You have to admire CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery strategy. Rather than treat the series as a return of a venerable franchise to its television roots as a celebration, they decided to use it to entice fans to pony up a few dollars a month for their streaming service. It’s an audacious model more typical of NBC than the traditionally more conservative CBS, but here we are anyway. On Sunday night, CBS decided to air the first of the two-part Discovery premiere, 'The Vulcan Hello'. However, only those who signed up for CBS All Access would be able to see the following episode, 'Battle at the Binary Stars'. Indeed, all episodes from here on will be exclusive to the digital service and not aired on broadcast television. This is a huge mistake.
Most people are already paying for at least one streaming service in addition to the costs of basic cable. With major competitors like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO Go, and Showtime on Demand, the market is already packed with established and beloved brands with extensive lists of successful programming. There are others, such as FOX’s streaming service, that even offer their series for free (provided you don’t mind commercial breaks). All Access is threadbare for of content. Discovery is meant to be its flagship show, but right now, it’s also it’s only one. Aside from Trek, all it has is a library of shows you can already watch on CBS or on other streaming sites you are already probably paying for. Admittedly, CBS is partially right in one way: reaching out to nerd culture usually means cash. They are clearly banking on the rabid nerd fanbase to keep their burgeoning platform afloat, but the audience historically doesn't have much of a reason to trust the company, and one show doesn't change that.
CBS has found new ways to squeeze every penny out of the Star Trek license and fans have not reacted with positively to it. When The Next Generation was released on Blu-Ray, CBS rolled out the red carpet regarding special features. They also released several of the TNG two-parters as separate purchases put into film format. Those Blu-Rays came with different features despite the all-inclusive wording of the advertisements. You would essentially have to purchase certain episodes twice (at an elevated price) to get the entire experience.
It also doesn’t help that CBS airs The Big Bang Theory, which makes nerd culture the target of its jokes rather than the subject. Around the internet, the series is reflexively and consistently referred to as “Nerd blackface.” While clearly not meant to be taken literally, it still brings up a relevant point; when your key audience views your opinion of them in the same breath as a minstrel show, there’s a good chance that PR mistakes have been made. If you look at the track record of how a network might see your demographic and the result is The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon, you may not come away thinking this company understands or respects your interests.
On the other side of this is Star Trek: Discovery itself. By splitting the episodes the way they have, CBS may not be whetting the appetite of its audience enough. Ratings were strong for the debut, but the way the premiere was formatted may not entice fans to pay $5.99 a month with commercials or $9.99 without.
The problem is that CBS needs the mainstay fans to come back to the fold. Star Trek left television twelve years ago because its fans felt they were taken for granted. Voyager and Enterprise were milquetoast shows that were happy to maintain the status quo; for their part, the producers were happy to do the same. Voyager limped to the finish line in a largely derided finale, but Enterprise was even less lucky. It became the first Trek show to be canceled since the original. Likewise, Star Trek Nemesis failed at the box office because it was endemic of what Star Trek had become by then: complacent and antiseptic. It no longer took risks because it felt it didn’t have to.