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Apple TV Channels: A Great TV Experience That’s Failing

Apple’s TV strategy has produced a mix of both winning and losing. While I think the company is largely on the right track with its efforts to produce original TV+ content, and it’s also poised to take a cut of many popular streaming services’ revenue via In-App Purchases, I nonetheless think it’s clear that the company’s attempts to offer a great TV experience are failing.

2019 was a big year for Apple’s TV ambitions. The company:

  • Released an update to its TV app
  • Brought that app to many new platforms, including Amazon Fire TV, Roku, smart TVs, and the Mac
  • Introduced Apple TV channels
  • Debuted its biggest tvOS update yet
  • Launched Apple TV+
  • Made lots of deals with content creators

More than ever, Apple is heavily investing in the TV space. Yet signs indicate that they’re only finding mixed success. I don’t want to talk TV+ subscriber numbers, because I think it’s too early to judge a metric like that (especially since we don’t have any official numbers). But I do want to talk channels.

Channels were (and are) at the center of Apple’s aims to offer a great TV experience. In theory they would enable:

  • Using a single app for all your TV viewing needs
  • A unified queue to track everything you’re watching
  • Downloading content for offline access
  • Built-in support for Family Sharing
  • Quick playback with a reliable video player
  • Support for key features like Picture in Picture
  • Easy sign up and cancellation of subscriptions
  • Availability across all your devices

Sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it? Apple’s dream for channels is very nice. It fixes the issues I’ve continually encountered with our stream-first TV world. It’s a very Apple approach: taking something that is overly complicated for users and making the experience much better than before. While the TV app itself needs rethinking to make it more intuitive, I believe Apple was nonetheless on the right path with its vision for channels.

But here’s the sad truth: that channels dream is quickly losing any chance of becoming reality. Since introducing channels 15 months ago, Apple hasn’t signed a single noteworthy new partner. There have been a handful of channel additions, but not a single big player is among them. No Hulu, no Prime Video, and certainly no Netflix, which still offers zero integration with the TV app apart from having its content searchable. Several big new streaming services have launched since Apple introduced channels, and none have gotten on board (unless of course you count Apple TV+, which you shouldn’t for obvious reasons). Disney+ and HBO Max are sure to be two major players in the streaming wars for years ahead, and neither of them is a channel.

That final example, HBO Max, is representative of how dire channels’ current state is. HBO was a channel initially, but it isn’t any longer. Now that HBO has become HBO Max, there’s no longer a channel option. So not only has Apple’s channels initiative not signed any key new partners in the last 15 months, it has actually lost its biggest partner during that time.

All is not lost for Apple’s TV strategy, since the company has at least gained support from Disney+ and HBO Max for integrating with the TV app, and offering subscriptions via In-App Purchase. Thanks to app integrations with every major streaming service save Netflix, Apple is still kind of able to follow its initial vision of being a TV aggregator. You can still use the TV app as a universal queue and playback launcher for all content aside from Netflix, which means the app still offers something unique you can’t find elsewhere. But app integrations only work on Apple TV, iPad, and iPhone, not on the Mac or any third-party platform. And even if they did, the experience still isn’t near as good as it could be.

Apple’s channels initiative, if it were successful, would easily represent the best TV experience for the streaming age. But with a shrinking roster of major partners, it’s a dream that will likely never be fulfilled.

I’m hoping WWDC will reveal Apple’s answer to this problem. App integrations in the TV app are better than nothing, but with channels no longer the best way forward, I hope the company has a new strategy for offering a great TV experience. I’m not sure what that could be, but the dream of channels has given me a taste of something better, and I don’t want to give up on hope just yet.

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