It’s soon going to be something we only talk about in wistful, reminiscing tones, echoing the good old days of a bygone era. I’m talking about the golden era of TV streaming. We’ll soon be saying things like:
“Once upon a time, TV-watchers could pay a single monthly fee and get a variety of shows from a variety of networks. That’s all over now of course. Now we have to pay a monthly fee to Netflix, to Apple, to Amazon, to Disney, to CBS, to NBC, to HBO, and on and on it goes. Anyway, here’s a story about the onion I keep on my belt…”
Why are all of these streaming services popping up? Why has the Netflix era, if not ended, then at least started its death throes? By the way, I’m not predicting Netflix’s end, since they too are heavily concentrating on exclusive content in order to avoid being reliant on material from other sources. But still, the days when you could subscribe to Netflix and get content from a variety of sources is a dying era. Why?
Simply put: Greed.
Studios know they only need a small number of subscribers to turn a profit. It doesn’t matter that the folks who want to watch TV now have a dozen $6-$10 a month subscriptions to pay for. All that matters is if they get your money, and to ensure they do, they’re willing to spend a lot of money upfront producing new content to entice you. Make no mistake, this is a bubble that is soon to burst. Too much money is being spent from too many networks and there simply are not enough subscriptions to go around from the average consumer.
To combat this, studios like Disney, CBS, and Amazon are releasing their big shows piecemeal. Instead of a Netflix-style “dump” where the whole season is released to great (though brief) social media buzz and hours of binge-watching, the viewer gets a single episode, then must wait a week for the next. This is nothing new, of course; TV has had a weekly schedule from the inception of the format, but it’s different for a premium, monthly-paid subscription network.
As said, this strategy is unsustainable because enough viewers are eventually going to realize you can just subscribe to one or two networks for a month, watch what you need, then unsubscribe and switch to another couple services for a few months, and so on. Since these networks rely on monthly subs, they’re soon going to hit a moment in time when they drop hundreds of millions on content and only reap dozens of millions in subscription money. When that happens, shareholders are going to freak, and mass cuts will be implemented.
When that happens, what’s not going to happen will be a return to the “all in one” (old Netflix) model. No, these networks will instead just cut their shows and let them lie dormant, intending to bring them back when the demand has returned, starting the cycle back all over again.
A lot of good shows are going to die because Hollywood’s most consistent quality is its ability to take a good thing and run it into the ground.
Speaking of, let’s talk Star Trek, which is soon to debut the third season of Discovery.
I am so excited.
It’s ironic; CBS is the biggest network of the “big three,” with ratings that regularly blow away NBC or ABC’s nightly offerings, but their shows don’t easily translate to streaming network subs since their audience skews older and their shows lack the style suitable for repeat viewing. Star Trek is the only serious genre show that has a fanbase loyal enough to subscribe and has enough episodes in its back catalog to keep fans coming back.
CBS, therefore, has two options: They can appeal to the fans they have, offering a niche product that accommodates a smaller but very loyal fanbase, or ignore those fans and try to grow the fanbase in the hopes (hopes!) of bringing in more subscribers. In other words, they could settle for a small but loyal number of subscribers, or be greedy and bet the farm on trying to win over a large number of subscribers at the risk of turning away the loyalists. Guess which one they chose? Go on and guess!
Star Trek is suffering. I’ll even say it’s dying. Shoot, I’ll even say it’s being killed.
Here are a few things CBSAA is (badly) doing to it…
DUMB ACTION INSTEAD OF CEREBRAL ALLEGORIES
For many years Paramount, the studio that owned the rights to the Star Trek movie brand, and CBS, the network that owned the rights to the Star Trek TV brand, were at odds with one another. When the time came to reboot Star Trek, Paramount turned to noted “beginner of things but don’t ask him to finish them” director, JJ Abrams. Abrams jettisoned established Star Trek history, spun the story off into a different “timeline” and created a different universe, separate from that which was established in the old TV shows and movies. This created the undesired debate amongst fans about future properties and which “timeline” they would belong to.
Even though CBS and Paramount are now back together, the damage done to Star Trek continues to be felt. Star Trek: Discovery—easily CBSAA’s flagship show—takes place in a time before the splitting of the timeline and tries to straddle the fence between the more action-oriented (i.e. “don’t think just watch”) flair of the Abrams movies and the more cerebral stylings of the older shows and films. I say “tries to straddle the fence” but really it’s more like “really wants to be on one side of the fence but has to at least gesture apathetically toward the other side.” Discovery is a “dumb action show” that talks about being cerebral and heady, while having no intention of actually being those things. It pays lip service to that side of Trek, and strings franchise fans along year after year, only to pull the rug out from under us every time. Sometimes it seems like the show actually wants to have something to say, but lacks the patience or the brains to say it.
