The Only Surprise About Plepler’s New Hit Show

Photo: Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images
Julia Alexander
August 2, 2022

The Apple TV+ miniseries Black Bird is, at first glance, precisely the type of prestige streaming show that should have broken out from the get-go. The Mindhunter-like crime drama hails from acclaimed author Dennis Lehane and stars a hulked-out Taron Egerton, Paul Walter Hauser, and Ray Liotta in his last project before he tragically died earlier this year. Perhaps most notably, the series is executive produced by Richard Plepler, the legendary former HBO chief who launched Game of Thrones, among so many other genre-defining hits. That’s not a bad checklist.

There’s also a very good chance that, up until recently, or even just now, you didn’t know anything about Black Bird. Apple dropped the first two episodes on July 8, then moved to a weekly roll out. The finale drops this Friday, and while demand for the show has grown steadily, it didn’t really hit outstanding levels (2.7 percent of shows reach this tier) until July 22 globally and July 25 in the U.S., according to Parrot Analytics, where I work as director of strategy. Now, as buzz builds ahead of the finale, Black Bird is picking up speed and seemingly finding its audience. It’s the fourth most in-demand show on Apple TV+ right now, according to Parrot data. (Parrot Analytics combines consumption data with research, social media, and social video activity to determine cross platform demand for content in order to determine which series are most likely to drive subscription growth or retention.)

Anecdotally, as someone who talks to a lot of executives in the industry, conversations about Black Bird all go a similar way. First, they agree, it’s great. Next comes the shared observation that they hadn’t known anything about the show at all. And finally, their confession: Did you know this is from Plepler’s company? Speaking for myself, I had no idea Black Bird was an Eden Productions project until I searched for more information about the show on IMDB. Indeed, you won’t find any reference to Plepler’s name in any of the marketing materials for Black Bird. There’s just a small note in an official post about the show on Apple’s P.R. site. While Egerton has stopped at some of the late night and morning shows to talk about the series, there hasn’t been what I’d call a major publicity push. Maybe it’s because Apple is used to a keynote presentation creating all the press the company needs—just wait until the next iPhone announcement likely happening this September—but entertainment marketing is different from tech product marketing. 

Before diving into some thoughts on Apple TV+ (and other streaming services in a similar boat), a couple of important asterisks. Apple doesn’t release viewership for its series or movies. While Apple does work with Nielsen—Ted Lasso is the only major show from Apple to chart alongside Netflix, Disney, and Amazon titles—we won’t have Nielsen viewership data from the premiere until next week. And, while C.E.O. Tim Cook boasted about the company’s continued double-digit growth in its Services division, we don’t actually know how many subscribers the company has for Apple TV+ or its Apple One bundle that includes Apple TV+.

With that out of the way, let’s dig into some of the challenges and opportunities that come with Black Bird but speak to the industry at large. First and foremost, marketing. In one of the aforementioned conversations, I was told there were concerns among producers about Apple’s commitment to marketing its shows—to the point that at least one explored hiring outside marketing gurus on their own personal dime to ensure the show got proper support. 

Now, I’m not sure if Black Bird received insufficient marketing—especially since marketing feels more targeted than ever—but concerns from producers line up with previous reports about Apple TV+. One executive told Insider earlier this year that Apple TV+ suffered from “disruptive, last-minute marketing planning for projects that have been in the works for months; sloppy press rollouts; landing pages for series that weren’t ready in time.” As a former studio executive and I spoke more about their frustrations, they noted the obvious irony. Apple, worth a staggering $2.6 trillion, is the world’s most innovative product and marketing company. It seemed strange that this competency had yet to make it to the content group. 

Especially when you consider that the real battle for viewership comes from smart TV operating systems. The hardest part of running a streaming service is getting someone to sign up, but the second hardest part is getting them to engage with the app daily. Audiences don’t automatically know what’s on every service, so they rely on Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and other device homepages to let them know what’s playing on HBO Max, Disney+, Paramount+ and others. If audiences don’t see something, it’s out of sight and out of mind. It’s here that Apple TV+ has a huge advantage. It exists on one of the most used TV streaming boxes in the world: The Apple TV set-top box is what I use in my house, and yet I still didn’t see any promotions for Black Bird

This isn’t just a Black Bird issue, of course. The streaming market is overcrowded, and discovery is reliant on an algorithm that operates within a walled garden. Or, to put it another way, Netflix’s algorithm might know you extremely well, but that doesn’t mean the Disney+ or Apple TV+ algorithm is equally acquainted. Without a strong, general marketing campaign, it’s difficult for shows to find audiences because there’s simply too much to scroll through, and not a wide enough recommendation tool to cross reference audience interest with everything available across all platforms. Apple TV+ might not know that I’m interested in Black Bird because I watch Ted Lasso—but it doesn’t know I watch mystery thrillers on Netflix or Hulu, and that limits proper recommendation. Black Bird has surfaced the issue, but it’s one we’ll see play out again and again and again. 

