Apple is Trying to Stay on Good Terms with China, and it Maybe (Probably?) Cost Jon Stewart His Talk Show

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Oct 25 2023 |
Promotional image by Apple TV+

Big corporate streamers love hosting prestige programming, but they love money even more!

When Apple TV+ announced new episodes of The Problem with Jon Stewart back in February, the company heralded the program for providing “a deep dive into some of the most important issues of our time,” noting it uses “comedy and common sense” to take on “tough, topical and culture-moving conversations from the perspectives of stakeholders, experts and individuals.”

Eight months later, it appears Apple had a limit to what conversations could be had.

Stewart’s show was unceremoniously canceled last week, and the comedian reportedly told his staff that Apple had concerns about specfic episodes planned for the season, including artificial intelligence, Israel, and China.

It’s the latter topic that garnered our attention here at the Alliance for American Manufacturing, since this isn’t the first time that entertainment company executives have stepped in over concern about how China-related content may impact their bottom line. It’s not an issue limited to Hollywood, of course; my colleague Matt McMullan just yesterday examined how the NBA’s tight-knit relationship with China is creating problems.

But the Stewart cancelation is especially interesting because it involves Apple, which has had an especially tight-knit relationship with China’s government over the past several decades. Arguably no company better exemplifies corporate America’s relationship with China than Apple — “Designed in California, Made in China” is printed on every iPhone, after all.

Apple has made a whole lot of money thanks to that relationship, and has cast aside repeated concerns about the environment, worker rights, and basic human rights to maintain it. And right now, that relationship is facing some big difficulties.

Foxconn, the Taiwanese conglomerate charged with making all those Apple products in China, is under investigation in four Chinese providences over tax concerns, according to The New York Times. There were tensions between Apple and the Chinese government over whether apps needed a license from the government to operate (Apple eventually gave in). All the while, Apple is among the big Western brands working to expand production outside of China, given the increasingly tense U.S.-China relationship.

But Apple remains heavily dependent on China, both to make the products its sells and for its sales overall. It simply cannot afford to exit China, and the company is doing all it can to maintain the status quo for as long as it can.

Case in point: Apple CEO Tim Cook traveled to China just this week, the second time he’s visited the country in 2023. During this trip, he made a big deal about Apple’s commitment to China, even donating millions of dollars to fund development in rural areas. Cook even had an outwardly friendly meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Ding Xuexiang in Beijing, signaling that the Apple-China relationship remains intact.

At least for now, anyway. There’s not much Apple can really do about U.S.-China diplomatic relations, which remain tense. Additional export restrictions on technology like semiconductors were recently announced, and it’s possible — if not probable — that more restrictions are on the way. Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers continue to look for ways to address accusations of forced labor in China. Making stuff in China is likely to continue to get more complicated for American corporations like Apple.

Apple doesn’t have a lot of control over these sorts of things, but it does control its own streaming platform. Stewart’s show may have been a critical darling, but it never was a ratings juggernaut. It’s really no surprise Apple execs decided to cancel it.

Profit beats prestige every time.