Both Star Trek fans and media-industry watchers were incredulous when CBS first laid out its plans for Star Trek: Discovery, which premieres Sunday night. The bulk of the show will only be viewable on the network’s mostly unknown streaming service, CBS All Access. Many wondered why a major broadcaster would choose to sequester such a sure thing behind a paywall, instead of reaping big advertising bucks.
But that plan is looking a lot less crazy now, because early reactions to Discovery are trickling in, and they’re overwhelmingly positive.
CBS has kept the show under embargo from reviews, which is usually a bad sign. But they’ve screened the first two episodes to limited audiences, including professional critics who have described the show as both modern, deep, and steeped in Star Trek’s legacy. Based on those reactions and pre-release trailers, it looks like Discovery is transporting Trek into the era of “prestige television” a la The Sopranos and Mad Men — character driven, episodic, complex, and great-looking.
Even middling reviews might have made a paywall a death sentence for Discovery. But the level of love that it’s seeing could make it that most prized thing: destination TV that drives online conversation and generates widespread buzz. That would have exactly the impact CBS wants: driving millions of All Access subscriptions.
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The closest recent parallel was Showtime’s launch of David Lynch’s new Twin Peaks series, which gave that network its single biggest day of new streaming subscriptions ever. Star Trek and Twin Peaks are very similar in their combination of broad awareness and an intensely devoted cult following. There’s another rough parallel in the launch of the Nintendo Switch — onlookers were skeptical of the offbeat mobile-console hybrid game system, but critical adulation for launch title Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild led to stratospheric sales.
As Bill Gates predicted way back in 1996, content is king in the internet era.
Building a subscriber base for All Access might not immediately make CBS a rival to Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu. But it will at least help give the network a strong foothold in a future television landscape where advertising is less important and subscriptions drive more revenue.
Star Trek: Discovery premieres Sunday night, both online and on traditional CBS stations. After that, it will only be available on All Access in the U.S., and on Netflix internationally.