Star Trek fans have been waiting for Sunday night for years. That’s when CBS will air the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, the first Star Trek TV series since Enterprise signed off 12 years ago.
But Sunday will be an even bigger moment for CBS All Access; it’s the streaming service’s single most important day since its launch three years ago. CBS Corp. has set lofty goals for CBS All Access and its direct-to-consumer Showtime streaming service—like 8 million combined subscribers by 2020. Star Trek: Discovery, which will be available exclusively on All Access after the premiere on CBS, represents its best chance to reach that number and convince millions more to shell out $5.99 a month for the service. (CBS said in August that it expects the two services to have 4 million combined subscribers by December.)
Speaking last week at New York’s Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference, CBS Corp. chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves called Star Trek: Discovery “the main event” for his streaming service. Earlier this year, All Access’ first original scripted series, The Good Wife spinoff The Good Fight “did fine,” Moonves said, “but this is the big kahuna.”
Discovery was originally supposed to debut in January, but producers said in August that Moonves agreed to delay the show eight months so it would be “huge” enough to satisfy fans.
Replicating its premiere strategy for The Good Fight, CBS All Access will launch the show with a linear premiere on CBS Sunday night, and then the network will direct viewers to watch the second episode on CBS All Access, where it will be available to stream immediately following the premiere.
“We hope it’s a watershed [moment] for the service,” said Marc DeBevoise, president and COO of CBS Interactive.
To drive viewers to CBS and then All Access on Sunday, CBS Marketing Group president George Schweitzer said he created a campaign with the same objective as the series itself: “Don’t disappoint the fans, but appeal to the widest audience possible.”
That meant playing up the sci-fi elements for Trek fans, while making it clear to other audiences that “this is a human story.” And most importantly, Schweitzer made sure to “create an event on that Sunday night. That’s the key. We scheduled it Sunday night, on CBS, after the premiere of 60 Minutes, and an [NFL] doubleheader night. You can’t miss this.”
While All Access won’t have linear premieres for every original show—its next series, the comedy No Activity, won’t debut on CBS—but for Star Trek: Discovery, “using our most powerful asset, that No. 1 network, makes a lot of sense. It’s the best promotion we could ever give something,” DeBevoise said.
Discovery’s first two episodes offer an “an awesome, movielike experience to kick off the show,” he said, which leads into “a really interesting, deep and slightly more serialized Star Trek series.”
The CBS episode ends on a major cliffhanger, which DeBevoise hopes will prompt people to immediately watch the second episode on All Access.
CBS All Access is also rolling out a Star Trek: Discovery aftershow, which is a first for a streaming service and will be streamed live each Sunday night.
As another part of its marketing campaign, the company opted to embargo reviews from TV critics until after Discovery’s debut, which is unprecedented for a new series. That is usually a surefire sign of a troubled production, but DeBevoise said CBS simply wanted to prevent spoilers and maintain the veil of secrecy they’ve kept around the production.
“We think it’s a tremendous show,” he said. “It’s really more about this franchise having such a big, deep fan focus, that we really wanted them to have the chance not to have it leak and have too much out there before they’re able to see it.” (Indeed, the first episodes screened for the media late this week are far more ambitious than any new broadcast show rolling out this fall, including Fox’s own attempt at a freshman sci-fi series, The Orville.)
After the first two episodes debut on Sunday, the next six episodes will premiere weekly on Sundays through Nov. 5. Then Discovery will go on hiatus until January, when the season’s final seven episodes will begin airing weekly.
While the split season might seem like a way to keep new Star Trek fans subscribing to All Access for a longer period, DeBevoise said the decision “isn’t a subscriber gimmick,” but rather a scheduling move that gave the production team additional time to complete their episodes. “It’s hard to make what in some services would be almost two seasons of a show,” he said. “Some people are greenlighting eight[-episode seasons] now,” as All Access did for No Activity.
Discovering more than Discovery
No matter how many new subscribers All Access gets as a result of Discovery, DeBevoise knows he’ll have to give them a reason to stick around and not simply cancel the service until the next batch of episodes begins. Since All Access’ launch, DeBevoise has been growing the service’s library (from 6,500 episodes in 2014 to almost 10,000 episodes), expanding the markets where subscribers can livestream CBS (now more than 175 markets, or 96 percent of the country) and reaching an agreement with the NFL to livestream all of CBS’ NFL games.
In August, DeBevoise expanded All Access’ original lineup by ordering three new shows. No Activity, a comedy series from Funny or Die and Will Ferrell that is based on the Australian streaming show about the mundane people involved in a huge drug cartel bust, will air during Discovery’s hiatus. Next year, the service will debut two new dramas: Strange Angel, follows the true story of Jack Parsons, who in 1940s L.A. worked as a rocket scientist by day and a sex occultist by night, while $1 is a thriller set in a small town and follows a dollar bill as it changes hands through a number of people tied to a multiple murder.
“So certainly every month, there’s something new for you to see that is exclusive and original to us going forward,” DeBevoise said.
The Good Fight will return for a second season in 2018, but All Access’ other original series, Big Brother Over the Top, is on hold for now because this winter, CBS will be airing a special Celebrity Big Brother edition of the show.
This summer, CBS All Access also tried to entice subscribers to stick around for longer by rolling out a discounted annual plan for its standard and ad-free offerings. The “limited commercials” plan is $5.99 per month or $59.99 annually, and the ad-free plan is $9.99 per month or $99.99 annually.
It’s been a year since CBS All Access launched the ad-free tier alongside its standard offering, and DeBevoise said “both products are doing well.”
“Certainly, limited commercials is likely to be the majority for a very long time, unless something big shifts in the industry,” he said. “And we’re very pleased with that. We have a robust advertising business, and we get a lot of data from the users.”