Are you ready for my unpopular opinion of the day? Star Trek: Discovery belongs on CBS All Access, CBS’ subscription streaming service. Yeah, that’s right. I’m going there.
For those who aren’t yet aware that they will not be able to watch Star Trek: Discoveryvia traditional TV methods, here’s the deal: Though the first episode of Discoverywill be broadcast on CBS proper, the rest of the series will then head over to CBS All Access for the rest of its first-season run. Fans will have to pay $5.99/month for limited commercial service or $9.99/month if you want to splurge for commercial-free service.
Listen, in an ideal world, we would have a vast, interconnected Star Trek universe operating across media and platforms. In other words, we could have a streaming show and a network show and they could do different things based on their unique platform. Unfortunately, this is not that universe.
Let’s talk about why Star Trek: Discovery‘s home on CBS All Access might just be the best possible outcome for the universe we’re stuck in, aka the universe where the rights to Star Trek are split between two different companies, one of which is currently a bit of a mess…
How the Viacom split complicated things.
In 2006, Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp. formally split into two separate companies. While Viacom Inc. (more specifically, its subsidiary Paramount) kept the movie rights to Star Trek, CBS got the TV rights. Speaking at the Deutsche Bank Media, Internet, and Telecom Conference earlier this year (via TrekCore), CBS Corp. President Les Moonves explained how the split went down:
When [CBS] split from Viacom ten years ago, January 1, 2006, one of the big sticking points, as you can imagine, was Star Trek. You know, we both wanted it.
They said ‘It’s a movie!’ and I said, ‘No, no, no, it’s a TV show.’ Actually, we’re both right. So they kept the feature film rights, we kept the television rights; they have [Star Trek Beyond] coming out July 22.
Our deal with them is that we had to wait six months after their film is launched so there wouldn’t be a confusion in the marketplace.
This six-month buffer explains why Star Trek: Discoverywas initially scheduled to premiere in January 2017 (it has since been pushed back to May 2017, though we’re skeptical about that date, too), versus premiering sometime in the 50th anniversary year. With Star Trek Beyondcoming out in July 2016, January 2017 was the earliest Discoverycould premiere, given the six-month terms of the CBS/Paramount agreement. This is only one example of the bureacracy and limits that have been imposed upon the Star Trekuniverse due to its fractured rights.
It’s unclear how or if the next Star Trekmovie would affect the (hopefully) ongoing Star Trek: Discoverymoving forward. Or vice versa.
Is there a chance CBS & Paramount could work something out?
Can’t Paramount and CBS just pull a Marvel & Sony and get along? Apparently not. (#ItsComplicated) According to this The Wrap article, J.J. Abrams left the Star Trekreboot franchise in part because of his frustration over not being able to spin the films out into a larger media universe (including TV). An anonymous source told The Wrap:
J.J. just threw up his hands. The message was, ‘Why set up all this when we’ll just be competing against ourselves?’ The studio wanted to please Bad Robot, but it was allowing CBS to say yay or nay when it came to what was happening with the Star Trek products.
Specifically, the CBS merchandising branch continues to make and sell merchandise based on the original incarnation of the Trek universe, which Bad Robot found confused viewers of the reboot films. When they asked CBS to stop, talks eventually broke down when the two corporate entities couldn’t come to a financial agreement.
This mess is further complicated by Paramount’s continuing struggles as a studio. According to Vanity Fair, Viacom’s “filmed entertainment” division (which is mostly Paramount) saw a $308 million loss in the nine months ending June 30th. This was, notably, prior to Star Trek: Beyond‘s release on July 22nd. However, while Beyondwas by far Paramount’s biggest hit of the year at $343.5 million, it was not a box office slam dunk and arguably didn’t make enough money internationally to justify its budget $185 million budget.
The larger unrest within the ranks of Viacom upper management isn’t helping things. Corporate discussions regarding the potential merger of Viacom and CBS have stalled. Just recently, Viacom took a slight dive (down 9%, at closing) after it was announced that National Amusements, the parent company of Viacom and CBS, had tabled its efforts to merge the two companies.
Basically, though there are some bigwigs who want the CBS/Viacom merger to happen (mostly those with skin in the Viacom game), that potentiality just took a big hit. This isn’t so surprising given that CBS is a successful company that doesn’t want to be weighed down by Viacom’s problems, whatever their parent holding company might want. As Moonves joked to Vanity Fair at their recent New Establishment Summit, he is “too old and too rich” to take on Viacom’s uphill battle.
CBS doesn’t have a network where Star Trek fits.
