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Star Trek Discovery - Stranded in Compressed, Two-Channel Subscription Space

by October 04, 2017

CBS has done it again, they’re treating Star Trek fans like a Gorn warrior treats Captain Kirk on Cestus III. CBS is exploiting fan’s dedication to their favorite TV franchise by holding the new series hostage behind its video-streaming subscription service, CBS All Access. The network used the series premiere as a teaser, broadcasting it on regular network TV for all to see. But now CBS is betting that droves of fans are willing to pay a monthly subscription to view subsequent episodes, thus pushing its sagging Netflix-competitor into profitability. It’s a game of chicken that could pay off with a new revenue stream for CBS but at the cost of disenfranchising longstanding fans of Star Trek.

CBS/Paramount has a history of treating fans and fan-fiction as its own ATM.

Star Trek Discovery on CBS All Access

Ever since the reboot films reduced the Star Trek franchise to a series of action movies starting in 2009, the prospect of returning it to television is just too attractive to deny. In the hands of a good team of writers, putting emphasis on long-form storytelling rather than special effects and action sequences… count me in!

The new show has been hyped with promises of returning Star Trek to the kind of thoughtful stories that made the franchise so enduring in the first place. Backed by a per-episode budget of around eight and a half million dollars, it could be the one we’ve been waiting for. Although Star Trek’s core audience have been clamoring for the arrival of Discovery, what we didn’t expect were costly strings attached.

The premiere of Star Trek Discovery aired on the CBS network on September 24th, 2017 and was enjoyed by anyone who could get over-air reception. But episode one was just a teaser. Episode two, through the rest of the season can only be viewed if you subscribe to the network online through CBS All Access.
The network’s online streaming service launched to little fanfare back in October, 2014. In the three years since the service has garnered an estimated one million subscribers across America. It should be no surprise that All Access didn’t exactly catch fire. The service had been derided for its inclusion of ads despite the $5.99 monthly-fee. Recently CBS remedied its ad-problem by offering viewers an ad-free option for just four more dollars per-month.

CBS All Access Plans:

  • $5.99 per-month with ads
  • $9.99 per-month ad free
  • 150 broadcast markets across the US let you stream some live events via CBS Live

The app itself casts a wide net of device compatibility including: Roku, Apple TV, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4, Chromecast, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, there are also versions for iPhone, Android, and Window 10 devices. You can even stream CBS All Access through your browser with adblock turned off, of course.

Subscribers get an all-you-can-eat buffet of the network’s programming - including classics like Twin Peaks, Cheers, MacGyver, I love Lucy and Taxi. If you’re reaching into the CBS archives, some of the shows will actually display ad-free, even with the $6 subscription.

CBS All Access Picture and Sound "Quality"

CBS All AccessOne would think that CBS had been planning for a major spike in subscriptions with the launch of Discovery. For the last couple of years one would assume they’ve been busy ensuring the best audio/video quality with which to showcase what is easily CBS’s big-budget event of the decade. But sadly, one would be wrong, audio video quality isn’t a priority for CBS All Access.

The video quality has been criticized for being compressed and overly-soft. Although capable of displaying 720P, most of its programming displays at a soft 480P. The audio is even worse with a low-bit, two-channel only feed. Yes, CBS All Access audio tops out with two-channel stereo. It’s difficult to believe that in 2017 an online streaming video service would pass audio at anything less than discrete Dolby Digital  5.1 surround. Given that CBS All Access has had three years to iron out its technical difficulties, we can only conclude that these aren’t technical difficulties at all - this is the finished product.

It’s a real tragedy for those with home theater systems capable of pulling in over-air digital signals. Broadcasting over-air would highlight the network’s $8.5 million dollar episodes in the most impressive quality possible - pristine, uncompressed video and 5.1 audio. But instead, they’re forcing it through their over-compressed digital pipe in stereo only.

The Trouble CBS All Access

HBO launched a similar streaming service called HBO Now in 2015, and recent counts put subscribership at a little over 2-million. HBO could pull it off because it has one of the strongest libraries of respected documentaries, recent movies and TV shows that have literally changed the face of television. HBO Now charges $15 per-month and is always ad-free.

