Apple and the Streaming Mirage

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A film from Apple, “CODA,” this week became the first movie from a streaming service to win the Oscar for best picture. The milestone means that the Hollywood establishment is finally accepting movies and TV series that we watch over internet connections as legitimate entertainment.

But wait: Why does Apple have a streaming video service at all? And what are the effects on us when oodles of corporate money warp the market for conveniences that we love? (I posed similar questions last year about Amazon.)

An Oscar is lovely, but success for Apple is largely defined by making more profits each year. Sorry, those are the rules of capitalism. It’s difficult to say if streaming video contributes to that goal, or if it’s an expensive distraction for Apple.

Spending gobs of money in sometimes reckless ways in pursuit of potential future profits is an age-old business strategy. Sometimes it works. Other times it leads to MoviePass, which burned through billions of dollars selling nearly unlimited movie theater passes for $10 a month, and then went bust.

Either way, companies throwing money around can be awesome for us, at least for awhile. It has most likely brought us cheaper and better streaming video services than we might have otherwise, low-cost Uber rides and cheap gasoline. Yes, I will make a connection between cheap gas and streaming video. Stick with me.

Products that result from sometimes irrational spending in the short term can be both glorious for us, and a dangerous mirage if and when the money dries up.

Some background: Apple in 2019 started a streaming video service called Apple TV+. Some people who buy a new Apple device get the service free for three months; otherwise Apple charges a $4.99 monthly fee in the U.S. That’s about one-third of the cost of streaming subscriptions from Netflix and HBO Max, which have more stuff to watch.

Apple rarely explains why it does anything, and the company hasn’t been clear about its goals for TV+. But the conventional wisdom is that streaming video is part of its strategy to keep Apple device owners loyal and entice them to spend a bit more money.

Has this justified the expense and energy that Apple devotes to streaming video? Shrug. It’s also unclear if Amazon’s streaming video service has been a successful way to lure and keep Prime members.

Maybe running a Hollywood entertainment empire is just fun. Apple and Amazon are so successful that they can squander some money to figure out if they’ll become even richer someday by offering streaming video. But it’s worth keeping in mind the potential disruption to products and services that we like when companies decide that their lavish spending is no longer a smart bet.

Uber rides were mostly cheap until about 2020, because the company had investor money to go after lots of riders even if trips didn’t turn a profit. Similar financial recklessness is now subsidizing city dwellers who order Doritos and milk delivered to their doors within 15 minutes. In the 2010s, streams of investor cash enabled U.S. energy companies to use new fracking methods to dig oil and gas out of the ground.

In all those cases, money that didn’t need to be spent entirely sensibly reshaped our world. We got cheaper gas and Uber rides and convenience services that couldn’t have existed without investors throwing money around and hoping it would pay off in the future. Irrational money also built Netflix into an entertainment titan, and now Amazon and Apple are throwing their cash around, too.

We probably get better and less expensive streaming services than we would if there were fewer companies selling entertainment subscriptions. People involved in making entertainment have more potential buyers for their work. Nice.

But what happens if the money must suddenly be tied more directly to earning profits? Netflix needed investors to subsidize its service for a long time, and now the company is on healthy financial footing. But Uber remains unprofitable and rides aren’t cheap anymore. Frackers burned so much of their investors’ money recklessly that they’re now wary of digging for more oil and gas even in an energy crisis, because their investors don’t trust them anymore.

10 Movies to Watch This Oscar Season

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“Don’t Look Up.” Two astronomers discover a comet headed straight for Earth. When they pass along the bad news, the president of the United States has other things on her mind to pay attention to than the impending catastrophe.

“Drive My Car.” A theater director grapples with the death of his wife, as he mounts a production of “Uncle Vanya.” A chauffeur assigned by the theater company ferries him to and from work while holding back vast emotional reserves of her own.

“Licorice Pizza.” In Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of-age romance, a child performer who has hit maximum adolescent awkwardness is aging out of his professional niche. His encounter with 20-something Alana, whom he instantly falls for, gets the story’s juices going.

“Nightmare Alley.” A grifter with empty pockets and a mysterious past joins the sleazoid world of 1930s back-road carnivals. He soon begins cycling through women, including a clairvoyant whose husband once had a successful mentalist act.

“The Power of the Dog.” Phil Burbank has been playing cowboy his entire adult life, raising cattle on his family’s Montana ranch for decades. When his brother George marries a widow with a teenage son, a lifelong family dynamic is disrupted.

“West Side Story.” Steven Spielberg’s remake of one of Broadway’s most celebrated musicals — a modern take on “Romeo and Juliet” — centers on the forbidden love between Tony and Maria, who are involved with two rival street gangs in Manhattan’s West Side in the 1950s.

Maybe Apple and Amazon make it big in streaming video. But what if one of those companies decides it’s no longer willing to drop billions of dollars on entertainment that doesn’t help its bottom line? Would Netflix cost $40 a month because there’s less competition? Would script writers wind up like Pennsylvania homeowners who relied on royalties from shale drilling that have dried up?

We could simply enjoy the money being spent to entertain us while it lasts. But know that it’s possible the oodles of money will end, and it might be painful for the people who make entertainment and those of us who watch it.

  • Uber and taxis unite! Imagine if Duke and University of North Carolina basketball fans held hands and watched the Final Four together. (For non-sports people: No. Those fans hate one another.) That’s something like what’s happening now as Uber and taxi agencies in multiple cities start to let people order Uber or taxi rides from the Uber app. My colleague Kellen Browning reports on one such agreement that’s coming in San Francisco.

  • This company’s technology enabled Russian surveillance: Internal documents reviewed by my colleagues detail the work by the telecom equipment company Nokia that played a key role in Russia’s system for spying on its citizens and dissidents. It’s a fascinating article that made me reflect on the role of technology that can be used in invasive ways and the responsibility of the companies that make it.

  • Fake LinkedIn people: Disinformation researchers identified more than 1,000 LinkedIn accounts using profile photos that were not real people but instead images generated by computers. NPR found that this was, essentially, an aggressive tactic by sales people.

This octopus is so beautiful.

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