by Stuart McGurk, GQ
Apple is set to launch its much-rumoured rival to Netflix later this year. But with an annual budget of $2 billion, compared with Netflix's $12 billion, can they compete?
Eddy Cue does not resemble the man you have in mind when you picture the guy who’s currently the point person for Apple. He resembles not so much a sleek Silicon Valley titan as the neighbour who’s happy to lend you his lawnmower. He has a robust handshake, a booming laugh and, according to reports, occasionally falls asleep in meetings.
Cue is perhaps the least visible of Apple’s top brass, certainly nowhere near as known as CEO Tim Cook or chief designer Jony Ive, who will announce his departure from Apple a couple of days after I meet Cue (though Ive will continue to work on Apple projects on a freelance basis).
And yet, just as Ive was the driving force behind Apple’s hardware, Cue – whose official job title is senior vice president of internet software and services – is now the driving force behind all the services from Apple Music and Maps to the new Apple credit card and Apple TV+, its new Netflix-rival streaming service set to launch this autumn in more than 100 countries.
For the first time, Apple wouldn’t just make products that let you watch and listen to content created by others; it would be creating the content itself.
So why Apple, and why now?
“We think there's an opportunity for us, given the changes that we see in technology to play a part of it. And the way we do things is we always say we try to be the best, not the most. And we’re getting excited about it. The shows we’re creating are really, really good.”
Today, says Cue, most people subscribe to a satellite or cable service. “But do you think that’ll be the case ten years from now? I don’t think even the cable and satellite people are going to raise their hands. There’s a pretty rapid change coming.”
In March, Apple announced some of its new shows at a glitzy event in which the likes of Steven Spielberg (who is reviving anthology series Amazing Stories), Jennifer Aniston, Steve Carell and Reese Witherspoon (who are starring in workplace drama The Morning Show) and JJ Abrams (who’s producing romcom Little Voice) all took to the stage. Even Oprah, who last year signed a deal with Apple too, was there.
And yet, it's not devoting Netflix amounts of money – Apple is rumoured to have an original content budget of $2 billion, which sounds a lot until you consider the $15bn Netflix will spend this year alone. Which begs the question: what will Apple TV+ be providing that no one else will? What’s unique?
“The best,” says Cue simply. “If you want to watch the best shows, we have them.” Better than anything on HBO? “You know, it’s hard to compare. I think HBO has had a great reputation.” There is definitive emphasis on the word. Had? Past tense?
“Look, they have Game Of Thrones that’s just finished... but no, I don’t think it’s past tense.”
Cue mentions For All Mankind (lensed in part by Stephen McNutt, ASC), a drama by the creator of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, Ronald D Moore, that imagines what would have happened if Russia had landed on the moon first, as an upcoming show where the Apple attention to detail shines.
“We worked a lot with the best people in the business to create a show that has a great deal of attention to detail. Like, we took the Houston control panel. We were able to get a lot of the original stuff. We didn't create fake ones. We actually got the original stuff."
And other shows wouldn’t do that? “Some would, most don’t.”
When HBO launched the first wave of TV’s golden age with the likes of Sex And The City and The Sopranos in the late Nineties, it was successful in part because it was free of the prudish restrictions that defined American network television. Sex talk was actual sex talk. Mafiosos sounded like mafiosos. Tony Soprano garrotted a guy while taking his daughter to look at prospective colleges. And that, in turn, launched something else: an era of difficult, complex antiheroes – from Walter White to Don Draper – that simply wouldn’t have been possible on anywhere but cable TV.
In many ways, the story seemed to highlight the clash between everything that has made Apple so successful as a technology company – an obsession with detail and controlling every aspect of an ecosystem – and the awkward fit for that ethos when it comes to Apple becoming a content creator.
“Well, I think in general, we haven’t been content creators. We’ve been creating the tools and devices that people use in order to consume or create it.”
Cook’s most common note on scripts, according to the report, was “Don’t be so mean.”
“I saw the comments that myself and Tim were writing notes on the scripts and whatever,” says Cue. “There’s never been one note passed from us on scripts, that I can assure you. We leave the folks [alone] who know they’re doing.”
So Cook didn’t give that particular note?
“I can assure you that was 100 per cent false. He didn’t say, ‘Don’t be so mean.’ He didn’t say anything about a script.”
Apple, he says, is “ultimately trying to create shows for everyone. So we have shows that are dedicated to small kids. And we have shows that are dedicated to mature adults. So we’re going to do a lot of different shows and what we’re going to do is hopefully create the best shows on TV.”
What would be an example of a show that’s not family friendly?
“The Reese Witherspoon-Jennifer Aniston show [The Morning Show is a workplace drama set behind the scenes of breakfast TV]. It’s a show about women in the workplace and some of the issues that happen to them are definitely not appropriate for you to watch with an eight-year-old.”
I have to admit it doesn’t sound particularly risqué. What wouldn’t be appropriate in that show? “The language.”
Anything else? “Yeah, there are other things. But I don’t want to spoil it.”
When I ask what show Cue is personally most excited about, the answer is a surprising one.
“We have a show called Dickinson (Production Design by Loren Weeks) about Emily Dickinson. I don’t really know that much about Emily Dickinson, honestly. I read poetry at school, but it wasn’t a big part of my life. And it’s an amazing show. I learned a lot about her. And so I’m very proud of the team that we have that’s less than two years old and that’s been able to create this.”
Cue is also behind the current split-up of iTunes into three separate apps, a move announced at Apple’s developers conference in May. Replacing it will be the Music, TV and Podcasts apps, with all purchases made directly inside them. The move is partly down to the arrival of Apple TV+, but it’s also seen as a long-overdue move to catch up lost ground on music streaming services such as Spotify, which launched almost a decade ago.
