Star Trek: Discovery season 4 and the Netflix problem

Book and Michael Burnham with Grudge the cat.
Star Trek fans have been known to hold a grudge… you get it?

It’s official. Star Trek: Discovery season 4 will not be available to viewers outside the US and Canada until 2022. For its first three seasons, the show had been shown in international territories on Netflix. But with every studio and tech company keen to get a delicious slice of the streaming pie, an alliance between the CBS, the producers, and Netflix, the international distributor, was always going to be temporary.

How did this all begin?

How different things seemed back in 2017. CBS All Access, the new US-only streaming service was bringing back Star Trek as their flagship show. It was to be produced by Alex Kurtzman and created by Bryan Fuller. Let’s do some foreshadowing shall we. This is what Les Moonves, then CBS chief told Variety back in 2017.

“We could have sold it to Netflix for a lot more money, but you can be darn sure All Access wouldn’t be doing as well,” CBS chief Les Moonves told an audience of Wall Street movers and shakers at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference on Tuesday. It was important to have original content, he added, noting that consumers were willing to pay for the service because “Star Trek” has “a built-in fanbase that was pretty emphatic.”

With no plans to take the service international, CBS finally did a deal with Netflix. Discovery would stream across the globe on the world’s biggest streaming service arriving the day after its All Access premiere. This wasn’t just any deal though, this was every producer’s dream. According to  reports, the show’s budget would be covered by Netflix, a perfect deal for everyone it seemed. It was essentially content that could only make money for CBS. The budget was taken care of, all income from CBS All Access was profit. And Netflix were full partners on this. Seemed like a win for everyone, as described by Ted Sarandos from Netflix back in 2017.

If you ever needed more proof that this isn’t a zero-sum game, on the Star Trek series we are doing it together. We are launching it outside of U.S. all over the world. And coming in as production partners, we have been great partners together on making a show that could have been smaller, bigger. It is a net gain for everybody.

On top of that, all of the Star Trek catalogue would arrive on Netflix. For the first time fans would be able to watch Star Trek, The Animated Series, The Next Generation,  Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise all in one place. For most of the world, it seemed like Netflix really was the new home of Star Trek.

Where did it all go wrong?

You can probably trace some discord with the situation back to Short Treks, the anthology show produced between seasons of Discovery, which turned out to be essentially mini episodes of Star Trek: Discovery. They shared the same ‘created by’ credit as Discovery and featured the sets and characters from the show. The plots actually turned out to be integral to Disco’s second season. But when the first Short Trek appeared in October of 2018, it was nowhere to be found on Netflix. Apparently, these episode weren’t included in the deal. Eventually they did arrive in January 2019 when Star Trek: Discovery’s second season dropped, but they were bundled away in the ‘Trailers and more’ section on the Discovery page. That didn’t seem very homely. The second season of Short Treks, never appeared on Netflix, or any streamer, but was eventually released on shiny disc.

More Star Trek…

Discovery was only the beginning of Star Trek’s resurrection. In October 2018, it was announced Patrick Stewart would be returning as Jean-Luc Picard, in a show named, Star Trek: Picard. Given the existing relationship, we can postulate that Netflix had first refusal on any new Star Trek shows. If that was the case, they didn’t take up the offer, or perhaps the deal done for Discovery wasn’t great value. So Picard went to Amazon, airing in 200 territories, 24 hours after its US debut.

Amazon is also the home to Star Trek: Lower Decks, the animated Star Trek comedy from Mike McMahan,  which arrived there in January 2021, around six months after its debut on CBS All Access. Why a deal wasn’t done earlier isn’t clear, but it certainly appeared Amazon was the preferred home of Star Trek, and the franchise was split. There was no one-stop shop for everyone.

And since the Amazon deal for Picard was announced, the Star Trek on Netflix Twitter account stopped posting. It’s final post was an announcement of season 3. Perhaps that coincided with the international Star Trek accounts being better run but the ghost account was never a good look.  I bet they’ve lost the password now.

Reunification of CBS and Paramount

Just like the Vulcans and the Romulans, CBS and Paramount have a complicated past. While their history together dates back to the 1920s (the studios, not the aliens), in 2006, the two entities known as Viacom and CBS split, meaning Star Trek films and Star Trek TV lived in two different homes. But just as Spock dreamed, the two would reunite. With the rise of streamers, back catalogues and IP were vital to join the international streaming community and take on Netflix and Amazon, especially with Apple TV+, Peacock, HBO Max and perhaps most significantly, Disney+ all coming online. And so in 2019, CBS and Viacom merged to become the imaginatively titled ViacomCBS. That would mean, big changes for CBS All Access and the end of partnership production for good.

The launch of Paramount+

Why do all streams have a +? No ones knows but in March 2021, CBS All Access was no more and Paramount+ launched with plenty of fanfare. It was basically everything that was on it under its previous name, including an absurd amount of international sports, but now had the power to show big films like Top Gun Maverick just 45 days after theatrical release as well as the Paramount archive. But it was rechristened for a good reason. Paramount is a better known brand internationally. We all know that mountain, ironically, many of us probably saw it most on TV at the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But Paramount, even if somewhat unfashionable as a studio, is certainly better known than CBS. And even those who do know CBS probably associate it with procedural dramas only loved by old people.

