To Boldly Go…

Some industry pundits say that Star Trek: Discovery is poised for success. All the creative stuff seems to be lined up. The production is the slickest Star Trek ever made, at $8 million an episode. The ad campaign is the biggest CBS has ever done for anything, reaching far into social media, all over the planet. It should be a raging success. And it would stand a good chance of doing that. 

There is, however, a very large problem, and nobody at CBS seems to be seeing the elephant in the room. The difference is that this new Star Trek, unlike every other Trek, will not be on broadcast television in the United States, but exclusively behind the paywall of a streaming service that up until the past six months, few Americans had ever heard of. The media environment is completely different apart from the fact that it’s audio-visual media, and CBS is in completely uncharted waters, yet behaving as though they know how all this works.

Pro-CBS pundit estimates are that only about 10% of the fans are making ugly noises about Star Trek: Discovery. I think that number is inaccurate, though. We can examine for ourselves what is happening in social media.

If you are only looking at whether they click the like button or the dislike button (for media where there is one) Discovery looks in fine shape. However, for those who take the time to write any comment at all, the response is OVERWHELMINGLY negative. This may be just a percentage of all that respond, but perhaps there is a difference between the casual like clickers who “like” something that makes any impression on them at all, and those who are actually thinking about what they’re seeing. There are casual consumers, surely, and then there are the more serious advocates of the Trek milieu. Perhaps what we are seeing is the difference between those people and the wallets with legs that CBS is frankly hoping we all are. But to get a sense of what’s really going on with the social media push on this, let’s look at some actual numbers.

When CBS put out their trailer on YouTube, many more fans saw the trailer than voted on it than did people who saw the trailer for the Trek parody The Orville, so engagement per viewer for The Orville was several hundred percent better. Even worse, for Discovery, only two of three fans who voted liked it, as contrasted to the parody Orville, where six of seven fans who voted liked it.  In other words, only 60% of viewers like Discovery, where 87% liked the Orville. Discovery  theoretically owns this space, and should not be having a 40% thumbs-down response. This one occurrence is weird. This kind of thing simply does not happen, and should have set off red alert klaxons at the offices of CBS Marketing Division (and may very well have).

Yet, this is data hardly constitutes a trend. It would look like cherry-picking to me too if I had nothing else to go with it, but you can see it for yourself on Facebook. Open any post about the new series and start reading the comments themselves. So what’s actually happening?

The Marketing Game

Doug Jones as Saru

The marketing approach for any show is a numbers game. It’s all done by statistics, ratings numbers, engagement numbers. That’s what works, it’s what’s always worked. Except with Star Trek.

When the original show was on the air, NBC was going nuts trying to figure out how to advertise the show. They tried to analyze their data to find out who the “average” Trek fan was. They discovered, to their amazement and horror, that there WAS no “average” Trek fan. The show appealed to kids and people in their 70’s, and to every profession and occupation there was. There was no pattern.

CBS may once have learned their lesson about Star Trek, but despite years of operating the franchise this knowledge may not have been sticky. Institutional knowledge erodes, apparently, and they appear now to be relying on a sheerly statistical approach to marketing Star Trek: Discovery.

A Fandom Divided

A particularly important piece of this puzzle is the apparent difficulty CBS has in connecting with the fans. Your fandom is your bread and butter, but CBS’  ham-fisted approach to dealing with the situation created by Alec Peters and the fan film “Axanar” created a very public, very toxic environment in which to launch their new Trek series, and it did not occur to them at all that it would be far cheaper for them, and far less painful, just to work with Alec Peters to try to find some kind of equitable solution rather than roll the dice and risk losing control of major portions of their own Trek content and copyrights trying to make the Axanar legal team blink.

CBS began their newest attack on Star Trek fandom in 2015, waging war against some of the most visible, high profile fans in the world. Whether Alec Peters and Team Axanar were in the right or not, the Trek fandom that was paying attention at all was suddenly polarized, divided fairly evenly between those who believed in what Axanar was trying to do, and those who believed that CBS was perfectly justified in doing anything to the Axanar project and the individuals who ran it that they felt like doing, owing to their control of the copyrights.

As the court case dragged on and on, owing in part to the fact that the Axanar team did not just squeak in fright and roll over as other fan ventures had, more and more attention was being called to the dispute, and it was being done in a very public and permanent way. The Internet never forgets anything.

People not interested enough to pay close attention only knew that for some reason, CBS was attacking its own fan base in the court system, and that a number of fan films were being intimidated into closing production forever. Setting aside the question of who was right and who was wrong, this is the only impression of CBS and Star Trek people got, for nearly two solid years.

CBS finally discovered that sometimes might does not always make right from everyone’s perspective, and they now had a very sharply divided fandom to whom they must now market their new program. To suggest that this has no effect on CBS’s efforts, or to dismiss it with a wave of the hand is to dismiss the legitimacy of half of Star Trek fandom itself – note that I’m not talking about the casual consumers, who would be roped in no matter what, but the fans of Star Trek who believe in the future Star Trek represents, and hold those ideals dear.

This time, the pure statistical approach is not working. The disregard for the loyalty of the fans that saved their Star Trek franchise in the late 1960’s when it was about to die the death of all shows that didn’t make a third season, thereby failing to reach the number of episodes needed for syndication, is palpable. This is something that just won’t be smoothed over with a few extra YouTube videos and an advertising blitz on Facebook.

The Walled Garden

For Star Trek to be the rolicking success CBS wants it to be, fans need to be able to see it. Instead of pushing it out into the most venues possible, CBS is putting every episode past the first one behind a pay firewall, in the hopes of lassoing tens of millions of viewers to sign up for their walled garden. On day one, CBS All Access has only 2 million members, the vast majority of which were members two years ago.

