Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Opportunity Wasted as Netflix and Amazon Wanted Star Trek

CBS CEO Les Moonves revealed that the three big streaming services wanted the rights to make a new Star Trek series and the network turned them down.
“Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, they all offered us a lot of money. They all wanted it very badly,” Moonves said. “We could have taken the quick bucks from Netflix, but it shows we’re investing in a property we really believe in the future of.”

The international marketplace, without seeing a word on paper or anything at all, the numbers internationally are astronomical. So that covers about sixty percent of the cost of production right there, before we even begin.

So we said that for this relatively minor investment, this is how we’re going to get All Access to be where we want it to be, where there are millions and millions and millions of subscribers.

By putting that forward, we said to the world, you know what? CBS is really serious about this. They've taken this crown jewel of a property and put it in a place where they know there are so many millions of Star Trek fans that [CBS] will pay for this.

It was a decision that took a lot of thought, because we could have taken the quick bucks from Netflix, but it shows we’re investing in a property and we really believe in the future.
What I figured happened is CBS Entertainment management knew that Star Trek had value in selling streaming rights but it never occurred to them that money could be made with a new series (even though its literally their job to know these things). When the big three experts on streaming each came to when with money trucks asking for the rights, they all went "hey there is money to be made here!". Thus CBS All Access was born with the plan of using Star Trek as a means of widely launching the expensive, limited service (compared to the big three streamers).

Some may view the nugget of information as good news about CBS' passion for Star Trek. I just view it as a massively wasted opportunity that may sink Star Trek's future. Star Trek was thisclose to having something it never had before - true freedom to tell stories.

CBS isn't going to give them that freedom, if anything the show's status as a tentpole project and expectation of driving "millions and millions and millions of subscribers" means that the show will suffer under "too many cooks in the kitchen" syndrome as CBS executives clamor to add their stamp to the show so they can later claim credit if it works and avoid it if it doesn't. Based on interviews with showrunners, Netflix and Amazon executive interference is mostly of an advice and budget nature, not an attempt to contain or exert creative control.

Since these executives only know TV (in theory anyway), have demonstrated no interest Trek till now, and no experience with streaming services, their input (aka orders) will either not be relevant or just simply stupid. Human nature is when confronted with new, you fall back on what you know. For CBS that means procedurals, bland safe characters, cookie cutter predicable bad guys, and little moral ambiguity. The idea of a serialized story will be kept to a C-story like on all their network shows. You know that side story about a major character that is hinted at for about 2 minutes of every episode. While Trek can fit the procedural notion just fine by exploring new civilizations each week, its at its strongest when it isn't just a procedural. Again Netflix and Amazon have no set style so the show can vary widely from episode to episode.

Another factor oddly is length and structure. Hour long shows are limited to 42 minutes to allow for commercials and must build in act breaks for those commercials. If pay attention to Amazon and Netflix original shows, they don't care about such things. The time length varies from episode to episode and breaks are not really built into them. Effectively original streaming episodes are structured like short movies and many are built as really long movies (aka multiple episodes that continue were the previous left off). CBS is completely unfamiliar with this style and fill not allow it because in their back of their minds they will constantly be thinking "what if we decide to air this on standard television or sell to syndication".

Budget wise is where the show will really suffer. A "relatively minor investment" in business speak that means "spend as little as possible in case our unrealistic expectations are not met in the first season." From all accounts Amazon and Netflix pretty much provide as much money as the showrunners think they need (within reason). The budget size shows in the quality of the shows. Many of them really do come across as movies.

So yet again a Star Trek series will have to run with low budget and high level of interference only in a day where "give a few seasons to find its legs" does not exist anymore (it took TNG about two seasons to figure it out, DS9 three, Enterprise three, Voyager 4). Its hit the ground running or your done. Clearly the measure of success for CBS will be number of new subscribers to CBS All Access. If that "millions and millions and millions" number isn't met, Trek will be shelved for another 10 years. The streaming services criteria of success is not just X new subscribers but volume of viewers, critical acclaim or just executive passion for that particular project. I hope my take on CBS is wrong, but if past is prologue I see little reason to think bad habits will change for this new platform and as a result Star Trek will suffer under the same problems that hurt Voyager and Enterprise.

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