Now that we’ve established that we live in a universe where the Star Trek rights are fractured and where the company that owns those movies rights is not in the best place right now, let’s talk about why CBS has waited so long to exercise its TV Star Trek rights.
Star Trekisn’t exactly on brand with what CBS tends to do, which skews towards comedies and crime-related procedurals. When CBS launched Supergirllast season, the superhero show did OK on the network, but not good enough to land a second season there. Instead it was moved to The CW, which CBS co-owns with Warner Bros. Genre shows are not CBS’ bread and butter and they don’t need extra bread or butter. They’re currently the most-watched network in the country.
So why not produce a Star Trekshow to air on The CW? It wouldn’t be a terrible fit for a network that has started to put most of its eggs in the genre TV basket. Its most successful shows right now are superhero shows, while genre offerings like The 100and Supernaturalattract loyal fanbases, if not killer ratings. However, while The CW may be known for its genre programming, the shows that CBS contributes to the network’s lineup are of the more critically-acclaimed, yet low-rated dramedy variety.
CBS contributes comedies like Crazy Ex-Girlfriendand Jane the Virginto the CW programming schedule. Its arguably most-genre offering is Reign,which is one of The CW’s lowest-rated properties and just got a last-season announcement. Furthermore, The CW skews younger in terms of target demographic, and, while Star Trekhas the potential to attract younger viewers, its loyal audience tends to skew slightly older (i.e. not Millennial, even though this fan happens to be a Millennial).
Showtime, which is also a CBS Corp. property, might have been a better alternative for a Star TrekTV show, but, again, in terms of brand, Star Trekwould not have been a good fit. The pay TV channel is best-known for its gritty, grounded dramas, i.e. Homeland, Shameless, and The Affair. Sure, Penny Dreadfulcalled Showtime home, but never found the audience it deserved there.
In other words, before CBS Corp. decided to get serious about CBS All Access, it didn’t have a natural network fit for a Star TrekTV show. Sure, I would watch the heck out of a Star TrekTV show on CBS, but I am far from their target demographic. Star Trekwouldn’t have fit on CBS.At least, that’s what CBS Corp. seems to believe, and no doubt they have done some extensive research on the subject. (It’s their job.)
A non-traditional show for a non-traditional medium.
Star Trekgets cred for the ways in which it has pushed social borders (#firstinterracialkiss) over the years, but it doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the ways in which it has also pushed narrative borders.
Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe got its act together, Star Trek had launched a rich shared cinematic universe that spanned multiple TV show and movies. Long before Battlestar Galacticawas making waves as a science fiction show that took on real-world, relevant political and social issues, Deep Space Ninewas telling a nuanced, dark, diverse, morally-ambiguous, serialized story about war, religion, and prejudice. (#RonaldDMoore)
In other words, Star Trekhas often been a TV show that is not only on the frontier of social issues, but also on narrative experimentation. In the past, that has always been within the traditonal network model. Now, the narrative frontier exists elsewhere, in streaming media and online content and the possibilities they represent. Now, I doubt CBS is willing to take major structural risks even when it comes to its streaming content service, but CBS All Access at least represents the possibility of going boldly where no Star Trek TV series has gone before and experimenting with form.
Frankly, this was one of the reasons why I was so excited to see Bryan Fuller take on the showrunner position. With Hannibal,he demonstrated himself capable of working within network sensibilities, while also pushing the boundaries of what was possible within that relatively rigid format. It would have been interesting to see what he could have done within a streaming subscription format. His departure still stings.
That being said, Star Trek: Discovery‘slaunch on a streaming channel still opens up a whole host of possibilities, if CBS is also open to the idea of pushing boundaries. Speaking about Star Trek‘srole in the CBS All Access portfolio in March, Moonves said:
When you put something on [All Access], it’s got to be something special, something you wouldn’t find on the [CBS broadcast network], something that will attract subscribers. As I said, Star Trek was kind of a no-brainer: there aren’t a lot of [properties] out there with that kind of following.
CBS has neglected Star Trek, but CBS All Access is a vote of confidence.
I think CBS’ decision to let Bryan Fuller go was a big mistake. I think CBS really dropped the ball on the Star Trek50th Anniversary. But CBS’ decision to “air” Star Trek: Discoverynot on traditional broadcast TV, but rather on its streaming service CBS All-Access doesn’t upset me. Rather, I think it’s the best possible scenario given the respective states of CBS Corp., the current Star Trekrights debacle, and the TV industry.
Star Trek: Discovery is boldly going where no Star Trek TV series has gone before — streaming entertainment — and there is something fitting about that. But, when it comes down to it, at this point, I would settle for Star Trekboldly going anywhere.