Dan Leckie has been a Star Trek fan since he pressed play on a VHS tape of the original TV show during Christmas of 1991. Leckie, from Aberdeen, Scotland, was instantly hooked on the sci-fi series and its subsequent iterations, and regularly attends conventions to meet up with fellow fans. But on November 16 he noticed something weird: Netflix had stopped promoting the first three seasons of Star Trek: Discovery—and previews of season four, due to launch on November 18, had also vanished.
What Leckie had spotted would soon become a point of outrage for Star Trek fans the world over: Netflix had lost the rights to the fourth season of Discovery outside of the US, and the previous seasons too. They would now appear on Paramount+, the streaming service formerly known as CBS All Access and owned by ViacomCBS—but not until 2022, and even then, not everywhere. (In the US, Star Trek: Discovery has always streamed exclusively on Paramount+/CBS All Access.) And Star Trek is just the beginning. What’s bad news for Discovery fans now is yet another glimpse of the increasingly muddled future of streaming.
Up until relatively recently, most intellectual property (IP) owners sold rights for TV and movies through paid TV, physical home video, and cinema. The concept of online streaming was seen as a non-priority. Then everything changed—and quickly. As Netflix’s popularity soared, Disney grabbed back the streaming rights to its vast catalog and launched Disney+ in November 2019, raking in 118 million subscribers to date. Others are following quickly—from Discovery+ to HBO Max and Britbox. And as streaming services scramble to produce more original content, anyone wanting to sit down and watch their favorite TV shows is left with a headache. Rather than subscribing to a single streaming service, with each passing year people are being asked to fork out more and more to access rival platforms.
“A lot of fans, in the UK and around the world, are outraged that they'll have to pay for yet another subscription service to enable them to see Discovery, and eventually the rest of the Star Trek TV series,” says Leckie. Glenn van t’Hof, a Dutch Star Trek fan, is more blunt. “What a dick move to announce this two days before the supposed European release date,” he says. “This is no service to the fans.” Leckie believes the move—which prevents people outside the United States and Canada from seeing season four of Discovery until 2022—will drive many toward pirated versions of the show. The rights deal with Netflix for Star Trek covered 190 countries and territories—but Paramount+ will only be available in 45 countries by the end of 2022. “That leaves three-quarters of their market unable to watch without piracy,” says Leckie.
Analysts are also skeptical about the benefits to Star Trek fans from the shift to Paramount+. Andrew A. Rosen, a former Viacom digital media executive and founder of Parqor, a streaming service analyst firm, believes it’s highly unlikely Paramount+ can replicate the economics, scale, or sophistication of Netflix's marketing model around major franchises such as Star Trek. Neither ViacomCBS nor Netflix responded to requests for comment.
The bet Paramount and ViacomCBS are making is that fans of Star Trek love the brand enough to follow it to whichever streaming service ends up offering it—rather than whichever is the most convenient for them. That isn’t beyond the realms of possibility: The average American household accesses eight streaming and video on demand services in a given week, according to data gathered by technology research company Omdia—though that includes free catch-up services and websites like YouTube. In the UK, the average is nearer six to seven, and in mainland Europe, five to six. “For the audience there’s no difference,” says Tony Gunnarsson, principal analyst of TV, video, and advertising at Omdia. “They dip in and out of everything that’s available.” But as major media companies like ViacomCBS, which are racing to catch up to Netflix, attempt to claim space in the streaming industry, it’s only going to get messier for consumers. Omdia research indicates there are 292 video streaming services available in the United States, and 182 in the United Kingdom.
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For Star Trek lovers, keeping up with the universe of content is difficult enough as it is, regardless of where you’re based. While ViacomCBS decided in October 2021 not to renew its streaming licenses for the classic series of the intergalactic show in the United States, international viewers like Leckie are currently still able to watch six separate shows tied to the brand on Netflix. Spin-off shows Picard and Lower Decks, an animated comedy, are available on Amazon Prime Video internationally and Paramount+ in the United States, while kids’ series Prodigy looks likely to land on Paramount+ too. “It’s bonkers,” says Gunnarsson. “A whole range of legacy rights are still active. Right now, this leads to a lot of confusion and frustration for customers, but in the long term these things will be ironed out and you’ll find all the IP for one series within their owner groups’ designated streaming platform.”
And what’s confusing for fans to understand is downright impossible for more casual viewers. Star Trek became such a totemic cultural touchstone because of its enormous viewership, built up at a time when there were far fewer options to choose from on television. While some brands, such as Squid Game and Breaking Bad manage to cut through in the saturated streaming era, it becomes much harder to do so to the scale seen in the past.
When Gunnarsson began analyzing the streaming world 10 years ago, Hollywood studios were lax in how they sold the streaming rights to their services, seeing it as an unnecessary extra. The deals were experimental. “They did market by market, then did bigger global deals, then realized it’s not good for them and removed rights from Netflix—because they are completely disrupting their markets,” he says. “Now we’re in a world where they’re launching their own streaming services.” The removal of series and shows from mainstream platforms into others is the logical conclusion of that shift in how things work. Star Trek is just the latest victim of the global rights tug-of-war, and the likes of the US Office and Friends, both of which are no longer on Netflix in the US, could soon also vanish from Netflix worldwide. Services like NBC’s streaming platform Peacock, which launched in the UK and Ireland this week, are unlikely to keep their biggest shows sat on Netflix for long.
Streaming services will soon have a difficult decision to make, says Johanna Gibson, Herchel Smith professor of intellectual property law at Queen Mary University of London: Whether they want a smaller share of a crowded market or decide to team up through cross-licensing arrangements to share content. “If the market leader is Netflix then that’s a further motivation for others to cooperate in such ways in order to compete with Netflix,” she says.
Rosen is more blunt. “For Star Trek fans and ViacomCBS shareholders, it sucks,” he says. The latter, he believes, will be left carrying the can for the higher marketing expenses required to bring eyeballs to Star Trek on Paramount+, rather than leveraging the built-in benefits of Netflix’s massive audience. As for Netflix? It’s a loss, sure—but how big a loss is difficult to tell because there’s a dearth of data. How the company will plug the USS Discovery-shaped hole in its programming slate is clearer to Rosen. “The economics of producing its own content imply it will likely seek to produce the next Star Trek—and likely from a foreign country,” he says.
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Every streaming service is seeking to develop its own IP precisely so they don’t struggle when rightsholders pull the rug out from underneath them. “The number of originals is increasing across different platforms,” says Gunnarsson. “If you have a streaming service, you must have exclusive content. Netflix and Amazon have been doing this. All of them have.” In 2016, Netflix revealed it had a target for half its content to be original, home-grown series or movies. While it’s not there yet, 40 percent of Netflix programming in the United States is original to the streaming service—up from 16 percent in January 2019. At that pace, Netflix will reach their goal around this time next year. As original content becomes more vital, the future of beloved existing series on streaming services becomes threatened. “Anything a streaming service doesn’t own and has to license may disappear from a platform if not supported by an ongoing significant audience,” says Gibson.
As for Star Trek, the universe is already expanding—and could expand at warp speed, says Rosen, aping the way Disney has built out the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With animated series about lower-ranked staffers on starships already streaming, future shows could delve deeper into the Star Trek canon. That could, in time, make Paramount+ a genuine Netflix rival—but there’s a long way to go. “I wouldn’t necessarily bet against them building a universe with that IP,” he says. “There are worse decisions they are making.”
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