Long anticipated, much delayed merger boosts Star Trek franchise.
Over the weekend, the boards of broadcaster CBS and production company Viacom agreed on a merger that would create a $28 billion media company. The all-stock deal creates a new company to be known, not surprisingly, as ViacomCBS and caps off a tumultuous relationship between the two sister companies that were split back in 2006.
In 1971, an FCC ruling required television network CBS to spin off Viacom International, which was the syndication company for most of CBS’ television programming. Media magnate Sumner Redstone staged a hostile takeover of Viacom in 1987, and followed with a series of acquisitions that culminated with the 1993 purchase of Paramount Communications. Paramount, as Gulf+Western, had acquired the post-1960 portion of the Desilu Productions Library in 1967. Among the properties that Paramount brought to Viacom were the three seasons of Star Trek, plus the two seasons of the animated series, the then-ongoing Star Trek: The Next Generation series, the newly launched Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and the six Star Trek movies.
However, as a response to stagnating stock prices and a leadership quarrel among CBS head Les Moonves and MTV Networks head Tom Freston, Redstone split the company into two separate entities in 2006. One result of the divorce was that CBS kept the rights to television broadcast versions of Star Trek, while Paramount held the rights for cinematic productions of the franchise. This split lead to a number of complications, most notably that neither studio owned the rights to all of the material. This lead, in part, to the 2017 crackdown on fan productions, many of which included original cast members.
It wasn’t until three years after the split that the “Abramsverse” (officially the “Kelvin Timeline” Star Trek appeared on screen starring Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Captain Kirk and his first officer, Mr. Spock. Aside from a very significant appearance by the original Mr. Spock played by Leonard Nimoy, there was no connection to the shows and films that had boldly gone before. The 2013 and 2016 movies produced increasingly disappointing box office returns, with the result that Pine and Quinto walked away from reduced paychecks for a proposed fourth movie in late 2018.
After letting their portion of the property languish for over a decade following the early end of Star Trek: Enterprise, CBS launched Star Trek: Discovery to boost the subscriber numbers for its struggling CBS All Access streaming service in 2017. After a rough start, the show has been greenlit for a third series with a spinoff centered around Section 31. CBS has doubled down with the upcoming, eagerly anticipated Picard series which will bring back characters from both The Next Generation and Voyager.
While the business page seems to be a rather bleak place to look for the future of a science fiction fandom, the news is great for Star Trek fans. While the Kelvin Timeline will not be returning to screens, the reasons for it to have existed have also vanished like a bottle of Romulan Ale at a Klingon kegger. With the intellectual property rights all under one roof, writers can access the 50+ years of material from both the big and little screens. In fact, ViacomCBS’ management wants to turn the franchise into a powerhouse that can rival Marvel’s achievements.
In a conference call with investors on Tuesday, August 13, Viacom CBS head Bob Bakish stated that both the Star Trek and Mission Impossible franchises will be leveraged “across all of the company’s platforms.” In addition to Picard, the Short Trek stories, and the upcoming spinoff centered around Michelle Yeoh’s Philippa Georgiou, this past San Diego Comic-Con saw hints regarding the possibility of another show focused on Mr. Spock, as portrayed by Ethan Peck.
Because of the paywall blocking casual fans from watching the series, Star Trek: Discovery merchandizing has largely faltered. In fact, a single model kit of the U.S.S. Discovery is the sole Discovery-related item among the dozens of Star Trek toys and accessories revealed at this year’s Toy Fair in February nearly a year after lack of interest among retailers forced the cancellation of the Discovery Phaser and action figures. Animation is seen as the way forward to promoting the brand in the toy aisle. The upcoming animated Below Decks series may be joined by others, taking a page from Lucasfilm’s success in expanding the Star Wars brand beyond the 1977 movie.
As currently planned, Star Trek will fall under the purview of CBS studios. While the fan anticipation of a reunified Star Trek doesn’t yet evoke the same excitement as the X-Men now being able to appear in MCU movies, the opportunities for merging the canon after 13 years allows possibilities not seen since Michael Dorn played Lt. Worf’s ancestor in Undiscovered Country or commanded DS9’s Defiant in First Contact.
And, it’s not just a one-way street. Star Trek is likely ViacomCBS’ biggest weapon in the Streaming Wars as it goes head-to-head with Disney, Amazon and Netflix. CBS All Access’ numbers have been growing, but its subscriber base is still among the smallest. ViacomCBS is likely to fold its Pluto and BET services into CBSAA. Comedy Central, MTV, Showtime and Nickelodeon will also add to the content, as well as making the entire Paramount library available to its customers. Among the 140,000 TV shows and 3,600 movies, all 52 years’ of Star Trek will be at one’s fingertips in a single place. And because of that importance, Star Trek may finally get the love from its corporate parent that its fans deserve.