CBS will launch a new chapter in the Star Trek franchise in 2017, but, unlike previous outings like Voyager and Deep Space Nine, fans in the US won’t be able to watch it for free over-the-air or on cable. The company has announced that, excepting a special preview of the premiere episode, all regular season episodes will be available exclusively on CBS All Access, the $5.99 a month OTT SVOD service.
Viewers outside of the US will likely be able to watch the new show as they do today. CBS Studios International will continue to distribute it through broadcast and pay TV outlets.
This represents a big departure from the past for CBS, and could have dramatic implications for its existing distribution channels.
The most immediate impact will be with pay TV operators. They are sure to be upset at CBS using the broadcast channel to entice viewers away to its own platform with the Star Trek “special preview”. They could be wondering if CBS broadcast TV will be reduced to little more than barker channel for CBS All Access.
Affiliates also may be wondering what it means to them. Their channels are a center piece of CBS All Access, and 75% of all CBS broadcast stations are now available through the platform. However, Star Trek will be available on-demand, and it is difficult to see how it will be helpful to the broadcast stations in the long run.
There has been a lot of speculation that TV content providers are reconsidering their relationship with SVOD companies like Netflix and Amazon. With TV viewership falling and SVOD usage growing, companies like Fox and Discovery are beginning to believe OTT providers are hurting the long-term revenue picture more than they are helping. Several are hinting they will cut back on licensing content to OTT providers in the near future.
Is CBS among those planning to cut back on SVOD licensing? CBS has had strong relationships with other SVOD providers over the last several years. In particular, it has partnered with Amazon, giving the company exclusive access to summer shows like Under the Dome and Extant four days after the first television broadcast. Could this signal a change in this relationship? It might, but not for the next couple of years. The company announced a deal with Amazon in October to release three new summer shows through Prime Video with the same 4-day release window. The deal will run through 2018.
Certainly, CBS All Access could use some quality content in an exclusive window. According to Digitalsmiths, All Access has eked out just a 1.7% market penetration since its release last year. In the first quarter of its release, HBO Now garnered a much healthier 5%. A new Star Trek series is sure to generate a lot of excitement, and will certainly bring a lot more subscribers who simply can’t live without the new series.
The challenge for CBS will be to hang on to those subscribers after the closing credits of the new show. In my usage of All Access I found the quality variable, the interface uninspired, and the ad load annoying. The whole experience will need to improve a lot if the company is to hang on to the Trekkies when they arrive. They’ll also need a whole lot more recent SciFi content.
With all of that said, a lot can happen between now and 2017. It could be that the company shifts strategy again. Les Moonves has made it clear he is willing to experiment to figure out how to optimize the value of his content.
In the meantime, Trekkies around the world can rejoice at the revival of the storied franchise. As to how they will actually watch the show when it arrives, that could change a lot over the next 18 months.
Why it matters
CBS’s decision to launch a new Star Trek series exclusively through its SVOD service CBS All Access, is a big strategic bet by the company.
It puts at risk relationships with existing partners such as affiliates, pay TV operators and other SVOD providers.
However, the new show is sure to bring a lot of new subscribers to All Access. Whether the company can hang on to them is another question.