Discovery and the Perils of Transitional Television


Nearly ten million people tuned in to the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery on CBS, but it’s anybody’s guess who’s going to stick around for episodes two and three.

That’s not due to the quality of the show. I think it’s the best Star Trek premiere since Deep Space Nine’s “Emissary”, but Paramount banked for decades on the loyalty of its fans. Even when the show was utter garbage, you could expect a few million eyeballs to watch it.

The billion dollar question is: are those fans willing to pay for the show?

The Ship That Launched a Thousand Shows

Star Trek is no stranger to new distribution networks. The Phase II television series was intended to start a fourth television network before it turned into a movie. Voyager launched the United Paramount Network, debuting to over 21 million viewers. (It never got those numbers again.)

Star Trek: the Next Generation did even more: it launched an entire business model. TNG proved that syndication was more than an afterlife for old network shows, and dozens of original dramas and mini-networks spawned in its wake. (Many of these shows were genre shows, too, from Hercules: the Legendary Journeys to Babylon 5.) The syndicated hours were eventually crowded out by new broadcast networks, but not before they triggered the growth of drama on cable networks. There’s a direct line from TNG to today’s Golden Age of television.

So if anything can jump the paywall and start a new trend, it’s a Star Trek show. But is Discovery up to the task?

Is Discovery the Babylon 5 of 2017?

On paper, Discovery has everything it needs for success: a charismatic lead, spectacular effects, and 50 years of backstory to build upon. But American television has changed since Enterprise went off the air in 2005. Even the hoariest of procedurals — many of them on CBS — incorporate elements of serialization. The shows on the cutting edge entice audiences with short, heavily serialized seasons best described as novels for television.

A novel for television… now where have I heard that phrase before?

Would totally be a fan
of Michael Burnham.

Babylon 5 brought about the dawn of the third age of television by telling a single story over five seasons. But it also rode out the end of the syndication boom, and its long-form ambitions were under constant pressure from the threat of cancellation. It was a pioneer in computer effects and one of the first shows to film in a 16:9 aspect ratio for HD television — but the early computer effects couldn’t be rendered in HD, and have aged poorly.

In many ways, Babylon 5 was revolutionary. But it also put itself in awkward corners that only a devoted cult of fans could love. It might have been a better show if somebody else had gone and made all of its mistakes first.

Discovery is in the same boat. To succeed in today’s television, it has to set aside the narrative conventions that have defined Star Trek for decades. Omni-competent Starfleet officers roaming through standalone adventures would seem quaint in a 2017 show, but there’s no guarantee that Discovery can change up the formula.

And if That Weren’t Hard Enough…

Even if Discovery lands on its narrative feet, CBS All Access might not be the right business model. There are already several TV subscription services on the market and more on the way. Nobody knows how many services viewers are willing to pay for. Enough fans rushed to try out All Access for CBS to crow about it the next day, but not so many that CBS felt like bragging with numbers.

Maybe individual streaming services are the future. Maybe it’s all about negotiating leverage. Maybe season 2 of Discovery will be a standalone app with micropayments. Maybe Google or Amazon will buy the whole shebang. There’s no telling what will happen, but whatever does happen will impact Discovery’s creative process. It already has with the awkward splitting of a single opening story into two parts — one broadcast, one streaming.

At the same time, it feels good to have a new episode of Star Trek to talk about. Discovery might soar. It might crash and burn. But on and around the screen, it looks like we’re in for an interesting ride.




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