Will Star Trek Be CBS’s House of Cards?

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Photo: Netflix, Getty Images

For diehard fans, Monday’s announcement that Star Trek will beam back to television in 2017 represents the beginning of the end to a what’s been a decade-long wait: Gene Roddenberry’s iconic franchise is finally set to return to the medium that birthed it. And yet as big as this development is for Trekkies, producer CBS Television Studios also shocked a number of TV-industry insiders with the news of how it plans to distribute the new show. Rather than find a home for it on a linear broadcast or cable network (such as CBS or Syfy), the studio decided the new Trek — after a preview on the CBS network — will live on CBS All Access, the Netflix-like subscription streaming service owned by the Eye. While digital revivals are pretty common these days (think Arrested Development or Fuller House), CBS is dramatically upping the stakes by choosing to resurrect one of the biggest — and potentially most profitable — properties in its library via a nontraditional platform. Here’s what we know so far about why CBS decided to boldly go where no big broadcast company has gone before:

1. The move means CBS is very serious about turning All Access into a significant profit center.
Since launching a year ago last month, CBS All Access has seemed like something of a side project for CBS chief Leslie Moonves — a chance for his company to plant its flag in the world of direct-to-consumer video services (i.e., products designed to appeal to cord-cutters). The company won’t say how many subscribers the service has, but odds are it’s not a very big number. By adding a new Star Trek series into the mix, CBS is telegraphing that it has bigger ambitions for the service. After all, if CBS Television Studios were simply looking to maximize short-term revenue, it would have pursued a more traditional path for Trek and convinced any number of linear or digital networks (including the CBS network itself) to pay through the nose for the rights to the first new Trek in over a decade. Instead, Moonves and his team decided to use the show to build up the value of All Access. Think of Trek as the House of Cards or Orange Is the New Black for All Access: a buzzworthy, exclusive series that, like Netflix’s first big originals, reshapes consumer perceptions. Right now, the All Access brand — to the extent it has one at all — is mostly tied to the CBS show Big Brother, since the livestream component of the reality competition moved to All Access last summer. A fresh Star Trek show, assuming it’s done well and generates good word of mouth, will instantly change that.

CBS execs weren’t talking Monday about the extent of their original programming plans for All Access, though Moonves is expected to elaborate somewhat Tuesday during a quarterly earnings call with investors. Few industry insiders, however, expect that CBS has any plans to take on Netflix or Amazon Prime directly by matching the hundreds of millions those streaming outlets spend annually on digital-only programming. Instead, it seems more likely that CBS All Access will produce a handful of originals each year, just enough to test whether the addition of new shows boosts subscriber figures and awareness of the service. It’s also possible that CBS All Access could serve as something of a development incubator for the main CBS network, with projects deemed not quite ready for the main Eye network ordered to series by CBS All Access. (One big unanswered question: Will CBS All Access use Trek to launch a premium tier free of commercials, as Hulu recently did? Younger Trek fans already griping about having to subscribe for access to the show might whine a bit less loudly if they don’t have to sit though ads.)

2. The digital play makes it more likely that the new Star Trek will live long and prosper.
It might seem strange that a brand as big and (relatively) broad as Star Trek wouldn’t find a home on a traditional network. But in fact, the Trek franchise has historically done best when it’s lived outside the broadcast ecosystem. The original series famously died after just three seasons on NBC back in the late 1960s. And the most recent Trek TV incarnation, Enterprise, failed to make it to 100 episodes during its four-year run on the now-defunct mini-network UPN. Star Trek: Voyager, which launched UPN in 1995, did have a successful run on a quasi-network, but mostly because UPN’s other early shows were so low-rated, Voyager was a giant by comparison. By contrast, the two Trek series done for first-run syndication (a way of distributing TV shows outside the major networks) — The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine — had healthy, successful seven-year lifespans and big pop culture impact. By avoiding prime time, the syndication duo steered clear of the weekly ratings race, internal network-scheduling politics, and having to mesh with a bigger network brand. The syndicated shows served as audience magnets for local stations looking to bring in viewers on the weekend; they were big fish in smaller ponds.

While first-run syndication of scripted shows is technically still around, it’s been years since there’s been a successful new drama or comedy produced for syndication. Instead, first-run syndication — and, to a large degree, syndication of network reruns — has been replaced by streaming subscription video on demand (SVOD) services such as Netflix, Hulu, and, yes, CBS All Access. By producing the new Trek for SVOD, CBS Television Studios is simply putting a modern spin on a previously successful formula for the franchise. If anything, the quasi-syndication model that is SVOD makes even more sense today than it did 20 or 30 years ago, since the competition for viewers is far more intense now. A new Trek show that aired regularly on the CBS network would’ve gotten a huge marketing launch, but then would have had to fight for attention with a couple dozen other CBS shows. On All Access, Trek will be the priority for at least its first year in existence. And given how long it’s been since there’s been a successful Trek TV show, that extra attention and support may very well be needed. After all, after scoring huge numbers early on, both Fox’s Gotham and ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. lost major chunks of their audience as their respective networks moved on to newer shows. Trek on All Access has the benefit of essentially being an only child, while also not having to worry about a weekly Nielsen report card.

3. Star Trek’s global appeal means CBS won’t be risking much (if any) money on the new show.
As noted earlier, CBS Television Studios is likely leaving some money on the table by not taking Trek onto the open market and landing a ridiculous deal from a network desperate for a likely hit. But the studio may still be able to produce the new show with little to no financial risk, thanks to the fact that broadcasters from around the world will likely be banging down CBS’s doors for the right to air the new Trek in their country. Even more so than in decades past, Star Trek has turned into a massive global brand, a franchise recognized and beloved in countries around the world. The most recent movie, Into Darkness, was a mild disappointment at the U.S. box office, but per The Hollywood Reporter, it actually did better than expected internationally. Considering how hot U.S. TV shows are in international markets these days, it seems a no-brainer that a new Trek will fetch huge sums from global TV outlets. It’s too soon to say if the show will be profitable before it even premieres — the way CBS’s summer thriller Under the Dome was when it bowed two years ago — but there’s a good chance it will at least come close to break-even.