By the second week of Star Trek: Discovery, only 2 million people in the United States will have access to it at all. The bean counters at CBS are leaving literally hundreds of millions of dollars on the table, as the money from the advertising would have far outstripped what they could earn inside that walled garden. While it’s true that Star Trek is loved the world over, by far the biggest chunk of that fandom is right here in the United States where it originated. Netflix alone had 52 million subscribers in the United States, which is as much as all the other countries served by Netflix combined. That absolutely dwarfs CBS All Access with its 2 million.  Even if CBS All Access tripled its subscribership in the next month (which is flatly impossible) the resulting revenue won’t hold a candle to what Netflix could have provided.

CBS has also shot themselves in the foot with respect to gaining subscribership for CBS All Access. For example, you cannot get the CBS All Access app on DirecTV. It does not exist. Nor is it available on the PS3, but only the PS4. You can get the app for your Windows box, hurray! But there’s no native app your Mac. Fortunately it seems to work in web browsers, but then how many of us actually watch television on our computers rather than that big screen in our living rooms? And you can forget about getting it bundled with anything. For those cable and satellite providers, it is always an extra fee. It doesn’t come bundled with anything, anywhere. So it behooves us to ask this question, and we have to ask it:

Are the CBS marketing people on crack?

What do they hope to accomplish here? Doubling the CBS All Access subscription rate in the next year? Tripling it? No matter what they do, they can never – ever – extract as much money from their subscription service as they could have with Netflix. Their current stated goal is to reach four million subscribers by 2020, and that is, at this writing, two and a half years away.

For those who didn’t know how all this worked to start with, CBS got all the production money from Netflix. However, Netflix is out for season two. If CBS can’t make the next season’s production costs from the CBS All Access service (there’s absolutely no chance of this happening given the mathematics), then Star Trek: Discovery is done after the first season. The money has to come from somewhere, so unless CBS wants to dump in $130 million in production costs alone out of its own pocket for the next season. the series is as good as cancelled after its initial 15 episode run.

So, the series will come out, and while it will probably do well in certain market segments, it may well end up being a commercial failure despite this. Everything – everything – will depend on how well Star Trek: Discovery does on Netflix in the foreign markets. CBS won’t be able to afford to keep up production at the rate of $8-$8.5 million per episode. They had to have Netflix foot the bill for production, and if Netflix doesn’t play ball for the next season, it’s game over, regardless of how good Star Trek: Discovery actually is. To sustain the show using only their own subscriber base, they’d have to charge something around $5 an episode to every subscriber, whether each subscriber watched the show or not. It’s just flatly impossible.

Unless of course, that was never CBS’ plan to begin with.

Dodge and Weave

There’s this thing in strategic planning called the Point of No Return. It’s the point at which, once you’re past it, you’re committed. There’s no backing out of it, and there’s nothing else to do but go forward. What if the entire plan was to do one season of Trek, and then just quit and go do something else? This is the only way CBS’s marketing decisions make any sense at all.

The Star Trek: Discovery production team has risen above adversity, and are possibly delivering the best Star Trek ever made. At this writing, we don’t yet know. No matter how good it turns out to be, though, it may not matter. CBS is playing a dangerous game with the crown jewels, betting that some incredibly unlikely revenue numbers will happen as a result of cynical marketing effort to herd Trek fans to their new service.

Most of the fans we’ve spoken with who are actually willing to pay the extra fee to watch it on CBS All Access have said that they will only keep subscribing so long as there are Star Trek episodes to watch, and that they will turn it off during the hiatus while they wait for the second half of the first season 2 air. It sounds to me like they will be getting a lot of subscriptions from hardcore fans who want to see Star Trek (and few others) but they won’t be keeping them. For that to happen they have to fix the content problem, and there’s no way they can do that in the amount of time they have.

CBS will then have two possible choices. They can either double-down and hope things get better, or they can cut their losses while they can.

Can They Prevail?

Does CBS have enough money to float season 2 without the help of Netflix? Will Netflix pay for Season 2 knowing that they won’t have access to Star Trek’s core market here in the U.S.? At this point nobody has the answer to these questions, possibly not even CBS. And this is CBS we’re talking about here. They will blame the property itself and not own poor judgement for the failure of CBS all access to retain subscribers, and they’ll shelve the whole thing as a bad idea. Star Trek won’t be destroyed. We’ll have everything ever made up to this point – but this will be the last new Star Trek show produced for television for a very very long time. We might have to wait another 20 years for their wounds to stop stinging and for another studio head for CBS to consider trying this again.

As it is, producer Alex Kurtzman is on record with the Hollywood Reporter as saying that at this moment, that they are currently are laying the groundwork for Season 2 of Star Trek Discovery in case a second season gets greenlit, but it is absolutely not greenlit as of September 25, 2017. Further, even if it does happen (we think it won’t)  nobody will see a frame of it until at least the first quarter of 2019, and probably later than that.

He also said that, and we quote here, “If people see and love the show, ultimately they probably won’t remember the delays.” Kurtzman actually said this, word for word.

Actually, Mr. Kurtzman, when there are two year gaps between a television project being announced and getting it released, we notice.

Star Trek: Discovery may well be poised for success, but they are equally poised for calamity. If CBS had actually planned for there to be multiple seasons of Star Trek: Discovery, and it dies after one season, it will likely be the last Star Trek television for a very — very — long time to come. If CBS had, in fact, only planned for there to ever be a single season of Star Trek: Discovery, then after this, Star Trek as a regular TV series is dead anyway.


Gene Turnbow
Gene Turnbow

President of Krypton Media Group, Inc., radio personality and station manager of Part writer, part animator, part musician, part illustrator, part programmer, part entrepreneur – all geek.