Welcome to the post-Netflix era. For a brief and wondrous period of time, TV-watchers could pay a single monthly fee and get a variety of shows from a variety of networks. That’s all dodo now. 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. Different streaming services have different brands to push and appeal to different tastes and if you are smart about it, you can subscribe to one or two for a month, watch what you need, then switch to another couple-services for a few months, and so on.
To combat this, Disney and CBS are releasing their big shows piecemeal. You don’t get the Netflix-style “dumps” where the whole season is released to great (though brief) social media buzz and hours of binge-watching. Instead you get an episode, then you have to wait a week for the next.
It’d be one thing if seasons ran twenty+ episodes like in the old days, but we’re expected to pay monthly prices for eight episodes spread out over two months. Most egregious is CBS All Access which asks its subscribers, not only to pay for the monthly service, but also to sit through commercials too! It’s a brazen move and immediately strips away any benefit of the doubt a potential subscriber might give the network when thinking about subbing. What does CBS have, anyway? Do they have enough content past and present, with enough variety to sustain a whole network?
They have Star Trek…and that’s about it.
They have Star Trek…and they’re killing it!
It’s ironic; CBS is the biggest network of the “big three,” with ratings that blow away NBC or ABC’s nightly offerings, but those shows don’t 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 with enough episodes in its back catalog to keep fans coming back. CBS therefore has two options: They can appeal to the fans they have, or ignore those fans and try to grow the fanbase in the hopes (hopes!) of bringing in more subscribers. Guess what they did?
Go on and guess!
Star Trek is suffering, here’s what CBSAA is doing to it…
Canon? What Canon?
For a number of 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 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 sort of straddles 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. The uncertainty of it all, and the inability to pick a style, creates a helter skelter feel, with a show that seems like it wants to have something to say, but lacks the patience or the brains to say it. Is Discovery new canon or old? Until it decides, it will continue to struggle.
Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen
Let’s be real: A studio that’s 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 but twice-over.
A serialized show like this 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, without any foreshadowing, and plotlines that have been torpedoed without warning midway through a season. There’s no rhyme or reason to the show and a large part of the blame falls to the knee-jerk reactions by CBS management, desperate to see All Access succeed.
Instead they’re smothering it to death.
Subscriptions over stories
I touched on this in the introduction, 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 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.
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.
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: Change what Star Trek is to make it more accessible to mass audiences).
The problem is you can’t out fox 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 premium to watch a weekly, commercial-filled, knock-off of Star Wars…not when they can for Disney+ and watch The Mandalorian, which is an actual weekly Star Wars show…with NO commercials!
People prefer genuine things. Star Trek, as it is supposed to be, appeals to a genuine audience who will turn out for it. 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.