Are we witnessing the last days of network TV?

So something strange happened this week. You might have heard about it—CBS announced that it will be launching a new “Star Trek” show in 2017.

That’s not the strange part. No, what’s strange is that after the first episode, this new show will only be available on CBS All Access, their video on demand subscription platform.

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That’s right—if you want to watch this show being produced by one of the five quote-unquote free-to-air networks, you will have to pay for it.

This is not the only strange thing going on right now in the world of television. Television critics—people whose job depends on there being enough television to watch (and whose sanity depends on a decent amount of it being quality)—have written many pieces of late on the possibility that there is actually too much good television being produced.

And at the same time, though most of the new programming each year comes from the free-to-air networks—they have the most hours to fill and also the most cash on hand—in fact few to none of each year’s breakaway hits (or sometimes just programs-not-in-need-of-immediate-dialysis) are coming from those networks.

Indeed, in recent years the first months after the new season starts have become a blood sport of interested onlookers watching to see which brand-new-show that cost millions of dollars to make will be cancelled first. 

The broadcast networks are lucky to have two or three new shows make it to a second season, while cable networks, which produce far fewer shows (and generally at a far lower cost), more often than not give their shows at least two seasons, even at times when their initial audience looks to be quite small.

At some point soon, this is all going to become very important to you and me. As Tim Goodman wrote yesterday in the Hollywood Reporter, network television right now is very much like the auto industry 20 years ago (or maybe still today?). The business model is like the contemporary Republican Party—out of date, self-indulgent and simply not working. Networks have to produce too many episodes of too many shows, most of which fail, at too high a cost. (And that’s to say nothing for the cost of the dozens of other shows that these networks develop and shoot to pilot.)

Based on track record, it seems the networks would do just as well to pick new shows out of a hat. And this, too, is strange, because each of those networks has incredibly talented staff and usually also more staff than the cable networks.

And it can’t go on. Hence the new CBS Star Trek model, which is basically CBS’ attempt to rebrand as an HBO Now or Amazon Prime. If the show does well, it will demonstrate CBS All Access’ viability as its own provider of pay-TV entertainment. And we’ll see the other networks follow suit.

Actually let’s be honest—probably either way we will see the other networks follow suit. Because money.

Which yes, would mean that in addition to our ample cable subscriptions, Netflix subscriptions, Amazon Prime subscriptions, and for-those-who-like-that-sort-of-thing Hulu+ subscriptions, our free-to-air networks may sometime soon be asking us to pay to watch some of their programs at all, and to pay for all of their programs if you want them live.

Oh, and almost certainly still with commercials. (They’ll say they’ll go commercial free, but come on: who ever in the history of anything walked away from money that they were already getting?)

And all of that is probably the right fix for the wrong problem. It could generate more revenue, which hungry, enormous networks need. But no matter what its source—advertisers’ pockets or our own—TV revenue is ultimately driven by programming. If your shows are poor, eventually so will be your bottom line. Period. And focusing on the cash is a little like the addict thinking it’ll all be better if they can just get high again.  

“Star Trek” is a smart choice for CBS’ first foray into pay-to-see; it has a built-in audience that will almost certainly watch and give the short term appearance of success. (Although I think there are real questions whether the “let’s all get along and be (bland/fake/uninteresting) friends” model of every “Star Trek” show except for “Deep Space Nine” can make any sense today. I say this as someone who thinks even after all these decades “Star Trek” has yet to fully realize its potential as a show about the wonder of the universe and the challenges of our humanity.)

But CBS is also the most consistently successful broadcast network since NBC collapsed in upon itself. (And, fun fact, CBS did that by ignoring the perceived wisdom that the other networks still more or less follow—that the only important age demographic was 18-45 year olds.) They’re actually the one broadcast network not in need of immediate innovation.

As for the rest, until they reimagine themselves, rethink how they develop shows and what they bring to air, their overall survival remains in serious doubt. There could very well come a day, a day very soon, where at least a couple of them morph into cable networks, online ventures or even fold.  

But really, with all the good TV that’s out there, would we even miss them?

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