The following is an opinion piece about the potential merger of CBS Corp. and Viacom.
Ooh! A story about corporate mergers and acquisitions! I can’t wait! This is going to be so …. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
I know how you feel. I spent several years as a business-to-business newspaper reporter, where I can read through SEC filings faster than an investor. And the last thing I would want to read on a site designed to celebrate geekdom is the boring world of accountants, stockbrokers and the Starbucks baristas that never let them sleep.
Yet, if you haven’t been paying attention to recent reports that CBS Corp. and Viacom Inc., I beg you to at least give me a couple more paragraphs to make it worth your while. Because it’s not just about stock prices and profit margins, it’s also about one of the largest science-fiction properties we could ever love, adore and worship.
You know what I’m talking about … Star Trek.
Right now, the rights to Star Trek are split between CBS and Viacom’s Paramount Pictures division. To simplify it, Paramount has the movie rights (which is why you see the Paramount logo ahead of films, like last summer’s Star Trek: Beyond) while CBS has the rights to just about everything else – television, home video, merchandising, books, you name it.
Of course, it hasn’t always been like this. In fact, until 2006, Star Trek was owned by just one company: Viacom. They acquired the rights through a long chain of ownership beginning with Lucille Ball’s Desilu Productions in the 1960s, which was later acquired by Paramount (owned at the time by Gulf + Western), which was later bought out by Viacom … you don’t need me to go through the whole thing.
However, 2006 was a crazy year for Star Trek. Viacom, for whatever crazy reasons, decided to spin off CBS. And instead of either deciding to keep Star Trek with the old Viacom or the new CBS, the companies literally split the baby.
It didn’t matter to the primary shareholders of the two new companies, because both CBS and Paramount were still mostly owned by the family of Sumner Redstone. Yes, two separate companies with the same ownership.
Sadly, however, there were little if any synergies. CBS had rights to television, but after Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled in 2005, decided to take a break. Paramount, on the other hand, felt there was more it could do at the box office despite the bombing of 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, so the studio worked in earnest to revive the franchise in some way.
And for the last decade, the two companies just did their own thing. Paramount finally found a winner with director J.J. Abrams, kicking out films again beginning in 2009. CBS, however, was fine just sitting back and making money off of hundreds of hours of Star Trek television already produced.
That has been absolutely devastating to the Star Trek franchise. It’s like divorced parents who can’t agree on anything with their children. So when you stay with mom, it’s keep your room clean, study hard, and work a summer job. But at dad’s, it’s lay around in your boxers, play Halo all day, and order lots of pizza.
Star Trek is not just an intellectual property. It’s what someone might call a “super property.” It’s huge. It’s massive. Not just in its audience, but all the potential material that can be produced from it.
Look at other super properties out there, like the comic book companies. Both Marvel Entertainment and DC Comics have saturated both movie theaters and television screens with original content, finding ways to tie it all together. And while not everything is a smash success, it’s enough to keep shareholders at both companies whistling while they dump all their money at the bank.
Star Wars is another one. Yes, George Lucas kind of sat on the property and did very little with it. But the moment Lucas decided to sell all of it to the Walt Disney Co. for $4 billion, everything changed. Not only are movies coming out more frequently (and making billions of dollars at the box office), but Disney is looking for other ways to bring Star Wars to various platforms, including television – something it has had limited success with in the past.
Those are just a few examples. But they are enough to explain why Star Trek more or less lost J.J. Abrams in the first place to Star Wars. Abrams wanted to do more than just Star Trek films. He wanted to create Star Trek across many platforms, and loop it all together. Television. Comics. Web projects. Official conventions that go beyond what’s out there today.
It was a massive undertaking, one Paramount was all geared up to do, but one that CBS was, well, hesitant. I mean, can you blame them? If Abrams was going to become the new Rick Berman, he would likely push his reboot universe introduced in 2009’s Star Trek, and not really the “prime universe” our television series and past movies were based in. For CBS, that meant possibly devaluing what they already had, and being forced to share a smaller piece with Paramount – a separate company now – who would steer the ship, and live in the penthouse.
So it didn’t happen. Defeated, Abrams walked away, and then ran quickly toward the light that was Star Wars.
It created enough interest in CBS to start thinking about a television series again, but tying it with anything to do with Paramount – which was the only new content making real money in the franchise – was out of the question.
Long story short, we need the two pieces of Star Trek reunited again. It’s sad that the only real partnership CBS and Viacom have done the past 10 years regarding Star Trek is join up to sue an “independent” fan-film for copyright infringement. That might be noble, but that’s not what fans are looking for.
As a Star Trek fan, I want us to dominate Netflix or The CW. I want there to be so many new and amazing movies, we can’t keep up. I want Star Trek to be more than a cool movie every few years that may or may not include J.J. Abrams.
I’m excited for Rogue One, and I have to keep telling myself that this is not the sequel to The Force Awakens. It doesn’t matter, because I’m still excited. Just like I can’t wait to see Doctor Strange even though I’d really like to watch another Avengers film.
Yes, there are some business aspects to the deal that would make an investor cringe. CBS has done well financially, for instance, while Viacom has stumbled – especially through Paramount, which has done little to excite the movie box office in recent years.
I don’t care about that. Yes, it’s selfish, but you shouldn’t care about that either. Star Trek is a super property – just like Marvel, just like DC, just like Star Wars. And dammit, it’s time the people who steer the ship finally guide it to the right course.
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