Is anyone surprised CBS All Access is off to a slow start? Perhaps people weren’t as willing to pay a monthly fee to binge-watch classic network TV shows as CBS executives would have preferred. But, don’t count them out yet! CBS had a trick up its sleeve - Star Trek.

The now 51-year-old franchise has a built-in audience that CBS/Paramount is betting they can abuse by forcing them to pony-up to push its streaming service over the 2-million mark, putting it into HBO territory. CBS has announced that September 24th, the night of the Discover premiere, saw record breaking subscriptions for CBS All Access in a single day. CBS’s press release gives no specific numbers.

Star Trek Discovery - Where No Show Has Gone Before

We can all understand that in 2017, the very livelihood of network TV is on the line. We can understand that CBS needs to find new ways to fund itself, especially if it wants to compete in an arena that is now dominated by award winning writing, back breaking budgets and some of the best TV ever made. In some ways, you have to admire CBS/Paramount for making such a bold move to get premium TV made on a network TV budget.

Star Trek DiscoveryBut holding a beloved TV series hostage behind its streaming service is really kicking below the belt. CBS All Access got its subscribership bump, and some of those new subscribers may even forget to cancel after Star Trek Discovery’s season ends. But those gains come at a potential cost of fan loyalty. This isn’t the first time CBS/Paramount has stabbed Star Trek fandom in the back for its personal gain.

The Netflix phenomena has proven that despite piracy, most consumers are willing to pay for digital content if they can consume it on their own terms. And that’s exactly what Netflix did, made it dead-simple to watch whatever, whenever and wherever the viewer wishes. This has lead to Netflix becoming one of the most powerful entertainment delivery systems, and most recently content creators, on Earth.

For-pay digital content channels like Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Hulu and HBO Now have paved new roads in entertainment. But what is beginning to emerge from the primordial soup of digital TV is a class distinction around the ad-divide. Basically, if you’re willing to pay, you don’t have to put up with ads. But if you want free - get used to ads.

Content providers, like CBS All Access, will attempt to re-write the new ad-divide but quite possibly at their own peril.

CBS Paramount - Network TV’s Livelihood

You can’t really blame the network TV industry for finally reacting to its decade's long marginalization. Network TV began life as a disruption technology aimed at movie theaters. Then the networks themselves were disrupted by competition from Cable TV. The trend has continued through the digital age with piracy, cord cutting and ad funded or ad-free streaming services. But the core issue remains - quality storytelling will win revenue.

In his book Difficult Men, Brett Martin writes of how the present golden age of TV began with a trend toward creative control leaning to writers that wanted to use the TV show format as a medium for long-form storytelling. The shift came at the expense of power once held by studio execs whose motive was advertising dollars. This paradigm shift was only possible in an economic environment first presented by cable TV. Network advertising dollars could be offset by direct payment from the consumers who now had the power to subscribe, effectively voting for what they liked. Although cable TV quickly grew into its own hegemony that would learn to limit the direct transaction between consumer and content creator with programming packages that forced a dilution of funds across a wider stream of cable networks, effectively forcing subscribers to pay for junk networks they didn’t want so they could get the one network with a couple of good shows they did want. This brought on our present era of cord cutting.

Content providers, like CBS All Access, will attempt to re-write the new ad-divide at their peril.

The Internet today seems made for the purest form of direct transaction between consumer and creator through streaming services and digital downloads. Seeing how Netflix original programming has been killing it lately and rivaling HBO with content of its own, streaming is a proven creative environment that works. But this brave new arrangement is the antithesis of traditional network TV that now finds itself playing catch-up. And this is the problem with CBS All Access.

HBO Now can charge $15 per-month and build a subscriber base of about 2-million, on top of the regular cable TV subscribers, because it has a library of some of the most legendary content ever made. HBO has the Sopranos, the show that arguably started the golden age of television. Television scholars can make the case that it was actually Oz that started the present golden age, a show that first aired two years before The Sopranos - but it’s also an HBO property.

