By Rich Heldenfels
Akron Beacon Journal
The newest version of Star Trek will not only take the half-century-old concept into new science-fiction worlds. It will try to push viewers into yet another way to watch a TV show.
CBS Television Studios this week announced a new Star Trek TV series to premiere in January 2017, with "new characters seeking imaginative new worlds and new civilizations, while exploring the dramatic contemporary themes that have been a signature of the franchise since its inception in 1966."
The series, which is not related to Star Trek Beyond, a big-screen film coming next summer, will premiere on CBS Television, then begin airing only on CBS All Access, a streaming, subscription service that charges $5.99 a month.
The All Access service, which carries episodes of old and current programs, has not had a big item to draw viewers up to now. But it clearly expects that fantasy and science-fiction fans will pay to get the new Star Trek.
Unless, that is, the tech-savvier members of that group figure out ways to share a subscription or just plain pirate the episodes.
Still, putting Star Trek on subscription streaming like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and other services should not be surprising for two reasons.
First, not only Star Trek fans but also fantasy/sci-fi fans generally are avid pursuers of their favorite genres. It's not an accident that fantasy shows with a short TV life will nonetheless get to DVD or other viewing forms when longer-running shows do not. There's a ready, free-spending audience.
Second, this is not the first time that Star Trek has been used as a way of drawing audiences to different viewing venues.
When Star Trek The Next Generation premiered in 1987, it was not on a broadcast network but in syndication, sold to individual stations in each TV market.
Reports at the time indicate that the broadcasters were interested in a new Star Trek. The original episodes were still popular close to 20 years after the series ended production. There had also been four movie sequels by then. But the deals being offered were not very big — in some cases involving only a pilot for a new show. Paramount, the studio behind Star Trek, thought it could do better, and accordingly committed to a full season of episodes and sold them on a syndicated basis.
Because of the array of stations not affiliated with an individual network, there was a lively marketplace for well-made, original fare. The studio made the deal even more attractive by taking its compensation in the form of advertising minutes during each episode instead of by charging stations a fee.
As the Los Angeles Times noted the year after TNG premiered, the young audience for the program was so good that "Paramount's share of the advertising revenue generated from the series each week is reportedly close to $1 million — greater than the approximately $800,000 license fees the networks generally pay for a one-hour prime-time program."
And it made other studios think about the ways they might distribute their programs. Already in 1988 the Times was asking, "Will first-run syndication provide another outlet for big-budget, high-quality programming ideas?" And, indeed, there would be a burst in original shows in syndication, including another Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine.
Then Star Trek was used to launch and sustain a new network in 1995, UPN, in which Paramount was a corporate partner. It was one of two alternatives to the Big Four that year, along with The WB. But UPN started with a big brand name, Star Trek Voyager. It would later have another such series, Star Trek: Enterprise, later just Enterprise. That wasn't enough to keep the network alive — in 2006, The WB and UPN would merge into The CW — but it at least got some eyeballs on UPN when it was new.
Putting a new Star Trek on CBS All Access is therefore in keeping with both the show's history — and with the way things are working more and more in television. It's much like Netflix wooing audiences with new episodes of Longmire and Arrested Development, or Yahoo picking up Community, or Hulu with The Mindy Project. Those are shows whose fans, the logic went, were ardent enough to pay up front to see their favorites.
And when that seems possible, programmers are happy to make it so.