even bring Apple in competition with traditional cable. 

What's interesting is that Apple's dive into original programming comes as other giants are ramping up their own streaming-service ambitions. Disney launched its $7-a-month Netflix-like service Disney Plus just days after Apple TV Plus rolled out, and it was followed by HBO Max and, soon, Peacock. 

Apple is a gadget giant. Why does it want to become Netflix? 

Apple is taking aim at original video because it could be a crucial enticement for people to buy more iPhones and other gadgets . You can't overstate the importance of the iPhone to Apple. The phone, one of the most popular in the world, still accounts for more than half its sales and was critical to Apple's march to become the first US company worth $1 trillion

Celebrities show off their new series on Apple TV Plus

a person standing in front of a store: With a decent catalog of already announced shows coming to the company's new Apple TV Plus service, we kept an eye out for the celebs spotted during the event. Here's who we spotted and why we think they were there.

With a decent catalog of already announced shows coming to the company's new Apple TV Plus service, we kept an eye out for the celebs spotted during the event. Here's who we spotted and why we think they were there.
© Provided by CNET

Apple is on a deadline to lift its services revenue to $50 billion before 2021. 

Apple quickly established its bona fides in subscriptions businesses with Apple Music. But the content on Apple Music is essentially the same as every other music service. They all have tens of millions of songs. Apple Music has been successful largely because of its presence on the iPhone, already in the pockets of millions of people. It hasn't been nearly as successful working the other direction, acting as a lure to buy the latest Apple gadget.  

Original video from big-name stars and creators you can't watch anywhere else, however, could be different. 

Apple clearly has a hunch it will be.

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