TOO MANY COOKS IN THE KITCHEN
Let’s be real: A studio that has invested in a property as much as CBS/Paramount has in Star Trek is always going to care if their show is struggling. A complete “hands-off” approach is simply not practical. On the other hand, when there’s as much riding on the success of CBSAA as there is, the network isn’t going to sit back and “wait and see” if the show is a success. Star Trek Discovery has to buoy a whole network and that level of corporate pressure has hindered the show behind the scenes. In just two seasons the show has gone through three sets of show-runners, nixed story arcs, and completely re-written the central idea for the show not once, or twice, or even thrice, but four(ce)-over…
Discovery is a show about a mid-ranked officer, thrust into the middle of both a political upheaval and a war. Fans get to see a major storyline play out through the eyes of someone NOT at the top of the food chain.
No, wait. Discovery is actually about the mirror universe. Forget the Klingon War. That’s done with.
No, wait. No. The mirror universe is done. Forget that. It’s actually about Michael and Spock trying to save the universe thanks to Michael being “the chosen one,” and the most important person in the history of ever.
No. Lol. Sorry. I’m silly. No. Discovery is actually about going to the far, far future, and helping the remnants of the Federation pick up the pieces after it was nearly wiped out.
What even is this show?
A serialized show like Disco thrives on two critical components: Character development and story cohesion. The ball has been totally dropped on both fronts, with characters who have changed allegiance at the drop of a hat and without any foreshadowing, and plotlines that have been torpedoed without warning, sometimes even midway through a season. There’s no rhyme or reason to the show and a large part of the blame falls to bad leadership and the knee-jerk reactions by CBS management, desperate to see All Access succeed.
Instead, they’re smothering it to death.
SUBSCRIPTIONS OVER STORIES
I said this multiple times in my reviews of Discovery, but it’s a slap in the face to subscribers when we’re asked to pay for a premium channel only to sit through commercials. Worse than that, the commercials clearly weren’t planned when the scripts were written, meaning that—unlike in, say, The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine—there’s no build-up of drama or a plot twist within a certain timeframe, coinciding with a commercial break. Instead, ad breaks happen in the middle of scenes, stopping them cold.
Along the same lines is the insistence on trying to create a show that works both as a stand-alone series of episodes and as a multi-episodic story. This is done to satisfy those who expect a Game of Thrones style “season-long arc” and a “classic-Trek” style adventure of the week. The former is the modern trend but the latter works better as a weekly show. And since CBS is desperate for viewers to keep their subscriptions in place for more than twenty-four hours, they are releasing Discovery in weekly installments, making for a show written by modern, “story-arc” writers that have no idea how to write classic “episodic” television.
The result is a mess.
GROW THE BRAND = WATER DOWN THE PRODUCT
Star Trek Discovery prioritizes action over thought, space adventure nonsense over science fiction parables, loud noises over introspection. It’s a total betrayal of what Star Trek was supposed to be. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for space adventure. My problem isn’t with a fantasy action story set in space, it’s with Star Trek turning into that. And, again, don’t misunderstand: There are a lot of action-heavy Star Trek episodes and movies in the franchise’s past (First Contact, Arena, Year of Hell, etc), but those were always exceptions, not rules. Those were garnishes on a meal that was heavy in classic sci-fi explorations of the human condition. And even those old action-heavy episodes devoted lots of time to the humanity of the characters in the middle of the action.
There’s no drama with the new shows; there’s melodrama. They don’t explore the human condition, they wade in the shallow end of the emotional pool, substituting genuine moments of feeling that arrive after solid writing builds to that point…for shots of Michael making a cry-face as she struggles to spit out the nonsense-dialogue Sonequa Martin-Green has been given by the show’s writers.
The tragic fact is—and I say this as a Trek fan for thirty years—classic Star Trek is not a franchise that can be a major, mainstream tentpole. It’s too niche. I’m okay with that. CBS, however, is not. CBS needs Star Trek to be bigger than it is. Even at its peak Star Trek was always ever a niche product, appealing to a niche audience. We’re a very vocal niche, but still a niche we are. Making Star Trek the anchor of a whole network didn’t help UPN in 1995. Instead of learning the right lesson from that (which is: Don’t try to make Star Trek your mass-populace media anchor), CBS learned the wrong lesson (which is: Change what Star Trek is to make it more accessible to mass audiences).
The problem is you can’t outfox a fox. Star Trek will never be Star Wars. At its best, it could only ever be a knock-off and no one’s going to pay a premium to watch a weekly, commercial-filled, knock-off of Star Wars…not when they can just subscribe to Disney+ and watch The Mandalorian, which is an actual weekly Star Wars show…with NO commercials!
People prefer genuine things. Star Trek, when presented as it is supposed to be, appeals to a genuine audience who will turn out for it and pay for it, too. By watering it down, dumbing it down, cheapening it, and diminishing it, CBS is only killing it. They’re still not going to attract as many non-fans as they will lose by turning off the only fans who really care.
That’s CBS’ mentality right now, though, and it’s killing Star Trek.