We’re only months away from the debut of the next Star Trek television show. Even though the gap between the end of Star Trek: Enterprise and the premier of Star Trek: Discovery is not as long as the one that took place between the end of The Original Series and the launch of The Next Generation, a lot has changed in television over the past several years. TNG debuted in the Autumn of 1987, eighteen years after TOS was cancelled. Enterprise went off the air in 2005, and Discovery is arriving twelve years later. The gap is smaller, but the changes in television have been much more dramatic. When TOS went off the air, most Americans had access to three basic TV channels. When TNG came, almost twenty years later, there were still three basic channels that most Americans had access to.
The twelve year gap between Enterprise and Discovery however has played host to numerous evolutions in the way people watch television. Cable and Satellite TV was already commonplace but services like Netflix were in their infancy. Channels like HBO, AMC and FX were known for their old movies not their groundbreaking original shows. The aforementioned Netflix was a niche company still mailing DVDs to customers. Today viewers stream and binge-watch, and television has become a place where cinematic stories are told in eight-to-thirteen week chunks, with big budgets and staring top level movie stars. The days of twenty-six episode seasons, with a shoestring budget and a nine-month release schedule are, if not dead then at least dying.
With Discovery, Star Trek is entering this new television world, after previously being a TV pioneer. The first show was famous for primetime TV’s first interracial kiss. TNG was the first “big budget” (for its time) show to air on first-run syndication (the show was sold directly to local networks, instead of through one of the big three). DS9 offered soap-opera-style, open-ended, serialized storylines in an era where primetime TV show plots were always wrapped up by the end of each episode. Voyager was the flagship show of a new television network. And Enterprise…tried really hard, bless its heart.
Now comes Discovery, and CBS is hoping it too will be looked back on as a pioneer. Trek’s newest show will debut on the CBS network, but all subsequent episodes will air on the network’s online streaming service, CBS All Access. This is a big gamble because CBSAA is not in the same league as services like Netflix or Amazon Prime. As of January, the service had about 1.2 million subscribers. Let’s be generous and say that they double that number this Fall when Star Trek’s loyal fans sign-up. But even with 2.5 million subs they would still be trailing the current king, Netflix, who is inching closer to 100 million subscribers (right now they’re at 93mm). To offset the smaller subscriber base, CBS is running ads on its All Access network, and will not be releasing Discovery’s thirteen episode first season all at once. CBS is taking a huge risk here, because they’re going against everything Netflix and others have trained viewers to love. Commercial-free binge watching is the future (and arguably the present) of television; CBS’s moves seem archaic in comparison.
What the network is offering is really a Frankenstein’s Monster-like melding of the worst of both worlds. Think about it: What are the biggest complaints people had about TV before the era of online streaming? What are the complaints that are still being heard today? No one likes having to sit through two minute commercials. No one likes the week-to-week release schedule. And, as a result of the week-to-week schedule, the shows were largely episodic and self-contained (especially on The Big Three Networks), which means little character development allowed. Streaming shows like House of Cards, DareDevil, and Stranger Things dump all their episodes for the season once a year, commercial free and with serialized plots. It’s like watching a good book with thirteen chapters, as opposed to a collection of twenty-something short stories.
On the other hand there are the drawbacks to streaming services. You have to have an internet connection, obviously, but not only that, you have to have a good internet connection. You have to have a consistently good internet connection too, unless you want your picture to suddenly turn into a blurry, pixelated mess (or worse, for it to start buffering every thirty seconds). And then there’s issue of trying to watch your shows away from home. Streaming eats up your phone data, so prepare to pay big bucks to the phone company for either an upgraded data plan or the occasional loathsome overage fee.
The pros of streaming outweigh the cons, however, and every year more and more Americans (not to mention TV watchers around the globe) are signing-up, and naturally CBS wants in on that market. But by asking their subscribers to pay for ads, they’re reminding them what they don’t like about “old fashioned” TV. By asking viewers to wait each week for the next episode, CBS is inviting them to lose interest and give up on the show. And of course, there’s the annoyance that comes with a serialized show that you have to wait for. TV viewers have been spoiled by being able to immediately continue the story; the freedom to turn the page in the book and not have to wait a week is probably the biggest allure of the new streaming era of television.
Of course, CBS’ reasoning is understandable: Each episode of Discovery is going to cost 6-10 million dollars, and CBS wants to use Star Trek to secure long-term subscribers to All Access. If they dumped all thirteen episodes onto the service at the end of September, half of the subscribers would leave the service before Halloween. They need a steady stream (no pun intended) of monthly billing to make the roughly 100 million they’re putting into the show’s first season financially justifiable. And naturally they want to turn viewers onto their other shows, in the hopes of turning All Access into a service on equal footing with the likes of Hulu and Amazon Prime.
Where does that leave Star Trek? You have a fifty year old franchise that is in a precarious position. The latest motion picture was well-made and well-received, but it failed to make much of a box office impact. Paramount has yet to definitively say whether or not a sequel is on the way. And if they decide to reboot the movie series (again), then they’ll certainly wait a few years to let the previous series lapse from people’s memories. That would leave Discovery as the soul torch-bearer for Gene Roddenberry’s legacy. And even though I have great faith in Bryan Fuller…
oh wait, he and CBS parted ways. And Fuller has been very vague on the details as to why; the most he’s said about it is “I have a lot of shows to work on…if they want to talk to me they have my number.” What’s going on behind the scenes? No one’s talking but the show has been delayed twice now and even though casting news is coming in steadily there’s still little shown and even less being said. The worst case scenario is that CBS is micromanaging the production, knowing that this is their best chance to turn CBS AA into a viable streaming service. Whenever executives start looking at the end goal of what a movie or a show can do for the company (instead of focusing on first making sure the movie or show is actually good), the art always suffers.
Star Trek Discovery is set to launch at a critical time, not only for the franchise, and not only for CBS, but for television itself. Let’s hope we don’t look back on it in a few years and call it a “cautionary tale” about what not to do.
Check out past articles in our monthly Star Trek series. Next month we’re going to look back on the whole franchise to examine episodes with themes and styles worth emulating…and avoiding.
See you then.