Why CBS's New Star Trek Show Is a Glimpse Into TV's Future

On Monday, CBS announced that it will shepherd a new Star Trek series to the airwaves. Well, only temporarily. The new Trek, executive produced by J.J. Abrams' Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness producer/writer Alex Kurtzman and Limitless executive producer Heather Kadin, will initially debut on CBS television in early 2017, before transitioning to CBS's on-demand streaming service, CBS All Access. (Important reminder that TV.com and CBS are owned by the same megacorporation, CBS Corp.) 

Trekkers and common Twitter folk alike have been rightfully mixed on the potential of a new series made by one half of the team that has struggled in attempting to make Trek a contemporary blockbuster cash-generating machine, but there's plenty of time to share our concerns about how the genius behind Cowboys and Aliens will or will not ruin one of the great television franchises. Instead, we should concentrate on the CBS All Access portion of this story, which may seem like a frustrating wrinkle right now but actually opens up a portal to the very near future of television production and distribution.

In case you're unaware, All Access is CBS's answer to Netflix, Hulu, and everything else in the increasingly competitive streaming marketplace. For a comparatively cheap $5.99/month, All Access offers customers next-day access to many—but not all, sorry Big Bang Theory fans—of CBS's current shows, along with a solid library of older offerings, including SurvivorI Love LucyThe Twilight Zone, and, yes, previous entrants in the Trek franchise. Although CBS head honcho Les Moonves claimed earlier this year that All Access has over 100,000 subscribers, the service hasn't produced much buzz among fans or industry folk. 

On one hand, this move clearly aims to change that, with a popular but admittedly aging franchise that hasn't aired new episodes since Enterprise limped to the finish line on UPN in 2005 after four seasons. Despite Trek's longstanding permeance in pop culture, there's no guarantee that the enthusiasm is present to the degree that it's worth siloing the new show onto a digital platform that very few people (relatively speaking) care about as it stands in November 2015. Even the second film reimagining sagged at the box office thanks to a terribly secretive and just plain terrible marketing campaign and an insufferable amount of 9/11 imagery. 

On the other hand, CBS is simply following the exact same model set forth by Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and even Crackle in the online streaming marketplace: exclusive, original content is king. Exclusive programming has been identified as the way to cut through the clutter and gain new subscribers. It's what provides that brand recognition that all streaming platforms, just like all networks and channels, are desperate to have. The big three of streaming content have all dipped toes in the franchise pool—Netflix has the Marvel series, Amazon is banking on that Philip K. Dick admiration for The Man in the High Castle, and Hulu has the upcoming Stephen King joint 11/22/63—but none of those quite measure up to the potential appeal of a good Star Trek show. If you're trying to get people to subscribe to your service, creating demand with a known quantity is an effective strategy, and one that didn't start with Netflix. It's the backbone of what premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime have been doing for decades. 

More importantly, the Trek/All Access plan isn't just about brand value or buzz; it's about competing for those things in a world where the number of streaming platform options is always on the rise (miss you already, Yahoo Screen), and studios are charging more and more for the rights to library content. The truth is, sooner rather than later, every network and channel is going to offer its own streaming or on-demand service, flush with exclusive programming that you can't get anywhere else. The kind of content aggregation offered by Netflix or Hulu or Amazon simply won't exist in five years, as each network and studio gets further paranoid about losing out on potential chunks of revenue from direct subscription plans in some form. 

The current streaming players already know this. Netflix is happy if you pay to watch Breaking Bad or The Vampire Diaries, but it hopes that you check out Narcos and Master of None too, because eventually, those first two things are going to be too expensive to continue to offer and all that will be left is a bunch of scraps and triple the number of Netflix originals. 

Right now, the Netflixes of the world are trying to become more like HBO, and vice versa. The broadcast networks, led by CBS, clearly aren't that far behind. Broadcasters are the most affected by the current on-demand, all-access environment, and before long, the declining Nielsen ratings and ad revenue will be too much and small bastions of hope like megahit Empire fewer and farther between. It'll be time to horde that programming behind a different kind of paywall. Everybody will have their own streaming services or apps full of programming you can't get anywhere else. Suddenly, those exorbitant cable bills won't seem so crazy!   

Again, if you're CBS and you see this all coming around the bend, there aren't too many franchises that you can at least hope might guide you into the next era of streaming television. Star Trek is probably one of them. Combine this with the fact that ratings won't matter in a more fully subscription-centric landscape and suddenly the problem of producing a science-fiction show about progress and exploration on mainstream American television doesn't feel like that much of a challenge. 

The grumbling about Trek on All Access makes sense, but it's frankly another example of Moonves and CBS recognizing the shifts in the marketplace and trying to do something about it. CBS famously chose not to join the other networks in the plan to build Hulu into a streaming hub, instead charting its own course elsewhere on the web. That's happening again, only CBS is ahead of the curve this time. Ultimately then, this new Star Trek series is still more than a year away, but with it comes the future of television. 

Do you think the Star Trek deal is a sign of things to come? Or is it just a desperate ploy to jumpstart a streaming service?