An extensive library of past ho-hum, network TV shows that can be found in any big box store’s bargain DVD bin or flea market for next to free, won’t compel the masses to a long-term subscription. CBS/Paramount obviously wants to join that elite content club alongside the likes of HBO and Netflix with creative, big budget must-see titles like its new Star Trek Discovery. But to pull this off it needs more than a teaser pilot episode of a new Star Trek show.

HBO launched HBO Now when the network’s must-see TV show, Game of Thrones, was in its fifth season. CBS/Paramount is trying to take a shortcut by relying on the gullibility of the built-in hardcore Star Trek audience many of whom haven't warmed up to the stylistic changes to the beloved franchise that CBS/Paramount made back in the 09 movie reboots.

CBS All Access might work if… CBS started by giving us a full season of the best Star Trek show ever made, and had one or two other great shows running at the same time. Then it needs to market more seriously compelling shows for the near-future. Only by appealing to a diverse audience with world-class content, will CBS declare to the world that it is throwing off its mild-mannered “network TV” cloak and joining the elite.

Thanks CBS, But No Thanks!

Star Trek Discovery VulcanAt the time of writing, we’re three episodes into Star Trek Discovery, it will be some time before we know whether or not CBS All Access is deemed a success. Personally, I don’t want to see them fail. I would love it if CBS All Access works out, but only if its proceeds are used to fund new, high quality Star Trek and other great forms of entertainment. They might pull it off, eventually. But my guess is CBS has some hard lessons to learn along the way.

Please share your thoughts  about this on the related forum thread below and let us know what you think about Star Trek Discovery thus far.

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About the author:

Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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Recent Forum Posts:

Phase 2 posts on July 25, 2019 18:39
rojo, post: 1233558, member: 68463
LMAO!! Some funny s$$t man!! Lolo
shadyJ posts on July 25, 2019 18:12
(SPOILERS)I finally got around to watching the first season recently, and it was just OK. To be sure I had my expectations pretty low. It had some good moment and that spore drive thing was pretty cool. I don't really care about stuff like rigid consistency with the other series, so I didn't care that they changed the Klingons or if they weren't quite on the same page as something that was mentioned in some other episode of some other Star Trek series. The show looked and sounded great, but I am watching the blu ray set. The characters were a mixed bag. Some of the plot twists were needless and didn't serve the story other than to drive up emotions. The overall pacing was good, but the conclusion was far too pat. I did like the Harry Mudd episode except for how it ended. For all the talk about how ‘woke’ or politically correct this show was, I didn't really get too much of that or see that as a big priority in the story-telling. The only element I saw of that is the too-perfect gay relationship between Stamets and Dr. Culber, but that was minor.

One thing that the show was missing was a singularly great villain. The Klingons and the Mirror dimension characters didn't really give us any memorable villains. Also the main character didn't act in a manner consistent with her backstory. I never got the feeling in her behavior that she was trained in a Vulcan academy. She acted and spoke too impulsively for that to be major component in her character. In the end, this show was about what I expected: something in the vein of the Chris Pine movies rather than the older series, so lots of action and not much depth or logic. It's a bit disappointing but oh well.
Mcolwell posts on December 19, 2018 21:09
Hey all. I had the CBS All Access app on my ROKU Ultra, yes, it is in DD 2.0 only , we watch a lot of CBS programming. This is inexcusable in 2018! They experimented a bit with 5.1, I said hey, they finally got it right. Not any more, the picture started buffering, and lowering it's quality until they finally downgraded again to 2.0, and the picture improved again. I found out that CBS All Access is available through Amazon Prime, with not the depth of archived programming, but it is all in 5.1! At first, I was concerned that it was a 2.0 program with a 5.1 stream. Not so, listening a bit, it is in true discreet 5.1, and the picture quality, in 1080p, looks better than from my Xfinity X1. Give it a try.
AcuDefTechGuy posts on April 13, 2018 11:14
Anson Mount will play Captain Pike on the USS Enterprise in Season 2.

mtrycrafts posts on March 31, 2018 13:41
Renewed for another season.
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