Disney’s Prey Puzzle

A decade ago, a new Predator movie would be the type of theatrical release that got audiences out the front door, into the car, and in line at their local multiplex. This week, there’s a new Predator movie called Prey—but the only way to watch it is on Hulu. There’s no limited theatrical counterpart, and no theatrical option globally, since it will go straight to Disney’s Star+. This is despite director Dan Trachtenberg telling Uproxx it was envisioned with a theatrical release in mind. As a result, Prey has become one of Hulu’s first major attempts at proving that studios can build blockbusters on streaming platforms. Put another way, Hulu is trying to advance the learnings from Encanto, the Disney animated film that debuted in theaters but became a cultural sensation on Disney+.

There’s another aspect to this deal, however, that also explains why you’re seeing new releases hit streaming services like HBO Max and Hulu or Disney+ at the same time. Like everything in this industry, at least a portion of it comes back to outfoxing the competition. 

Remember when Disney bought the entertainment assets of 21st Century Fox and the seven biggest film studios became six? Disney inherited a lot with the deal, some good (all that superhero I.P. for Marvel’s Kevin Feige to play around with) and some bad (when Disney’s C.F.O. publicly notes the poor performance of Dark Phoenix as a major drag on studio earnings, you know it’s bad). 

Part of what Disney also got in the deal was Fox’s Pay-1 output deal with HBO and HBO Max that had run since the early ‘80s. As such, any theatrical film that Disney put out under the 20th Century banner had to go to HBO and HBO Max following its initial theatrical release, and then it could go to Disney+ or other networks. Late last year, however, Disney and then-WarnerMedia struck a deal for 2022 that saw select titles from Disney’s 20th Century output go to HBO Max and one of the Disney streaming services simultaneously. West Side Story and Ron’s Gone Wrong, for example, were available on both. Where you chose to watch may have had to do with what your TV OS showed you when you powered on your television. 

Prior to every major company attempting to monetize its individual relationship with customers (including collecting data on their interests that could serve other parts of the business like, say, theme parks), this was fine. The stronger a theatrical release, the better the Pay-1 deal for the supplier. Now, if you’re Disney and holding onto a potentially strong title, do you really want to give that to HBO Max, which has more domestic subscribers and is eating up strong press week after week? Probably not. The ongoing Pay-1 windowing issues, and the opportunity to shine a spotlight on Hulu’s film section, is enough of a reason for 20th Century and Disney to just go the O.T.T. route.

While we have some data to suggest that franchises can be born on streaming platforms (Encanto, Turning Red, and perhaps The Gray Man… potentially), we also have some data that suggests a theatrical release leads to an increased bump in demand and viewership upon hitting O.T.T. platforms. We saw it with The Batman, we saw it with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and we saw it when Sing 2 hit Netflix. So Hulu is making a calculated gamble here. If Prey is good—great, even—the company would be forgoing meaningful box office gross plus a bounce on its O-and-O platform.  But look, it’s not like the last Predator movie did great by any means. The Predator grossed just over $51 million domestically and $160 million globally in 2018, and didn’t wow critics. If the same happened with Prey, Disney could walk away from a commercial flop without anyone really knowing and say it generated some business for Hulu, which is likely to happen. Plus, it helps build out Hulu, a streaming service at the center of a never-ending debate between analysts and insiders about its precise function and value to the Mouse House. 

We’ll see more studios move some of their bigger theatrical uncertainties to their own streaming platforms, or those owned by their parentcos, as customer acquisition remains a top priority and theatrical performance remains uncertain. Alas, it’s happening at a time when exhibitors are desperate for new titles and the streaming market is becoming increasingly oversaturated on the film side, much like it has on the TV front. Two things can be true at once: Prey may be the type of film that Hulu needs to see meaningful customer acquisition growth, but it’s a downright shame that a new Predator movie is coming out and the only way to watch it is in a living room where most people will be distracted by text messages, TikToks, and almost anything else.