Apple hires A&E’s Molly Thompson as its head of Documentaries

In addition to a growing lineup of scripted fare, documentaries will be another key focus for Apple TV+, the company’s new streaming service set to launch in May. According to a new report today from Variety, Apple has hired A&E’s Molly Thompson as its head of Documentaries.

Thompson’s experience at A&E includes founding its documentary production arm, A&E IndieFilms, back in 2005. While there, several of its films earned Emmy nominations, including “Life, Animated,” “Cartel Land,” “Jesus Camp” and “Murderball.”

Cartel Land,” “Life, Animated” and “The Tillman Story,” combined, went on to win more than a half-dozen Emmys, along with other industry awards.

Thompson also has exec produced: “The Clinton Affair,” Charles Ferguson’s “Watergate” docu-series, “Studio 54,” “City of Ghosts,” “The Imposter,” “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon,” “The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld,” “No Place on Earth,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and “Being Evel” — some of which were under A&E’s History Films banner.

For Lifetime Films, she exec produced two narrative features: “Lila & Eve,” which starred Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez and premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival; plus Eleanor Coppola’s “Paris Can Wait,” with Diane Lane and Alec Baldwin.

Thompson’s hiring indicates Apple’s interest in bringing content that will appeal to those who don’t regularly watch traditional TV, but instead like to stream more educational fare — like documentary films and docu-series, biographies, shows with a historical focus and other non-fiction. Plus, documentaries would give Apple a way to compete early on for Emmy attention, even if its scripted series fail to gain critical praise.

Documentaries also represent another means of competing directly with Netflix, where the format has become a huge draw for subscribers — even zeitgeist-y, at times. Netflix today has a range of documentaries that nearly everyone has seen, or has at least heard of, like “Making a Murderer,” “Wild Wild Country,” “13th,” “Amanda Knox,” “Fyre,” “Amy” and many more. This month it will have another hit in this genre, with Beyoncé’s Coachella documentary, out on April 17th.

Apple has already announced a few of its documentary efforts for Apple TV+, including Oprah’s docu-series, one of which is co-produced with Prince Harry; as well as a docu-series about extraordinary homes; and Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble’s documentary about an elephant matriarch, “The Elephant Queen.” The latter, which Apple picked up at the Toronto International Film Festival, was one of its first feature film buys.

Image credit: IMDb

Digging into Apple’s media transformation

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch Editor-in-Chief, Matthew Panzarino, offered his analysis on the major announcements that came out of Apple’s keynote event this past Monday.

Behind a series of new subscription and media products, Apple has set the stage for one of the largest transformations in the company’s history. Matthew touches on all of Apple’s major product initiatives including Apple’s new credit card, its push into original content, its subscription gaming platform, and its subscription news service, which features Extra Crunch as one of the debut publications.

“I don’t think many of the things that Apple announced here, on an individual basis, are earth-shattering. I think it shapes up to be a really solid, nice offering for people with some distinct advantages but at the same time it’s not breaking huge molds here. I think the same thing applies across all of the offerings that they put out there.

I just felt that together, it’s solid but not scintillating and we need to see how they develop, how they launch, and then what they do with these platforms…

…Seems relatively straightforward. However, some of the stuff people have glossed over is very intriguing.”

Matthew goes into more detail on why he didn’t view the announcements as individually earth-shattering, and why he sees compelling opportunities for Apple to position its offerings as a symbiotic ecosystem. He also goes under the hood to discuss some of Apple’s overlooked competitive advantages in media and to paint a picture of how Apple’s new product lines might evolve in the long-term.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

Apple TV+ makes Facebook Watch look like a joke

Apple flexed its wallet today in a way Facebook has 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. And Oprah is bringing documentaries about workplace harassment and mental health.

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.

Talk Apple news with TechCrunch EIC Matthew Panzarino

Apple rolled out major updates to main consumer services today, including a new Apple credit card, an ad-free TV subscription service, a paywalled version of News (that includes Extra Crunch), and a gaming platform upgrade.

TechCrunch Editor-In-Chief Matthew Panzarino attended live to hear the latest, and I can tell you that he has already developed some strong opinions…. Tomorrow at 10:30 am PT, Extra Crunch members will get to hear first-hand from him about the ins and outs of the company’s latest media offerings.

