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Apple TV+ is scrambling for new subscribers — and it’s quietly looking to an unlikely rival for help.
Apple’s struggling streaming service, which it launched in November 2019, has bought a button on the Roku remote — a surprise tie-up with the popular streaming-stick maker that Apple hopes will expand its customer base.
Roku revealed the button on its website Wednesday morning without formally announcing it, showing a picture of its new remote that had easy-access buttons for Netflix, Disney+, Hulu — and Apple TV+.
The new remotes have also begun popping up at retailers including Best Buy, which early Wednesday was offering an Apple TV+-emblazoned remote with Roku’s new Express 4k+ Streaming Media Player, which is selling for $39.99.
A Roku spokesman declined to comment. Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Apple’s Roku play is “shocking” development, and a signal that the iPhone maker has finally realized it “can’t just be within the walled garden of Apple,” said LightShed Partners analyst Rich Greenfield.
“Nobody ever would have expected this,” Greenfield told The Post. “The thought that Apple, rather than create a device that’s going to replace Roku is now buying a button next to Netflix or next to Disney+ just shows you that as they get into the content business, they need to be everywhere.”
Indeed, it is believed that this is the first time Apple has put its branding on a competitor’s hardware. Sources close to the situation said the Cupertino, Calif.-based tech giant is pointedly keeping a low profile about the Roku partnership, which was first revealed in April in a report by the Verge which attracted little notice.
Apple may be keeping silent, insiders say, because the move stinks of desperation.
Apple doesn’t break out subscriber numbers for Apple TV+, but analytics firm Ampere Analysis estimated that Apple’s streaming service may have surpassed 40 million subscribers by the end of 2020. By comparison, Netflix recently reported 208 million global subscribers while Disney+ now has more than 100 million subscribers.
Whatever the numbers, Apple’s move comes as a slew of free trials for Apple TV+ are set to expire. When the $49.99-a-year service launched, anyone who bought an Apple gadget got a year of Apple TV+ for free. During the pandemic, the offer was extended twice. But next month, the bulk of its initial subscribers are slated to finally get billed.
When users hit the Apple TV+ button, they’re routed directly to the streaming app and prompted to set up an account, which costs $4.99 a month. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Roku would offer a special Apple TV+ promotion for its users, but the service continues to offer free, three-month trials to new customers.
Apple TV+ now has nearly 90 original TV shows, movies and documentaries, such as “Ted Lasso,” starring Jason Sudeikis and “The Morning Show” with Jennifer Anniston. That’s sorely short of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, which each have more than 1,000 original shows.
According to a January study by MoffettNathanson of nearly 19,500 customers, a whopping 62 percent of Apple TV+ subscribers are still on the free promotional offer. Nearly 30 percent said they don’t plan to resubscribe once the promo expires, while another 30 percent said they plan to renew at the $4.99 monthly price. The rest said they were unsure what they would do.
“As always, we wonder what Apple TV+ does to stand out in an increasingly crowded field,” wrote MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson. “We see AppleTV+ as still sputtering versus peers.”
According to Greenfield, part of the problem is that there’s “confusion in the marketplace” about what AppleTV+ is. That may be because Apple sells its own streaming device called the AppleTV, and consumers don’t fully realize that the $4.99 a month Apple TV+ service can be used without it, or any other Apple device for that matter.
Greenfield said Apple’s decision to buy a Roku button looks like an attempt for the service to “clearly brand itself” and give consumers the understanding that by sitting next to Netflix on the remote, that it is a content provider, too.
It would also benefit from Roku’s reach, which includes over 53 million active accounts, according to its most recent earnings report. Roku is rumored to charge a hefty fee for the real estate on its remote controls. Bloomberg reported in 2019 that a streaming service who buys a button pays Roku $1 per customer for the button.
Roku declined to comment. Apple did not return requests for comment.
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