Apple rarely underwhelms when it debuts a new product, but its latest television venture sure feels like a swing and a miss.
The iPhone maker will start carrying Friday Night Baseball on its Apple TV+ streaming service this year, offering back-to-back Major League Baseball games on Friday nights (as soon as MLB owners and players get their act together and reach a labor deal).
The agreement, announced during the Apple unveiling on Tuesday of new iPhone, iPad, and Mac products, marks the company’s first foray into sporting events, one of the few still-lucrative properties in the live television market. Perhaps most important, it gives Apple some sports credentials ahead of an expected bidding war for an NFL Sunday Ticket package valued in the neighborhood of $2 billion annually, according to the Sports Business Journal.
Still, it’s a pretty small-scale venture at a company known for going big. Apple becomes just one of several outlets to stream baseball games, relegated to a weekday hardly known for the great American pastime. Its choice of baseball, an increasingly regionalized sport with relatively limited international appeal, also seems strange.
Apple’s uninspiring baseball deal becomes yet another stark example of a trend percolating now for several years: the inability of Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and other stand-alone streaming platforms to pry away valuable live television rights from traditional broadcasters.
Despite the hoopla over streaming services cannibalizing legacy outlets, live-TV rights holders keep returning to the friendly confines of network television, ESPN, and a few cable channels. Top streaming services, on the other hand, continue to gobble up the scraps of huge live TV packages, feeding off leftovers thrown away by their older competitors.
By now, the examples of this non-shift are plentiful.
When the National Football League, which garners the highest ratings of any live TV property, sold 11 years’ worth of media rights in early 2021, four traditional networks still won the most-prized broadcasting blocks.
Amazon, meanwhile, scooped up exclusive broadcast rights to Thursday Night Football for Prime Video. While a huge coup for Amazon, the offering still represents a sliver of the NFL’s total package. The Thursday time slot also produced the second-lowest ratings for national NFL broadcasts in 2021.
MLB, too, has been reluctant to slide headfirst into the streaming future with its national TV package, inking deals over the past few years with ESPN, Fox, and TBS owner WarnerMedia. Three streaming platforms have now won MLB broadcast rights—Apple, Facebook, and YouTube—but each earned a tiny slice of the pie.
The list goes on. The Emmy Awards opted in 2018 to stay on network television. The National Hockey League partnered with ESPN and WarnerMedia last year, while the English Premier League re-upped with NBC. The U.S. Soccer Federation scored a deal this month with WarnerMedia for national team games.
Apple, Amazon, and Netflix, meanwhile, have been virtually left out of the live TV realignment. One notable exception: Amazon exclusively broadcast the Academy of Country Music Awards on Monday after the organization couldn’t reach a renewal deal with CBS.
An outlier in all this is Disney. Though the company doesn’t stream live events on its popular Disney+ service, it does through its separate ESPN+ streaming service.
So why can’t the Apple-Amazon-Netflix triumvirate, flush with huge amounts of cash and cachet, gain a foothold in the live TV market?
Because for now, linear television networks still offer a better deal to rights holders. Traditional networks rake in tons of revenue from advertising and cable fees, helping them underwrite multibillion-dollar live TV investments.
In addition, each network now offers a linear option and a streaming platform, allowing for an overflow of product beyond the highest-profile broadcasts. ESPN+ shows leftover baseball, hockey, and international soccer games. NBC’s Peacock hosts all Premier League ties and Olympic events. WarnerMedia can offer U.S. Soccer games on TBS, TNT, and HBO Max.
In this day and age of streaming domination, the old-school television companies still have some gas left in the tank.
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The latest line. Apple debuted several new offerings Tuesday, including an upgraded version of its least expensive iPhone and a high-powered Mac desktop computer, as part of its first product unveiling of 2022. The new line targets customers looking for a high-speed 5G-enabled iPhone at a lower price, as well as creative professionals angling for more video and design performance. Apple is still expected to roll out the new iPhone 14 later this year.
A crypto dive. President Joe Biden ordered federal officials Wednesday to conduct a wide-ranging exploration of cryptocurrency, including the potential impact on financial markets and the feasibility of creating a national digital currency, the Associated Press reported. The executive order arrives as some lawmakers call for deeper regulation of crypto, fearful of its volatility, potential use in criminal activity, and destabilizing impact on traditional markets. The Treasury Department and several other federal agencies will undertake the investigation.
Turning out the lights. Online connectivity provider Lumen announced Tuesday that it will stop serving customers in Russia, delivering another blow to internet access in that country, The Verge reported. While the ultimate impact of Lumen’s withdrawal remains unclear, network analysts said several large Russian telecom providers rely on Lumen products to maintain consistent internet access across the country. Lumen became the second U.S.-based company that props up Russia’s internet backbone to exit Russia, following a similar decision Friday by Cogent Communications.
Calling in the feds. A bipartisan group of lawmakers asked the Justice Department on Wednesday to investigate whether Amazon officials criminally obstructed a federal inquiry into the company’s business practices, the Wall Street Journal reported. In a letter to federal prosecutors, five members of the House Judiciary Committee alleged that Amazon refuses to provide documents requested as part of a probe into company officials mining sales figures to identify popular products bought on its platform, then manufacturing versions of those items and selling them at a lower price. An Amazon spokesperson said there was “no factual basis” for the lawmakers’ allegations.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Breaking the firewall. Russian President Vladimir Putin can only cut off so much internet access from his people. Axios reported Tuesday that Russians are flocking to virtual private networks that let internet users circumvent national restrictions on certain websites, a step taken by Putin’s administration amid the federation’s invasion of Ukraine. The networks could help Russian citizens receive information via social media and independent media outlets, rather than the state-sponsored media outlets preferred by Putin.
From the article:
Virtual private networks, or VPNs, enable users to hide their locations to evade location-based restrictions and make browsing more private by encrypting internet traffic.
Demand for VPNs surged by 1,092% in Russia on March 5, the day after Russia blocked access to Facebook, according to Top10VPN.com. Demand in Ukraine climbed 609% higher than before the invasion began, according to the site, which tracks search volume data.
Downloads of eight popular VPN apps in Russia grew from 12,848 on Feb. 15 to 415,547 on March 7, according to data from Apptopia.
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Spotify says it resolved technical issues that disrupted service for users, by Patrick McHale and Bloomberg
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BEFORE YOU GO
Up in the air. There’s no perfect way to lay off people, but Better.com continues to show there are horrible ways to do it. Some employees of the online mortgage lender, fresh off a firestorm sparked by CEO Vishal Garg issuing mass layoffs via a cringeworthy Zoom call, learned that they were out of a job Tuesday when they unexpectedly received severance checks in their Workday accounts, TechCrunch reported. Better.com is expected to shed about 3,000 of its 8,000 staffers in the U.S. and India amid interest rate and market volatility. The glitch appears to stem from a company decision to push back layoffs by one day, which wasn’t reflected in the severance paycheck delivery system.
Editor’s note: The Tuesday edition of Data Sheet contained a misspelling of the company name CrowdStrike.
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