Tune in to listen to the details about what happened onstage and off, as well as the opportunity to ask Matthew anything Apple.

To listen to this and all future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

All the videos from Apple’s big media event

Video served as both form and function today at Apple’s media event, and the company wasn’t stingy with classic Apple event videos. Ranging from previews of new services like Apple Arcade to a look at the artists creating content for Apple TV +, the videos should give folks who missed the live stream a quick look at what’s next out of Apple services.

As with most events, today’s kicked off with a teaser video:

The first product Apple announced was Apple News+, which offers access to more than 300 magazines and newspapers for $9.99/month. Of note, Apple News+ is the only product Apple announced today that’s also available today.

The second new product out of Apple is Apple Card. Apple Card is essentially an electronic credit card that works anywhere that Apple Pay is accepted. The Apple Card app lets you see your transaction history, pay your card and earn 2 percent cash back daily on your purchases, all within the Wallet app.

And yes, it comes with a physical card, which is made of titanium, laser-etched with your name, and has no number. The Apple Card should make credit card fraud more difficult.

Apple then announced a new gaming subscription service called Apple Arcade.

The service won’t launch until this fall, but will include more than 100 premium games at launch from partners including Disney, Konami and Lego. Importantly, this is a cross-platform product, meaning games are playable on iOS, MacOS and tvOS, giving Apple the chance to leverage iOS to get gaming on the Mac.

This one came with two videos, but no price.

And finally, Apple announced Apple TV+, a forthcoming subscription service that would give users access to Apple’s new library of original content. This includes a new show from Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell about a morning news show and an anthology series from Kumail Nanjiana that tells the true story of everyday immigrants, among many others.

And one more thing… Oprah has signed on to do two new shows with Apple TV+.

Apple TV+ doesn’t come out until the fall and there’s still no word on pricing.

Update: Apple just published the Apple TV+ preview (which is the best video from the event, imho).

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 Apple 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.

In addition, Winfrey said she’s working on a new version of her book club with Apple, which she said will be “the biggest, most vibrant, the most stimulating book club on the planet.” The idea is that 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 that 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.”

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 onstage 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 onstage 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.

Apple unveils its subscription streaming service, Apple TV+

To close out today’s press event focused on Apple’s services business, the company has officially announced its streaming initiative, Apple TV+.

CEO Tim Cook said this will be an ad-free subscription, with everything available for online and offline viewing, in more than 100 countries. It’s coming this fall, but Apple hasn’t shared any pricing info.

“We feel we can contribute something important to our culture and society through great storytelling,” Cook said.

The company already had a long list of titles in development, which will hopefully put all your “Carpool Karaoke” jokes to rest. They include an “Amazing Stories” reboot executive produced by Steven Spielberg, an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s classic “Foundation” books and “The Morning Show,” a drama set in the morning TV industry starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon.

Details about the shows have been dribbling out for more than a year, so the main question was: How would consumers get access to all of this content? And how much would they have to pay for it, if anything?

Reports last fall suggested that Apple might actually give away these shows for free to anyone with an iOS or tvOS device, so the original content would essentially function as an incentive to buy Apple hardware and as a funnel to other services.

And indeed, Apple announced there’s a new Apple TV app coming in May, as well as Apple TV Channels, which will allow you to subscribe to other streamers like HBO, Showtime, Starz and CBS All Access. It turns out TV+ will be a part of the TV app, but you’ll have to pay extra — even if Apple isn’t saying how much yet.

To highlight the caliber of filmmakers involved in this initiative, Apple showed off a promotional video featuring interviews with Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Octavia Spencer, Ron Howard, M. Night Shyamalan, Sofia Coppola, Damian Chazelle, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon — who are, of course, all making shows for Apple TV+.

Spielberg then took the stage to talk about his childhood love of the Amazing Stories magazine, which he subsequently turned into an ’80s TV series.

“Thanks to the visionary and inventive folks at Apple, my Amblin team and I are going to be resurrecting this 93-year-old brand and offering to multi-generational audiences a whole new batch of Amazing Stories,” he said.

