Apple signals larger Hollywood ambitions by poaching two Sony TV veterans

Apple Inc. has lured two Sony television studio veterans to lead its push into original programming, the clearest sign yet of the tech giant’s ambitions to become a force in television and a potential rival to the Hollywood establishment.

Outgoing Sony Pictures Television presidents Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg will join Apple in newly created positions overseeing its nascent original programming business, the Cupertino, Calif.-based iPhone maker said Friday. They will report to Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services.

The hires represent a coup for Apple after nearly two years of speculation about how the company would leverage its clout and wide audience to compete with rivals including Netflix and Amazon that have already made aggressive moves in the film and TV business. Apple’s Hollywood ambitions have been a source of mystery for years in the television industry, where there has been much anxiety about how the tech colossus might eventually shake things up. Its TV projects to date have been modest knockoffs of television shows.

Now Apple may be stepping up its game. In Erlicht and Van Amburg, Apple has secured a pair of well-respected leaders who have overseen programming and production at a major studio for more than a decade. The studio vastly increased its television output, producing hits including “The Blacklist,” “The Goldbergs” and “Better Call Saul.” Erlicht and Van Amburg are also known for shepherding Emmy winners “Breaking Bad” on AMC and “Rescue Me” on FX.

“Jamie and Zack are two of the most talented TV executives in the world and have been instrumental in making this the golden age of television,” Cue said in a statement. “There is much more to come.”

Apple has been taking pitches from entertainment producers for months, but its moves into television have been incremental. The company this month premiered the tech contest-reality show “Planet of the Apps” and later this year will debut “Carpool Karaoke” — a spinoff of a segment on CBS’ “Late, Late Show.” Apple distributes its shows through Apple Music, the music streaming service spearheaded by music mogul Jimmy Iovine.

It has remained unclear, however, how Apple will ramp up its programming business, and whether it wants to compete directly with the likes of HBO or just give people an additional incentive to sign up for Apple Music. The streaming service has gained an impressive 27 million subscribers since it launched two years ago, but is still trying to catch up with Spotify’s 50 million.

Apple has long toyed with becoming a bigger player in Tinseltown but has encountered roadblocks. A plan to stream broadcast and cable television to Apple TV never materialized. Cue tried to downplay expectations at the recent Code Media conference in Dana Point.

“Look, we are just starting out,” Cue said. ““These shows bring something to customers that they haven’t seen before. … We are trying to do things that are unique and cultural.”

Speculation has swirled that Apple would eventually buy a full-fledged studio, with the Walt Disney Co. cited by analysts as a potential target. But the recent hires suggest the company is more interested in building its content business in-house.

“We want to bring to video what Apple has been so successful with in their other services and consumer products — unparalleled quality, ” Erlicht said in a statement.

Creating a video production business from the ground up is a big challenge, but Apple has ample cash and motivation to make a significant play, analysts say.

Still, Netflix has a significant head start and is spending billions of dollars a year to make and acquire original content such as “Stranger Things” and “Orange Is the New Black” that fuels subscription growth.

“Just because Apple spends on content and makes perceived ‘big’ hires does not ensure success,” wrote Richard Greenfield, a media analyst at BTIG Research, in a blog post. “Netflix has spent years singularly focused on the video experience and infrastructure. There will be a long catch-up period for any potential competitor.”

The departure of two major television executives is another setback for Sony Pictures Entertainment. Tokyo-based parent company Sony Corp. recently took a nearly $1-billion write-down on the studio, primarily related to its movie business that has struggled to make hits. Sony’s TV production arm, in contrast, has been a strong performer. Erlicht and Van Amburg have been in charge of the TV studio since Sony Pictures Television chairman Steve Mosko left last year.

Replacing Erlicht and Van Amburg will be one of the many tasks facing Sony Pictures Entertainment’s newly installed Chief Executive Tony Vinciquerra, who replaced Michael Lynton this month. Lynton in January announced that he would leave the company to focus on his role as chairman of Snapchat maker Snap Inc.

Vinciquerra on Thursday announced Erlicht and Van Amburg were leaving, but did not say where they would be going. Their contracts were set to expire in September; they were appointed as presidents in 2005.

ryan.faughnder@latimes.com

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