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 realm 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.