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Apple strikes deal with Oprah, escalating tech’s battle for Hollywood talent

Oprah Winfrey backstage at the 75th Annual Golden Globes at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Jan. 7, 2018. Apple Inc. has signed a deal with Winfrey to produce original content. (TNS)

By Ryan Faughnder and David Pierson

Apple Inc. has struck a multiyear deal with Oprah Winfrey to produce original content, the technology giant announced Friday as the battle for talent among tech titans and traditional studios keeps heating up.

Winfrey, one of the most influential voices in media for several decades running, is also expected to have an on-screen role in the new Apple programming.

The Cupertino, Calif., tech giant has been courting Hollywood to produce original programming for the company, which manufactures streaming devices called Apple TV.

The company has not said when it plans to launch the upcoming streaming service that will carry its shows, or what it will cost. People who are familiar with the plans but not authorized to comment said it probably will debut next year. The iPhone maker’s content ambitions are part of a push to diversify its revenue beyond the devices it makes and apps produced by other developers.

The company hopes to compete in entertainment with the likes of Netflix Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., which have been aggressively signing deals with prominent entertainment producers to boost their original content offerings.

Netflix has signed lucrative producing agreements with the likes of Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes, who are best known for making hit shows on more traditional networks such as Fox and ABC, respectively. The Los Gatos, Calif., streaming giant recently signed a deal to have Barack and Michelle Obama make movies and shows for it.

This month, Amazon Studios announced a first-look pact with “Get Out” writer-director Jordan Peele, one of the biggest deals yet for Amazon’s streaming-video arm.

Hulu, which is owned by a collection of major media companies, has an original hit in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” produced by MGM.

Meanwhile, Walt Disney Co. is preparing to launch its own Netflix competitor next year, with programming from its brands including Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar.

With so much competition, Apple needs big-name players to help it catch up in the fast-growing streaming space.

“For them to take on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, and soon Disney, Apple knows it needs to spend the money to acquire the best talent and content,” said Eunice Shin, managing director of consulting firm Manatt Digital. “Going after Oprah and winning this deal is huge for Apple.”

Apple landed two Sony television studio veterans, Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, to lead its push into original programming last year. They report to Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services.

Since then, Apple has announced numerous TV-style projects with prominent entertainment industry names. One of its much-anticipated endeavors is Steven Spielberg’s upcoming revival of the 1980s anthology sci-fi series “Amazing Stories.”

In May, Apple announced it was producing a series called “Dickinson,” which stars actress and pop star Hailee Steinfeld and is set during the era of American poet Emily Dickinson. The company has also ordered a psychological thriller series from “Split” director M. Night Shyamalan and a drama series from “La La Land” writer-director Damien Chazelle.

Less is known about Apple’s potential interest in feature films, an area in which Netflix is spending heavily. The tech giant is said to be in talks with an Ireland-based cartoon studio to secure the rights to an upcoming animated movie, according to Bloomberg, which cited anonymous sources.

Landing a deal with Winfrey is a coup because she provides instant star power that Apple needs to build an audience, analysts say.

For Winfrey, the deal provides a chance to expand her audience among consumers who increasingly seek out on-demand programming online.

“This is a shot across the bow from Apple and shows its content strategy is about to accelerate with other streaming competitors now keeping one eye open on Cupertino’s plans,” Daniel Ives, an analyst for GBH Insights, said in an email.

Apple is expected to spend about $1 billion on programming this year, and Ives estimates it will launch a subscription streaming service by 2019 and estimates that by then, the company will spend up to $3 billion on original content in 2019. By comparison, this year Netflix is spending $8 billion on original and licensed content.

It’s unclear what kind of programming Winfrey will produce for Apple. Apple declined to comment beyond its news release. A spokeswoman for Winfrey also declined to comment.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Winfrey will remain chief executive of the Oprah Winfrey Network, or OWN. Discovery Communications agreed to pay $70 million last year to take a majority stake in the network. As part of the Discovery deal, Winfrey agreed to remain with OWN through 2025. Despite early ratings struggles and staff turnover, OWN has become popular among African-American women with such series as “Queen Sugar” and “Greenleaf.”

Since her long-running talk show went off the air in 2011, Winfrey has appeared in movies such as “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” HBO’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” She also produced and appeared in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 civil rights drama “Selma,” which was nominated for a best picture Oscar.

This was originally published by The Los Angeles Times.

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