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Star Trek is a big, but necessary investment in CBS’s streaming future

It's about the long game

Yesterday, CBS announced that a new Star Trek TV series would premiere in 2017. It was a watershed announcement, especially considering the troubled state of the franchise. No new TV effort has entered production since the end of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005. And although J.J. Abrams successfully managed to reinvent the Original Series with his 2009 reboot film, its sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, did little more than reheat an older story. Seeing a new Star Trek series could be both a grand return to form and a chance to break new ground.

Except it’ll air exclusively on CBS All Access, CBS’s fledgling internet TV service. It’s a confusing move at first blush, especially considering what we understand about television in 2015. CBS already commands the biggest ratings on TV. Meanwhile, Netflix’s subscriber base sits at a lofty 70 million. Launching on either would have made more sense, at least at face value. What makes All Access, a growing but undeniably small platform, the right home?

CBS is playing the long game. And the payoff in 2017 could potentially be massive.

All Access' subscriber base is still relatively tiny

CBS All Access launched last fall as the first streaming service of its kind from a major network. For $5.99 a month, subscribers can stream shows strictly from CBS’s stable — including TV’s highest-rated police procedurals — along with live broadcasts in 110 cities. It was an ambitious play from the beginning. Even though CBS has led in the Nielsen ratings for seven consecutive years, the streaming landscape has its own entrenched players in Hulu and Netflix, with much larger content libraries and massive online audiences numbering in the tens of millions. Meanwhile, though CBS CEO Les Moonves insists the effort is growing at a nice clip, the last figure he was willing to give was that All Access’ subscriber base was north of a tiny 100,000 paying viewers.

That sounds crazy, of course, but it’s also necessary as far as the shift in TV is concerned. Under Moonves, CBS has shown a willingness to take big leaps with streaming where the other networks are still taking cautious steps. That’s almost certainly because it’s the biggest player in the room and can afford to take chances, but someone needs to take those risks — television is changing too quickly to ignore. Shows like NCIS: New Orleans still attract older viewers in droves, but the internet, driven by the coveted 18-35 demographic, is slowly but surely starting to tear away at the ratings system the networks depend on. Moonves knows this. And though CBS might have been thoroughly anti-technology in its battles with Aereo and Time Warner Cable, it now has no choice but to experiment to keep up with the times. It’s not enough to pull popular series off streaming services that are now full-fledged competitors. It’s fully on the Big 3 networks to figure these changes out and create irresistible programing for audiences that have moved online.

Star Trek is the kind of show networks dream of having

Enter Star Trek, which is the kind of iconic show that networks only dream of having. The franchise has a massive fan base that’s composed of conspicuous consumers. At 50 years old, the property still has cross-generational appeal. (That Ted Cruz’s admitting he preferred Captain Kirk to Captain Picard made such waves should tell you something about how deeply invested fans are in the series.) And though Enterprise may have been a trainwreck, Abrams’ films have proven bankable, with even the comparatively underwhelming Into Darkness bringing in enough money to earn a followup that's due out next year. All CBS has to do for the next 14 months is prime the pump for the franchise as a whole to ensure fans are ready to dive into the new series when it debuts.

Most importantly, CBS still hasn’t really begun the hard sell for All Access. Those who might balk at paying $5.99 per month now don’t have to, especially when the value proposition for the service isn’t terribly clear right now. But Star Trek is only one small, if critical, part of CBS’s long-term strategy. The network is still working on a deal with the NFL to stream live games, which would be a major coup for the platform. Meanwhile, CBS already is working closely with Apple; a CBS channel just launched on Apple TV built specifically around All Access, and though conversations are still "ongoing" CBS could very well be on Apple’s own internet TV offering. Scheduling Star Trek for a January 2017 premiere doesn’t just make sense from a production standpoint, but it also allows CBS to build a service customers will jump to pay for.

CBS is thinking about the future, not the present

This move shows what CBS wants All Access to be in 2017, not what it is today. Like what Arrested Development was for Netflix, the resurrected Star Trek could be the Trojan Horse CBS needs to get people excited about its offering, allowing it to launch even better shows for online viewers. None of this is to say that the new series is guaranteed to be good. Nor does it mean the network will succeed where a service like Yahoo Screen, which banked hard on Community last year only to let it crash and burn, failed. But CBS was nothing if not shrewd in taking this course with the franchise. Now all it has to do is make sure the investment is worth it.