Steve Jobs had always been against “renting music” and so the focus on iTunes – for music, TV and movies – was always on purchases. But with the launch of the Apple Music streaming service in 2015 and this year’s Apple TV+, Apple is finally in the streaming business. Apple hasn’t confirmed a monthly cost for the latter, but rumours suggest they could offer both their music and TV services for a single subscription fee: a move that could tempt longtime Spotify users to convert.
Does Cue feel that Apple was late to move to a music streaming and subscription model?
“You know, one of the things that’s hard in life – and I think we’ve been very good about this – is that if you’re an incumbent and you’re highly successful in one area you generally miss the next thing. Why is that? Well, you’re highly successful here, so you don’t want to do anything that’s going to disturb or ruin that business any faster than it would normally. And so you let somebody else come in and you wait too long.”
Cue points out that Apple wasn't slow to create the iPhone, a move it knew would cannibalise their iPod business: “We don’t sell a lot of iPods today.”
But in the case of iTunes, “We had a very successful business. People were still buying. It was still growing. And so I think we did it at the right time. Could we have done it a year earlier? I’m happy with the results.”
He points out that Apple Music now boasts 60 million subscribers and is the No1 music streaming service in the United States.
It has also brought some legacy features over from iTunes. Cue points out that in the world of streaming, albums that are yet to be released simply don’t exist, whereas in iTunes you could preorder them. “So we created this thing called 'Coming Soon', where you can see an album and when it’s coming out” – even if you can’t yet play it.
A particularly ambitious under-the-radar project, meanwhile, is currently seeing Apple input song lyrics for every track on Apple Music and sync it so the lines will pop up with the music if you so choose, like karaoke. And it's doing so itself, manually, rather than relying on an outside lyrics service such as Genius.
“It just takes an inordinate amount of money to try to do this and to try to figure out how to do this the right way,” says Cue. And while Apple is naturally starting with the most popular tracks, Cue says it doesn’t intend to stop there. The plan is to add synced-up lyrics to every song in the Apple Music library.
“I honestly don’t know the exact number of people who are working on it. In our ideal world it would be zero because we’d get them all from the labels. But we discovered that it wasn’t going to work. In general it takes hundreds of people to do. And you could call it an opportunity, a problem, however you want to phrase it, but it’s a neverending thing. It does never end. But that’s what makes it awesome too. We have 50m songs. So I’m not sure we’ll ever get done. If you ever have a job where the end date is infinity, that’s probably a good thing.”
Cue himself is something of an Apple lifer, having joined the company in 1989. It was Steve Jobs who spotted his potential and over the years Cue has been responsible for everything from creating the App Store to the acquisition of Beats Audio.
What are his main memories of Jobs?
“Someone I loved dearly as a friend. So when you ask that question to me it’s a personal question. He was obviously an incredible boss. I had the greatest mentor in the world.”
Cue says he didn’t realise it at the time – “I was young” – but that one of the greatest things to happen to Apple was Jobs getting fired in 1985 by then-CEO John Sculley.
“Because when he came back, one of the things that he wanted to do is create a company that would outlast him and could live for hundreds of years.”
He was really thinking in terms of centuries?
“He absolutely was. And he put people in place and created a culture that he thought would do that. But obviously he was taken way too early. I figured I'd be walking out of Apple the same day he was walking out of Apple.”
He does not much rate the portraits of Jobs that have appeared since, not least the biography by Walter Isaacson and the film, Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin.
“No. Terrible. They’re not true. Most of the stories are just not accurate. They’re just not accurate. And I think they missed the boat on Steve. They don’t capture in my mind the real Steve. There’s a good book called Becoming Steve Jobs, which I think is the best book. It captures good, bad, fun, pain, emotions, all of it. That’s better than anything I’ve seen. So I’d encourage you to read that.”
He’s eager to talk about the success of the Beats 1 internet radio station, which launched in 2015 (“One of coolest things about Beats 1 is that it’s live and it provides you a viewpoint and gives you much more information”). It now has tens of millions of listeners around the world, broadcast live from LA, New York and London. “And we premiere songs, Zane [Lowe], I think, is live right now.”
Cue was the point person on the $3b Beats acquisition in 2014, a move as much about Beats’ streaming technology as its headphones. A recent HBO documentary about the deal – The Defiant Ones – began by documenting Beats cofounder Dr Dre boasting on social media about becoming “the first billionaire in hip-hop!” before the deal was even signed, with his fellow Beats founder, producer Jimmy Iovine, fretting that it could scupper the deal. Was it ever in the balance?
“Look, Dr Dre and Jimmy are people that we’ve known for a long time. We met them when we started iTunes. And I remember thinking these are incredible talents, they really are special. And we’ve done a lot of work together with them. So none of that stuff mattered at the end of the day. At the time it got a lot of press, but I knew it didn’t matter. It wasn’t core to what we were doing.”
A recent profile of Cue suggested he occasionally falls asleep in meetings at Apple – notably one about voice assistant Siri – which hardly fits the profile of an up-at-4am-and-hit-the-yoga tech titan.
He feigns falling asleep when I ask him the question. “Sorry! I was just waking up. Look, I read it. I think the New York Post posted a great image of me asleep. You’ve gotta give them that. It’s pretty funny. Have I ever fallen asleep during a meeting? I’m sure I have. I’m sure everybody has. Especially if it was boring. But luckily we don’t have too many boring meetings at Apple.”