Spielberg was followed by a veritable parade of celebrities touting their various shows: Aniston, Witherspoon and Steve Carell, who are all starring in “The Morning Show; then Jason Momoa and Alfre Woodard, who talked about their science fiction series “See”; then Kumail Nanjiani, who said his anthology series “Little America” will consist of “human stories that feature immigrants”; then Big Bird (yes, that Big Bird) announcing coding-themed shows that Sesame Workshop is making for Apple and then J.J. Abrams and Sara Bareilles — Bareilles performed the theme to their show “Little Voice.”

And to close it all out? Oprah Winfrey.

Apple’s revamped TV app is ready to stream its new shows

Along with the long-awaited introduction of Apple’s TV and movie streaming service, the company also introduced a new Apple TV app for iPhone, iPad and Apple TV.  The updated design is meant to make it easier to find content, no matter the source – whether that’s Apple’s new TV channels service, Apple TV+, your iTunes library, cable or satellite TV, or other streaming services, like Amazon Prime Video or Hulu.

The updated app includes a new “Watch Now” tab where you can pick up where you left off on current shows, see suggestions of trending and popular content, or dive into personalized recommendations that get smarter the more you’re on the app.

The interface looks much like what you’d expect from a streaming service – with sections like “What to Watch” or “New and Noteworthy” where image thumbnails of the shows are browsed through horizontally.

When you find things you like, you can add items to your Watch Later list.

Similar to Roku’s TV and movies hub, The Roku Channel, or Amazon’s Prime Video Channels, the Apple TV app will also offer a simple way to subscribe to premium channels.

With a few clicks, you can start a free trial to paid channels like HBO, Showtime, Starz and others, using your saved payment information.

To navigate the app, you can tap on the sections across the top: Watch Now, Movies, TV shows, Sports, Kids and Library. Some of these have had small changes, as well.

For example, the brand new Kids experience lets children browse by their favorite characters, similar to Netflix.

There are other nice touches as well – like the ability to skip shows’ intros to get straight to the action – and, of course, you can still use Siri to find content and control the experience.

The revamped app will be available on Apple TV, iPhone, and iPad in May, and will come for the first time to the Mac this fall. It will also become available worldwide in over 100 countries, when the OS update arrives.

As previously announced, the Apple TV will be available on non-Apple devices for the first time, too. This includes smart TVs like those from Samsung, LG, Sony, and Vizio, as well as on Roku and Amazon Fire TV platforms at a later date.

Apple could charge $9.99 per month each for HBO, Showtime and Starz

The Wall Street Journal has published a report on Apple’s media push. The company is about to unveil a new video streaming service and an Apple News subscription on Monday.

According to The WSJ, you’ll be able to subscribe to multiple content packages to increase the video library in a new app called Apple TV — it’s unclear if this app is going to replace the existing Apple TV app.

The service would work more or less like Amazon Prime Video Channels. Users will be able to subscribe to HBO, Showtime or Starz for a monthly fee. The WSJ says that these three partners would charge $9.99 per month each.

According to a previous report from CNBC, it differs from the existing Apple TV app as you won’t be redirected to another app. Everything will be available within a single app.

Controlling the experience from start to finish would be a great advantage for users. As many people now suffer from subscription fatigue, Apple would be able to centralize all your content subscriptions in a single app. You could tick and untick options depending on your needs.

But some companies probably don’t want to partner with Apple. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll find Netflix or Amazon Prime Video content in the Apple TV app. Those services also want to control the experience from start to finish. It’s also easier to gather data analytics when subscribers are using your own app.

Apple should open up the Apple TV app to other platforms. Just like you can play music on Apple Music on Android, a Sonos speaker or an Amazon Echo speaker, Apple is working on apps for smart TVs. The company has already launched iTunes Store apps on Samsung TVs, so it wouldn’t be a big surprise.

The company has also spent a ton of money on original content for its own service. Details are still thin on this front. Many of those shows might not be ready for Monday. Do you have to pay to access Apple’s content too? How much? We’ll find out on Monday.

When it comes to Apple News, The WSJ says that content from 200 magazines and newspapers will be available for $9.99 per month. The Wall Street Journal confirms a New York Times report that said that The Wall Street Journal was part of the subscription.

Apple is also monitoring the App Store to detect popular apps according to multiple metrics, The WSJ says. Sure, Apple runs the App Store. But Facebook faced a public outcry when people realized that Facebook was monitoring popular apps with a VPN app called Onavo.