The role of ‘super-aggregator’ – a company that aggregates not multiple channels but multiple video services under one roof – is up for grabs, and Apple is making a serious attempt to join the market. A recent iOS update turned the Apple video store app into the ‘TV’ app and puts television shows, including from popular broadcasters (like the BBC and ITV, in the UK) in the spotlight.
Anyone using Amazon Channels will be familiar with the new Apple user interface, which lists channel providers in rows down the page and allows you to scroll left to right across their content assets. However, unlike with Amazon Channels, where you need to be an Amazon Prime member to watch content, the Apple TV app includes free TV.
More than that, it also gives you access into content on Amazon Prime Video if you are a subscriber, like ‘The Grand Tour’ or ‘Manhattan’. In fact, there is a lot of Amazon content flagged on the Apple service, mainly under the ‘Bingeworthy’ section. There are also links into Netflix (though fewer than with Amazon). Where titles are available across different services, there is a scroll-down option to let you choose which app you want to open. Thus for ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ film you could choose between Prime Video (free in your Amazon subscription), Netflix (free in your Netflix subscription) or iTunes (to rent or buy).
Assuming you have player apps downloaded on your device, there is a row called ‘Best of BBC’ and others called ‘Best of ITV Hub’ and ‘Best of My5’ (the online service from Channel 5). A small selection of subscription video app services are listed in the new ‘TV’ app including Hopster, MUBI, Shudder and Curiosity.
There is intelligent linking into the player services so that Apple knows what you have been watching and presents shows you may want to continue, under the banner ‘Up Next’. The content offered is on-demand – there is no link into broadcaster live streaming. When you choose broadcaster content for the first time, like from the Apple ‘What to Watch’ curated listing, you see programme details, a list of other episodes and a ‘play’ option – still inside the Apple UI. Once you choose ‘play’ you link into the third-party player service.
Using the new BBC drama McMafia as a current example, all five available episodes are listed, with the option to watch them in iPlayer or buy them from iTunes. Once watching the show inside iPlayer, you have two options: use a ‘<TV’ icon in the top left of the screen to return to Apple’s ‘TV’ service (the standard iOS ‘return to app’ option) or exit the programme stream, which takes you fully into iPlayer and the BBC’s world and user interface.
Even once you are in the iPlayer home page, with all BBC exploration options possible, you can still ‘<TV’ back to Apple. The ‘back to Apple’ option remains open to you even as you watch another show in iPlayer, and then another. Thus Apple seems to have earned a trusted partner status whereby it brings viewers to the broadcaster and, in return, they retain the option to go back again. The Apple search surfaces content in iPlayer.
With ITV Player, which is ad-funded, you go directly into the ITV Hub programme stream, starting with pre-roll ads. You can exit the programme into ITV Hub itself, then navigate the broadcaster app and watch more content or, at any point, go back to Apple (as with the BBC). Channel 5 works in the same way, with a bi-directional link between the broadcaster world and the Apple world, and freedom to stay and move around the partner app. Amazon Prime Video gets the same treatment.
As a super-aggregating service, the updated Apple app has an immediate advantage over Amazon Channels (in the UK, at least) because of its integration with the broadcast giants. Amazon Channels offers ITV Hub+ (the ads-free, paid version of the ITV online service) as a Prime add-on subscription – and of course, you need to subscribe to Amazon Prime to use the service in the first place. The Apple app gives free access to super-aggregated free services. Thus Apple presents and takes you to the latest episode of the BBC’s popular Sunday night soft-drama, ‘Call the Midwife’. On Amazon you need to buy this programme/series via Prime Video.
The Apple video store, containing content you can rent or buy, which was previously the heart of the iOS video app, is now available as a menu option. So is ‘Library’, where you can stack shows and films that you have purchased via the store.
The links between Apple and other apps (like iPlayer, ITV Hub, My5, Amazon Prime and Netflix) are all reasonably smooth. There is some scope for confusion as to where you are. At one point we found ourselves navigating around Amazon Prime, thinking we were back in the Apple world.
This service is not a threat to Pay TV today, since there are no subscription channel owners in the television part of the Apple app. And it is only a marginal threat to free-to-air platforms, as there is little real ‘channel’ choice (and only an elite group of UK channels have online services that could integrate, anyway). Moreover, there is no live/linear TV – everything is on-demand.
Nevertheless, Apple, like Amazon, has grasped an opportunity presented in a disrupted marketplace where aggregation and distribution models are changing quickly, like viewing habits are. The updated service is a worthy attempt to provide an umbrella app through which you can find content in multiple other apps – and so to become the UI that removes the need to exit one app and enter another, then do it all over again.
The small number of content partnerships, and therefore modest television offer – plus the fact that this is limited to the streaming world – means that, like Amazon Channels, this is a service to watch rather than fear today. But it should be a reminder to ‘traditional’ television platforms that super-aggregation is coming, in some form. As we have reported on numerous occasions, Pay TV operators are in a strong position to ensure they fulfil that role on the set-top box.
Photo: The BBC’s McMafia is promoted in the ‘Watch Now’ section of the new Apple TV app.