Apple TV+ Can't Win

If a predicted Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) takeover of MGM occurs, the e-commerce and cloud giant will add a massive film and TV library to an already streaming, industry-leading content trove. It also will cement Amazon’s spot at the top of the streaming media industry, where it sits with Netflix Inc. (NASDAQ: NFLX). This and other recent changes in the industry leave Apple TV+ far back in the pack of streaming services, and in a position from which it cannot recover.

The measures of how many subscribers each of the leading services have are not completely compatible because the companies that own them report figures based on slightly different metrics. Netflix, without question, has over 200 million customers between its international and domestic businesses. Amazon has slightly fewer. Each reports its figures by quarter. Netflix has built an extraordinary library of both older films and TV shows and more recently added ones it has produced itself. Its annual investment in original content is as big as the budget of any traditional studio.

Amazon’s investment in original content is at the same level as Netflix’s, as is its production of new programs. And its library is about to get a huge boost.

Disney+, one of the fastest-growing services, has just over 100 million subscribers. Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) also owns Hulu, which has another 41 million. Disney’s library is its strength. It includes Disney’s films and the movies from the Star Wars, Pixar and Marvel franchises. Management expects the hockey stick growth to continue.

HBO Max, part of WarnerMedia, has just over 44 million subscribers. A new transaction to marry WarnerMedia with Discovery puts the HBO Max streaming service under the same roof as CNN, TBS, TNT, HGTV, Food Network, Discovery Channel and Discovery+. While these services are not in the top tier based on subscribers currently, the combined libraries and brands give them a chance to be.

Peacock, the NBCUniversal streaming service, likely has over 30 million subscribers. Its library may not be as impressive as those of some of its competitors. However, both the NBC and Universal film studio businesses have large vaults of content. Paramount+ includes the video assets of CBS and Viacom. Once again, the service is not large, with just over 30 million subscribers. It also has an impressive library of TV shows and films released over the decades by Universal.

Apple TV+ also has about 30 million subscribers. Most of these are due to Apple Inc.’s (NASDAQ: AAPL) relationships with customers through its Macs, iPhones and iPads, which means over a billion people. Customers can get Apple TV+ free for a year with the purchase of many Apple devices. This clouds how many paid subscribers Apple TV+ really has. Apple’s major disadvantage is that its library is extremely thin. Even if it spends money on original content at the Netflix or Amazon level, it will take years to catch up. Apple is not making that kind of investment, or even close.

Apple has been reluctant to drop out of businesses it has launched with great fanfare. However, for Apple TV+, the battle to get anywhere near the top tier of streaming services is already lost. The field is too crowded, and Apple does not have the key ingredient of a major library. The Amazon deal with MGM only makes that more apparent.

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