Sorry, But Star Trek Really Doesn’t Work On Network TV

By November 23, 2016


The following is an opinion piece about where the new Star Trek: Discovery series should be aired, and really where it shouldn’t. If you’d rather stick to news, then you might be interested in finding out who the star of Discovery will be. 

A couple weeks back, I shared a story with you about Jim Lanzone, the chief executive of CBS Interactive, talking about Star Trek: Discovery on CBS All Access.

Lanzone appeared on Peter Kafka’s Recode Media podcast, and discussed several aspects of Discovery, including what I was most interested in, whether the next Star Trek would be more adult than previous incarnations.

Lanzone, however, also talked about something else. I overlooked it at the time, because I was more interested in R-rated Star Trek, and not interested in something I thought was already understood – Star Trek, nor any high-quality space-faring drama, would survive on network television.

startrekdiscovery-inset112316Yet, that’s not as understood as I thought. Several media outlets and bloggers blasted Lanzone, as if he disrespected Star Trek in a way no one could ever. How dare he say that science-fiction doesn’t work on television. Has he seen television lately?

I’m betting the answer to that is, “Yes. Yes Mr. Lanzone has indeed seen television lately.”

And I’m sorry, but Lanzone is absolutely right.

We live in the geek bubble (I love it here in the geek bubble), so it’s tough to have someone tell me that what I like, and what you like, other people (such as my mom) won’t like. I mean, look at all the geek shows on television, and there are a lot.

Hell, I look back to when I first started entertainment reporting in 1998, and remember that the only science-fiction that was on the air was Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s final season, Star Trek: VoyagerEarth: Final Conflict and The X-Files. Yes, Hercules and Xena were on the air at the time, too, but that was more fantasy than sci-fi (yes, I’m old-fashioned that way).

ds9-inset112316There really wasn’t a lot to cover, nor a lot to watch. And two of the four shows I mentioned were even on network television (both Deep Space Nine and E:FC were first-run syndication). And then, only one of those two shows were even on a major network (UPN was not exactly wowing advertisers with its viewership numbers).

The landscape has changed, absolutely. And thanks to an influx of platforms, we are getting all kinds of genres covered, especially science-fiction and the more expansive and inclusive geekdom. I can’t even tell you how many active television shows are filming at this moment that were based on a comic book, and we have some other great genre shows like Westworld on HBO and The Expanse on Syfy.

So why can’t Discovery be on CBS? Why would the network think a 50-year-old property that has generated billions of dollars for the studios over the decades couldn’t make it paired up with NCIS?

Because science-fiction remains expensive, and network television depends on a wider audience than ever just to compete for those advertising dollars.

Take a look at the television ratings for all of last year, courtesy of Deadline. And let’s look for either space-faring or shows set in a somewhat distant future (usually the more costly). Go ahead, start at No. 1, which was Sunday Night Football on NBC, and just work your way down.

I guess we could bend a little and include Once Upon a Time on ABC, even though it’s not in space or in the future. But that’s actually done on a much smaller budget than you would think (thanks to heavy green-screening). And even then, it’s No. 69.

ouat-inset112316That’s right, there are 67 shows between Once Upon a Time and Sunday Night Football that pull in stronger average audiences than Disney’s interesting fairy tale show.

Then I find NBC’s Grimm, which is similar in production to Once Upon a Time, but that’s at No. 74.

Oh, I just found Agents of SHIELD on ABC … at No. 85. And Gotham on Fox at No. 89.

OK, maybe that’s not too fair, because at least in my quick perusal, I couldn’t find a single show in that list which was set in space, or deep in the future. You know why? Because it’s not cost-effective.

Sure, I’d love to have the prestige of returning Star Trek back to network television. But the last time it was there, in the 1960s, things didn’t go so well. And even when it was on the smaller networks, like UPN, it wasn’t that extraordinary either. Hell, UPN cancelled Star Trek: Enterprise, and that was supposed to be a signature show.

It might feel like CBS isn’t taking Star Trek fans seriously by taking the show online, but really, it’s the exact opposite. CBS wants to do this right, and they want it to be around a long time. Developing it for the network will just be a mess, and force the series to go into long seasons that could hurt more than help. It will have to meet thresholds almost immediately that might be impossible to attain.

It’s just not where something like Discovery can thrive.

housecards-inset112316Paying to see Star Trek might not be something we’re used to. But paying to see any television show is not something new to us. You and I pay each month to watch Netflix shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. You and I pay each month for HBO to see Game of Thrones and Westworld. You and I pay each month to have the cable subscription so that we can see The Walking Dead, or just about anything Syfy has to offer.

So how would paying to see Star Trek be any different?

There were a lot of people who doubted the first-run syndication model Paramount Television had proposed for Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987. Syndication was where reruns went to die. It’s where daytime talk shows and game shows lived. It’s where people got their regular dose of People’s Court.

You couldn’t put a first-run drama there. How would people know where to find it? When to find it? The show could be on Thursdays at 7 p.m. in Wichita, but Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in Abilene.

People still found it. And a lot of them. It proved that, at least during that time, first-run syndication could not only work, but production companies could make a lot of money from it. By the time Paramount was ready to introduce Deep Space Nine, no one was complaining about first-run syndication.

I don’t always trust that the studios and the production companies have viewers’ best interest in mind. Sometimes I fear they are more beholden to the dollar bill than to what constitutes good television.

In this case, however, I trust CBS. And I’m grateful that they are indeed taking Star Trek seriously, and taking steps to ensure longevity by not putting Discovery on CBS.

Sure, networks might not necessarily be cancelling shows anymore, but they sure do know how to make them disappear from the schedule forever.

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Michael Hinman

Michael Hinman

Managing Editor at GeekNation
Michael began what has become nearly 19 years of entertainment reporting as the founder of SyFy Portal, which would become Airlock Alpha after he sold the SyFy brand to NBC Universal. He's based out of New York City where he is the editor of a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper in the Bronx.
  • Gary Zeiger

    I’m kinda-sorta warming up to this idea, considering I’m a dinosaur and remember watching it on TV way back in the day. I would rather see a “pay $25 for the season” model like on Amazon instead of $7 or $8 a month. I suppose I could subscribe to All Access for the 3 for 4 months that it is being aired and then drop it, since I can get all the other CBS shows over the air. Or just wait until after the season is over when it comes to Amazon for $25 for the season.