Shares of Netflix (NFLX -4.49%) inched higher on Monday, just as Apple (AAPL -1.51%) was peeling back the curtain on its long-anticipated entry into the premium streaming video market. Whether it's relief that the announcement is finally out there -- the "buy on the news" counter to the "sell on the news" adage -- or just that the market wasn't impressed, it doesn't seem to be as risky or dangerous to own Netflix now.
Apple TV+ is going to be a very popular service when it launches in the fall. Apple has had its stumbles over the years, but it usually means business when it's not phoning it in. Monday's star-studded media event was as over the top as the class act of Cupertino can be, with Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Reese Witherspoon, and even Big Bird among the many celebrities going on stage to share a quick peek at what they will be bringing to the new streaming platform. Apple is going to be a player here later this year, but it will still be no Netflix -- or Disney (DIS -2.60%).
Getting a grip on the boom
There was a lot left unsaid and unseen at the big reveal of Apple TV+. We don't know how much it will cost. We don't know the full extent of distribution beyond iOS and Mac gadgetry, though the refreshed Apple TV app itself will be available on select third-party players in a couple of months. We don't even know much about the several new shows that were pitched by the famous directors, actors, and super-sized anthropomorphic canary. Outside of a montage at the end featuring really short clips of many of the shows, we didn't get full trailers of the content that will be exclusive to Apple TV+.
Apple brings plenty to the table. We can start with the brand, as there is no other name out there as large and ubiquitous stapled to the notion that it's something worth paying a premium to own. This is also a company that can still make a difference when it's late to the party, as Apple Music has risen to the top in terms of paid U.S. subscribers in digital ear candy. Apple also begins this year with a net cash balance of $130 billion, giving it more monetary ammo than anyone else to throw at something until it sticks.
Now let's talk about what Apple lacks that Netflix and Disney already have in place. Let's start with an established audience. Netflix began this year with 139.3 million global streaming paid memberships. By the end of this week, it expects to close out the first quarter with 148.2 million subscribers. When Apple TV+ finally launches in the second half of this year, Netflix will be well north of 150 million paying accounts worldwide. That is a lot of ground to make up.
Disney will probably roll out Disney+ after Apple TV+, but there are already nearly 89 million Disney Channel subscribers out there. Disney's cable networks aren't as active a choice as stand-alone streaming services, naturally. A lot of people that are paying for Disney networks as part of a bundled cable package probably don't watch any of the channels.
Then there's the quality issue. Apple's media event on Monday was red carpet worthy, but stars alone don't make hit shows. Many of the more popular Netflix shows over the years -- from Stranger Things to Orange Is the New Black -- became cult faves with minimal star power. Apple isn't Disney or Netflix with a deep catalog of proven content. Disney has decades of monster franchises that it can milk, and Netflix has an even bigger resource in the data that it has collected over the years on video consumption trends.
It's not a coincidence that Netflix comes to the plate with a monster batting average and even better slugging percentage whenever it rolls out a new series or original movie. Apple can't take that kind of pulse when it comes to its audience, just as Netflix would have the mother of all learning curves if it would ever decide to roll out an apps marketplace or a smartwatch.
Apple won't flop here. However, between Netflix, Hulu, and Disney, it wouldn't be a surprise if the tech titan isn't ready to win, place, or show in this race a year or two after it launches. The pie is growing to the point that we can have several successful players, but for now, Netflix has more to worry about with what Disney will be introducing later this year than what Apple unveiled on Monday.