By James Nelson
When I sat down to write this I fully expected to be full on grumpy cat. I expected to let the vile and vitriol I felt at first hearing Star Trek would be exiled off television to come flowing out, but something unexpected happened. I held my tongue, thought and researched on the matter, and discovered that CBS’s strategy of releasing Star Trek on their exclusive online streaming service may be the only was Star Trek can be saved in the Golden Age of Television. I know that it sounds like madness, but here me out.
CBS is going to “Netflix” Star Trek
Any time I hear that there is “online exclusive” or “digital exclusive” content from a network I immediately think of terrible low-budget tie-ins that the big three have been producing for years and sticking on their websites (the original Heroes was notorious for this), but this time CBS is producing something that is dedicated to streaming instead of broadcast. Sounds a lot like Netflix right? There’s a reason for that.
CBS is at the top of it’s game right now. They pull in the most ratings in television right now, but that comes at a cost. They produce a lot of shows that capture older demographics (like NCIS for instance). That is largely because the people who watch “TV-as-it-happens” are on average 44 years old, and each year that number is increasing. Therefore it makes sense not to make the next Community for CBS. A show like that is certainly not going to capture the viewers who actually watch TV-as-it-happens. More and more people, especially those in the 18-35 year old demographic are watching TV after it airs, either through Hulu, Netflix, or torrents. CBS knows their time as a broadcast company is not going to last forever, which is why CBS All-Access was rolled out last year. More and more people are watching TV strictly through streaming services, and that’s if they’re paying for it at all. Currently, there’s not really a good way to watch CBS shows except on cable. Their shows are not currently on Hulu (CBS is not part of the companies that co-own Hulu like NBC-Universal, Fox, or Disney-ABC), so the only real way to keep up with CBS has been a cable subscription or now you can use CBS All-Access. The problem with that, is they’ve only had 100,000 people subscribe to it in a little over a year. The primary reason for this, as anyone can tell, is that millennials largely don’t watch the shows CBS currently has (except for maybe Big Bang Theory and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert). That means CBS needs a show that is going to impress and draw in the people who don’t watch TV-as-it-happens, and that show is going to be Star Trek.
This is a good thing
With the exception of the premium cable channels like HBO and AMC, the only shows worth watching are on Netflix, and that’s been a smart move on their part, largely because they can use these prestige series to lure people in, and they don’t have to tell anyone how many people are watching their shows. The reason? Because they don’t have ads, so no one needs to know how many people actually watched Marco Polo or House of Cards. They make their money from subscribers not ads. The main thorn in Star Trek’s side has always been ratings, and if CBS is going to use this as a lure to get people to watch then they can’t just cancel it because people aren’t watching. Mad Men ran for seven seasons because it was a prestige piece that got people talking about AMC. The highest ratings Mad Men ever got was the finale (4.6 million), and that is nothing compared to CBS’s Mike and Molly (consistently around 9 million). When you no longer have to worry about making money off advertising you no longer have to worry about ratings.
In addition this means that CBS is going to have to put a lot of money into making sure that the new Star Trek will hold together as a prestige piece. If it’s not critically acclaimed and has poor production values then people aren’t going to pay $6 a month to watch it. In this age of TV, making Star Trek in this manner is the only way to make a thoughtful and high budget return to the Alpha Quadrant. Every episode won’t have to be full of explosions. We may have time to actually learn about the crew, the ship, and the worlds that they explore.
This strategy does come with some major drawbacks. The main one is that in order to finance the project they’ll probably have to do a limited run, like every other major show out there. This means instead of getting the usual 24 episodes of Trek a season, we will instead get something closer to 10-13. The main reason is that it allows CBS to have a higher budget per episode, therefore you can have better CGI, higher quality sets, better writers and crew, and of course, higher quality actors.
In addition, the people brought on board to make the show have no credits to any TV show of real quality. The closest is Fringe, but even that show had it’s faults. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an Abrams/Kurtzman/Orci hater. I loved the 2009 Star Trek (Star Trek into Darkness, however was abysmal), but looking at the track record of both Alex Kurtzman and Heather Kadin is enough reason to give anyone pause when thinking about whether or not this is going to be “quality” TV.
This in a lot of ways, is bad for the trek community. The Trek community, for all it’s talk of diversity and acceptance, is still fairly insular, and that’s because it’s built around a universe that is niche. People who aren’t into Trek don’t get it, they don’t understand the nuances or the in-jokes, or get how the technology works. One of the reasons the community continues to exist is because we love the universe so much, and because the creative forces behind the universe still actively interact with the fans. This is a unique phenomenon and I don’t think CBS understands at all what they’re getting in to. Paramount understood when they began making The Next Generation that if the fans didn’t like it then they wouldn’t turn up every week to watch it. With the success of the two Abrams films it’s evident that the Trek community isn’t needed as much as it used to be to make money. Sure, we’re still the ones buying the new blu-rays as they come out and buying the costumes and buying the toys and posters, but if Abram’s formula has proven anything, it’s that people who don’t go to conventions will still watch Star Trek.
This also means that any talent that gets drawn into the property will probably not have the same respect and care for the franchise that previous creators/crew/actors have. To date the only person who shows up to conventions from the new films is Karl Urban, and I would reckon that anyone brought into the franchise at this point will continue this, either because they’ll be too busy or because they don’t care. Either way, we’ll always have the prime universe.
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