Tag: opinion

What Star Trek's syndicated past says about its streaming future

Contributed by
Nov 6, 2015, 6:52 PM EST (Updated)

When I was a kid growing up in the NYC area, I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine on WPIX 11. And I watched the original Trek on multiple stations years after it was canceled. Chances are you watched these shows on completely different channels from the ones I did, because Star Trek has found its greatest success as a syndicated show.

Considering what a hugely popular franchise it is, it's easy to forget that Trek existed completely out of the TV network system from 1969 until 1995, but it did. Both TNG and DS9 were syndicated from the start, and they were both beloved and well-viewed. So with the announcement of Star Trek appearing on strictly digital platforms after its pilot airs, the idea that it could be a free agent once again is all but guaranteed.

There are two ways the nature of syndication could be adapted in this case, both of which will benefit CBS and Star Trek.

As of now, the plan is to debut new Star Trek exclusively in 2017 on CBS All-Access. That gives CBS CEO Les Moonves and his digital team time to build their fledgling online service into something viable. But right now, despite CBS ruling the networks, it simply does not compete with Netflix, Amazon Instant or Hulu when it comes to a streaming offering. Between now and 2017, CBS needs to figure out how to change that, and it also needs a Plan B for Star Trek in case All Access doesn't work out.

In addition to Trek, CBS will also have its current stable of shows available on its streaming service. CBS is also looking to ink a deal that would give it some serious exclusive NFL content. Could these things combined make the $5.99/month price tag worth it to the average viewer? Maybe. This is where the idea of syndication really comes in.

The biggest question is, from what device will you be streaming Star Trek? As of now, CBS All-Access will be available for viewing through the new Apple TV, but that's just one device. Not everyone owns or will own an Apple TV. Playstation 4, Xbox One, Chromecast and a host of other devices serve similar purposes to the Apple TV. One way in which CBS could "syndicate" Star Trek is by brokering deals with these other companies to provide a CBS All-Access app for their respective devices. Let's face it, while some people will be content to stare at a laptop, tablet or phone, Star Trek is still the kind of big, beautiful space drama that plenty of people will want to watch on their big-screen TVs. So giving people multiple ways in which to access their streaming service is key.

But there's an elephant in the room, and you shouldn't believe for one moment that Les Moonves isn't aware of and actively dealing with it -- CBS All-Access could be far less successful than CBS is hoping. People are already paying a lot of money month to month for digital content. Adding another paid service, another app with another interface is a tricky proposition and may continue to be so come 2017. The fickle nature of consumers is something CBS has to take into account.

While Netflix, Amazon and Hulu seem to be off the table, it's still entirely possible that CBS could license off Star Trek to be accessible specifically through other devices and services. Sure, CBS has said that Star Trek will be available exclusively on All-Access, but since CBS owns the rights to Star Trek for TV and digital distribution, they're not beholden to keep that promise. And there's no question that part of the reason CBS announced Star Trek so far ahead of release is to attract interest from other companies.

Here's where a different form of syndication could come into play.

Think of Star Trek not as a TV show, but as the proverbial worm on the hook. CBS knows that it will attract a ton of small fish with its Trek bait in the form of longtime fans of the show and new fans of the Bad Robot movies, but it could also attract much larger fish in the form of companies who might want more exclusive rights to the series. Both Microsoft and Sony, for example, are making inroads to establish themselves as an alternative to a cable TV provider, and both are familiar with the concept of buying out for exclusivity even if it's only limited.

Imagine this -- Sony, Microsoft and any other company bid for a licensing agreement that says Star Trek will also be available through their existing service. That would mean money upfront from whatever company wins the bidding war in addition to the monthly gains from CBS All-Access.

Yes, this option could potentially dilute the CBS streaming brand, but if All-Access isn't finding its foothold come 2017, having another means for people to watch this new Star Trek series could still give CBS a net financial win.

What I'm saying is this -- the way CBS is planning to get Star Trek to its viewers is a smart way of adapting how Star Trek has found its viewers all along. Yes, streaming is still a relatively new technology, but plenty of successful shows are only available through streaming, so this isn't Star Trek boldly going where no show has gone before. And if you think of the ways in which people stream as a kind of syndication, it's not even going somewhere it hasn't gone before. Being a syndicated, free agent is how Star Trek has always thrived. This is just the next generation of that.

Correction: In the original piece, syndication status was attributed to the original runs of Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise. Both aired exclusively on the now-defunct network, UPN.

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