'Star Trek: Discovery' and CBS boldly go into a brilliantly risky streaming experiment

Photo: YouTube/Star Trek
Photo: YouTube/Star Trek

The industry is in a muddy television transition period, says Hill Holliday's chief digital officer.

Over 8 million people tuned into CBS this past Sunday to watch the premiere of "Star Trek: Discovery"—the latest incarnation of the beloved sci-fi franchise. The first episode ended as a cliffhanger leaving fans longing for more. To satiate their appetites, CBS immediately made the second episode available to watch…for $5.99 per month by subscribing to CBS’s "All Access" streaming service.

Yep that’s right, cable, satellite and streaming subscribers who already pay Xfinity, Direct TV, Hulu, etc. for access to CBS programming need to pay an additional $72 a year to watch the rest of the new Star Trek series ($120 without commercials). To make matters worse, outside of the U.S., other countries can simply see the show on Netflix—they do not have to pay more money outside of their current Netflix subscription.

This "experiment" is both brilliant and risky on CBS’s part. On one-hand, they’re boldly taking measures to future-proof their business with a post-cord cutting world looming on the horizon. On the other hand, they’re risking a mass audience that could attract big advertisers on broadcast and full-episode players, in order to kickstart their stand-alone streaming service. 

How many of the 8 million broadcast viewers signed up for All Access after Sunday? CBS hasn’t released those numbers but emotions on Twitter range from pissed off and befuddled to simply defeated. 

Some people are hedging their bets that the series will eventually end up on Netflix in the U.S. while others are just sucking it up, paying the fee, and then planning to cancel when the season ends. Because at the moment, there’s just not a lot of other compelling original programming on CBS All Access to make it sticky given the additional cost. (I doubt "Star Trek" fans are also huge fans of "Big Brother").

The fact is, we’re amidst a muddy television transition period right now. We’re quickly moving from the cable era to the streaming era of TV, and every content provider is trying to figure out the best path forward. It’s resulting in lots of consumer confusion from incomplete bundled streaming services like Hulu Live or Sling to dozens of stand-alone models like HBO Now and the upcoming DC and Disney services. 

What this means, in the short-term, is that pay TV customers will end up spending even more money on top of their current cable bills. And cord cutters might find they’re not actually saving any money. Fans of "Game of Thrones" have no choice but to subscribe to HBO (or get a password from their friends), fans of "Stranger Things" must subscribe to Netflix. Fans of "Star Trek" are forced to subscribe to CBS All Access. And fans of "Young Justice" and "Teen Titans" will also end up subscribing to DC’s streaming service in 2018.

So, yes, CBS got me—and many others—on Sunday night. I’m a huge fan of "Star Trek." I’m also an Xfinity customer. But after watching the premiere of "Star Trek: Discovery" on broadcast, I immediately subscribed to CBS All Access for $5.99 a month so that I could watch the next episode. Am I happy about it? No. Am I glad to have Star Trek back into my life? Absolutely yes. And I will likely be one of the many to cancel my All Access subscription when the series ends—hoping by that time, the second season will be available on Netflix, Hulu or back on broadcast.

Mike Proulx is Chief Digital Officer at Hill Holliday.

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