Star Trek Discovery and the Slow Invasion of Streaming Services (Areo Magazine, 10/9/17)

(This article originally appeared in Areo Magazine. To view the original version, click here.)

Ten years ago, Netflix began launched their online streaming service. This effectively put the nail in the coffin of Blockbuster and similar stores. Since then, streaming services have become almost ubiquitous. Nearly everyone has a subscription to Netflix, or Hulu, or both, among others. And rightfully so – both networks are teeming with great original content. Netflix has a variety of great shows, like Master of None, House of Cards, Daredevil, Bojack Horseman, and their flagship megahit, Stranger Things. Hulu’s had success with programs such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Casual, and 11.22.63. Both services have revived programs such as Arrested Development, Gilmore Girls, Full House, The Mindy Project – the list goes on and on. With all these original programs and revivals, consumers begin to feel a certain loyalty to these streaming services, as some higher medium than cable programming. When the time came for CBS to produce a new Star Trek series, it seemed like a chance for the cable network to stay competitive with these online streaming giants. In September of this year, CBS premiered Star Trek Discovery exclusively on their CBS All Access Program.

CBS Star Trek 2

The exclusive debut of Star Trek Discovery is a crucial moment that we have hit on our way to the tipping point – the inevitable time when every cable network will have its own streaming services and paywalls, and the streaming market will become too saturated and too overwhelming for fans to keep paying for. Fans can only watch the series of they pay for CBS All Access – a streaming service which seems to be CBS’ attempt to challenge the success of Netflix and Hulu.

Of course, core fans of the Star Trek will gladly pay whatever CBS asks. But there are people, like myself, who likely wouldn’t. Most casual viewers who begin to evaluate whether or not CBS All Access is worth it ultimately decide that it isn’t because Discovery is the only notable program on the app exclusively – all the other big draws, such as The Big Bang Theory, The Good Wife, Big Brother, etc. are all accessible on cable. The 2009 J.J. Abrahms film Star Trek which rebooted the series was appealing to people who had not watched the series, so there are many people who were perhaps not familiar with the originally Gene Roddenberry series or The Next Generation, who might be inclined to take an interest in a new series.

CBS Star Trek 1

To the credit of CBS All Access, the cost is only $5.99 per month, which comes out to a little less than $72 per year – $3 per month and $35 per year less than a Netflix subscription. But again, Star Trek Discovery is the only exclusive program.

The key to success for networks launching streaming services will be to have acclaimed original programming. The exclusivity of things like Star Trek Discovery will draw in subscribers, but the consistent acclaim of Netflix originals will keep them interested. At the moment, the majority of CBS All Access subscribers are likely subscribed only for Star Trek Discovery, but Netflix subscribers are paying for Stranger Things and House of Cards and Orange is the New Black and a plethora of shows by Marvel Studios. In the end, it’s just a better value.

There are a variety of opinions on the matter. An article from Forbes suggested that “if we don’t pay for the art we enjoy there will be no money for the art that we crave.” On the other hand, Lance Ulanoff from Mashable wrote, “Still, am I ready to pay $72 per year to watch one incredibly well-produced show? … Soon, other networks will premiere fresh shows on ‘free’ broadcast and then shift them behind their pay walls. Eventually, the only things we’ll be able to watch for free will be news, home-shopping shows, and infomercials.”

The idea of paywalls and streaming services are by no means exclusive to CBS and Star Trek Discovery; Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment are scheduled to launch a streaming service next year which will have new but highly anticipated programs with DC Comics characters such as Titans and Young Justice. Disney, after making a sizable deal with Netflix, has decided to make its own streaming service, set to launch in 2019. Disney’s streaming service is likely the only first-party streaming service that could be a substantial success – between the combined franchise power of Star Wars, Marvel Studios, and the Muppets, not to mention everything from Disney’s various animation studios. Disney’s streaming service is bound to succeed and inspire other conglomerates and networks to start their own. With Apple and Verizon looking to throw their hats into the ring, one begins to wonder if the streaming market is gradually becoming a little too saturated.

The primary concern is that every major network will have a project so successful that they decide that it merits its own pay-to-view streaming service. Increasingly, this is seeming to become the norm. In an ideal world, all television programs would be broadcast in one place – cable – and there could be an on-demand streaming service which would allow customers watch these shows at their own convenience. But Netflix and Hulu changed that with their original and exclusive programming. Now it seems all but certain that every new and unique program will be used to convince consumers to sign up for streaming services and accept things such as paywalls.

CBS Star Trek 4

All this makes the people of a media-consuming culture wonder; what is the future of streaming services? Will there be a tipping point in which consumers are no longer interested in paying for everything? Or does the success of individual programs such as Star Trek Discovery or Stranger Things or The Handmaid’s Tale indicate the permanent appeal of streaming services? Only time – and more importantly, consumer interest – will tell.

My prediction for the foreseeable future is that we will see more and more networks offering a streaming service that will have one or two exclusive programs to entice customers to spend the money, and then hope they stay for all the other things they get, just to get their money’s worth. There’s a strong possibility that this will weaken companies like Netflix and Hulu, but as long as these companies continue to offer great originals and keep their prices reasonable, they should be able to stay competitive.

Ideally, the mass exodus to streaming services will form an economic bubble that will eventually pop as consumers get irritated of schilling out money for every network that decides to hide unique content behind a paywall. When customers grow tired of paying an additional price for each network, the bubble will pop, and streaming services will no longer be a viable investment. This is what makes Star Trek Discovery such a big moment; if it succeeds, it will provide a model to follow, and soon, we’ll be paying an additional price for every network.

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