International expansion

CBS All Access itself expanded into Canada and Australia (as All Access 10) but the relaunch announcement also meant a big international expansions. To do this, they teamed up with Comcast, to launch Paramount+ on Sky platforms in the U.K., Ireland, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. That means Sky Cinema subscribers should get a whole new streaming service for nothing (along with Peacock which quietly launched internationally in November 2021). Whether it will be available as a standalone app hasn’t been made clear, but you’d think so because… money.  Paramount+ is expected to launch in 45 territories by the end of 2022.

Even more Star Trek… you know, for kids

Since that announcement, Star Trek: Prodigy has launched on Paramount+, with the first episode being put out on the Nickelodeon Cartoon Universe YouTube channel for UK viewers, where everyone was looking for it. That show, aimed at children, will be part of the Paramount+ international launch. It’s not the most exciting. Well… what else? The Good Fight is already on All4. Star Trek Picard season 2? Well, Amazon Prime have advertised it so presumably that’s locked in. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds isn’t arriving until midway through 2022. A service missing out on most of its content isn’t exactly ideal. Something had to give and that something was Star Trek: Discovery.

So what happened with Star Trek: Discovery, Netflix and ViacomCBS?

Well, isn’t that the multibillion dollar question. Since Netflix wasn’t the home of Star Trek, and probably was paying the most for the most expensive Star Trek show currently in production, some might have been questioning the value of that deal. Netflix itself doesn’t tend to keep many shows around for long runs. It also was put in the difficult position of promoting a brand which was split between its rivals on Amazon and the soon-to-launch Paramount+, which will inevitably host all future Star Trek shows, and there will be plenty of those to come. There was a very loud silence from Netflix in the run-up to season 4, but most, including the cast promoting the show, and the websites that write those all-you-need-to-know holding articles also said as fact that it would appear the day after on Netflix.

But Netflix didn’t post trailers as it had before, even if season 4 tentatively appeared on the ‘Worth the wait’ page. Presumably, negotiations were ongoing because otherwise they just weren’t promoting a big-budget show. Did Netflix want out? Perhaps, but also, it’s nice to own a big part of your potential rivals. Did Paramount want their rights back? Well, yeah, of course they did, but you have to think the cost would be steep. Deadline reports that essentially, the lucrative Netflix deal was bought out.

No details were given of the deal that ViacomCBS and Netflix struck for the first three seasons of Discovery, but we hear it was in the healthy six figures. The arrangement removes any stake that Netflix had in the series.

Six figures doesn’t seem that much in these terms to be honest. But perhaps Discovery isn’t far from the end of its natural run anyway.  Really, this outcome probably suits everyone, except the fans, who have been left expecting a show, and not getting one.

Who should Star Trek fans be angry at?

Star Trek fans are angry. That’s understandable. In a global world, we’re used to getting all our episodes at the same time as the rest of the world (did everyone forget Lower Decks). The timing is awful. If it had been a few weeks earlier, then there might be more calm but it’s all gone hysterical with change.org petitions set up and advocations of piracy. And Gene Roddenberry hated pirates. From a PR point of view, it’s bad, but in negotiations, there’s nothing like a deadline to get things moving.

Some fans might point out that the show was doing well on Netflix and that ratings will suffer . Let me tell you this, Paramount gave literally no fucks about the ratings of Star Trek: Discovery on Netflix. It was a line on a spreadsheet that made them money. Fans will also point out that they don’t want another streaming service. Well, yeah fair enough. But you still want Star Trek, right? Why are you loyal to Netflix? Just because it was the first one. You have Amazon for Picard and Lower Decks, don’t you. See, you’re flexible. Netflix don’t have a divine right to your favourite shows but in people’s minds, they’re basically a free service. Others will cancel Netflix. Guess what? Netflix also doesn’t care. That’s the thing, for the streamers, it’s all about exponential growth. They are driven by new subscriptions and there will always be something coming along.

‘No one is subscribing to more streaming services’

Well, actually they are. There’s no stop in growth at the moment. As published in Forbes, Paramount+ at the weekend gained one million new subscribers so they could watch Clifford the Big Red Dog. There look like there are too many streamers. But we’re in a weird transitional phase where every major company wants one. The Comcast and CBSViacom deal points towards a more cooperative future or perhaps a more pragmatic one. The boutique streamers will have to either thrive or get consumed, but IP will matter and CBS has plenty of that. Taking out a month’s subscription is still cheaper than taking the family to the cinema if there’s a film the kids want to see. And buying six subscriptions at less than £10 is still cheaper than many cable packages. There will be a point when it’s too much, but we’re not there yet.

Star Trek has been exploited from the start. Comics, books, toys, models… fans want them and they’ll want new shows. Even if they hate them, they’ll watch because fandom is a twisted place. The shows are a pretty way to sell more, and even though you’re angry, they know you want the content. What happens with Star Trek: Picard and Lower Decks is the interesting thing to watch right now. But I’m betting Amazon won’t blink. Look on the bright side, Paramount+ will eventually be the home of Star Trek. That’s a certainty, for the next while at least.