With 'Star Trek' Gamble, CBS Explores Bold New Paywall Plan

It was only recently -- sometime in the last couple of weeks -- that I was having a conversation with someone about “Star Trek” and why we haven’t seen another “Star Trek” TV series lately.

This person was of the belief that the time wasn’t right for another “Star Trek” reboot for television because, among other reasons, the franchise’s recent big-budget feature films were sucking up all the available “Star Trek” air, leaving no breathing space for another TV incarnation. (The most recent movie was 2013’s “Star Trek Into Darkness” and a sequel to that one, “Star Trek Beyond,” is due out next year.)

Well, so much for this person’s wisdom -- because CBS just announced that another “Star Trek” TV series will turn up in 2017. The press release issued on Monday even took a stab at incorporating the original show’s motto about boldly going where no man has gone before. In this case, “Star Trek” will be “boldly going” behind a paywall. 

“This new series will premiere to the national CBS audience, then boldly go where no first-run ‘Star Trek’ series has gone before --directly to its millions of fans through CBS All Access,” said Marc DeBevoise, executive vice president and general manager of CBS Digital Media, in a bold prepared statement. 

Under the plan announced this week, this new “Star Trek” series will make its debut the old-fashioned way on free-to-see, commercial-supported CBS, then dash behind the CBS All Access paywall for all subsequent episodes. CBS All Access is the so-called “over the top” on-demand and video streaming service that CBS offers at a monthly subscription fee of $5.99.

For that price, subscribers get “all access” on multiple devices to current CBS shows and many past ones (including all of the past “Star Trek” TV series). The new “Star Trek” series is the first original production to be made especially for CBS All Access. It’s a brand that CBS hopes will be powerful enough to send subscriptions to its All Access service into hyperdrive. 

“The brand-new ‘Star Trek’ will introduce new characters seeking imaginative new worlds and civilizations, while exploring the dramatic contemporary themes that have been a signature of the franchise since its inception in 1966,” the CBS press release said. (For an example of one of the “dramatic contemporary themes” explored in the original “Star Trek” series, please see the photo accompanying this blog of the original Capt. Kirk -- William Shatner -- grappling with a man-lizard.)

Whether CBS All Access will morph into another Netflix on the basis of this new “Star Trek” series remains to be seen. That would seem to be the goal, of course -- to attract habitual (if not rabid) subscribers like Netflix does with a stable of original shows that attract attention for their quality and then grow audiences based largely on word-of-mouth, plus healthy doses of publicity and social-media saturation.

Thus, the success of this new “Star Trek” series in helping CBS achieve its All Access subscription goals would seem to hinge on whether the new show is any good. And that’s where an element of risk comes in, because that determination will be up to legions of fickle “Star Trek” fans. They will begin judging the show and tweeting their opinions during its premiere on CBS, continuing long into the night after it ends.

If the show somehow draws more nays than yays, then it will be a lot less likely to emerge as the boon to All Access subscriptions that CBS hopes it will be. On the other hand, the big difference between this “Star Trek” series and some of the better-known streaming-only series such as “Orange Is The New Black” (Netflix) and “Transparent” (Amazon) is that “Star Trek” already brings with it a ton of brand-name recognition.

Although we don’t know exactly what this new “Star Trek” will be -- it doesn’t yet have a catchy subtitle -- we can reasonably guess what it will be, which is a space opera with ray guns and lots of aliens with bumpy foreheads, just like every other “Star Trek” that there ever was. That is the main difference between this new streaming-only show and all the other streaming shows -- they were all unknown quantities when they first turned up, and “Star Trek” is not.

The thing that makes Netflix successful, however, would seem to be the perception that with Netflix (and the other streaming-only services), you’re not getting ordinary “network” TV shows to watch. Instead, the perception is that the streaming-only shows are quirky, daring, original -- and as such, they’re an alternative to plain old “network television.”

CBS’s “Star Trek” experiment is striking because it aims to have the same success with a brand-franchise that is not quirky, daring or original at all -- a “network” television series actually, but one that you will be asked to pay to watch.


2 comments about "With 'Star Trek' Gamble, CBS Explores Bold New Paywall Plan ".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, November 4, 2015 at 12:05 p.m.

    In my upcoming book, "TV: Now and Then", I proposed exactly what CBS is probably doing, namely a phased roll out of primetime quality shows, offered first, to subscribers via a SVOD platform, to cover most of their program costs, then used on the network's regular, ad-supported primetime schedule, at a fraction of the program cost---mostly residuals---and, finally in syndication, where huge profits are to be made. It will be interesting to see how this ploy develops.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 4, 2015 at 7:38 p.m.

    Again, how many people will not be able to access the digital platform and who are they ? 

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