Monday, November 12, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #52: Will There Ever Be Another TV Phenomenon Like Star Trek?

A reader named Jennifer asks me another Star Trek-related question:

“Do you ever think there will be a new TV series with the same impact as Star Trek had?”

Jennifer, thank you for a thought-provoking question. 

I’d like to answer in the affirmative, but I believe that the reality of television in 2012 makes another Star Trek-type phenomenon highly unlikely.

In a sense, this question is really about context and history.  When Star Trek premiered in 1966, it was during an era with no cable television, no home entertainment platforms, no video games, and just three broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS).

So even though we have often read frequently about how Star Trek’s ratings in first-run were considered “low,” they are actually extremely high by today’s standards. When the Gene Roddenberry series was canceled and went into syndicated reruns, the show was granted access to whole new (and enthusiastic…) audience of the next generation.  The series played five days a week at 6:00 pm in some markets for years on end -- well into the late 1970s -- so again, the level of exposure to a mass audience was very high.  Before the first reunion movie or spin-off was ever made, Star Trek had two significant bites at the apple.

Today, television has been effectively “Balkanized” -- divided into smaller, competitive regions -- with all the hundreds of different channels and streaming possibilities, and so dramatic TV programs possess a much smaller opportunity to break out and gain a vast audience (one-third of all households, essentially).  Similarly, syndication is no longer the force for building audiences it was even in the 1990s (the era of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, and Xena).

So when a great cult-television series such as Farscape or Firefly leaves network television now, it by-and-large disappears save for the venue of DVD. 

Yet importantly, DVD is a collector’s venue. 

By that I mean those who know and love Farscape or Firefly would seek them out via streaming or DVD.  

But to a mass audience -- the kind that literally had almost no choice but to watch Star Trek -- these series are lost in what Chris Anderson would term the “long tail” of seemingly infinite niche choices.

I believe that in regards to broadcast television history, The X-Files and Seinfeld represent two of the last big “old fashioned” hits; ones that had a giant mass audience in first run and then were watched widely in reruns by a significant slice of the population.

The question then becomes, what is the impact of niche television? 

What happens when the whole country isn’t sitting around a television setand listening anymore to the same campfire tales? 

I can’t answer that question for certain, but it certainly seems that the divide in America we see today in terms of politics has risen at the exact same time as the Balkanization of television. 

In this case, perhaps more choice and freedom actually means less cohesion and unity. We simply have less in common to talk about around the water cooler, at least regarding our entertainment.  Some of us are watching Dexter, some of us are watching Dancing with the Stars, and some of us are watching Once Upon a Time on Netflix. 

Meanwhile, some of us have NEVER watched Dexter, Dancing with the Stars (me!), or Once Upon a Time at all…and have no idea what anyone is even talking about.  It is very rare for me to be in a social setting, for instance, with in-laws in which anyone I speak with watched even a single episode of the remade Battlestar Galactica.  The original from 1978 is universally remembered, but not the remake.  And it's because, in terms of sheer numbers, the remake was watched by an insignificant percentage of the TV-watching public.

So without the kind of cohesion (though lack of choice…) that gave rise to the phenomenon in the first place, I just don’t see how another Star Trek phenomenon can rise to the surface of the pop culture bubble.

I’d like to think I’m wrong about this, and I am certainly open to convincing arguments to the contrary.

Don’t forget to ask me your questions at


  1. I think that the best thing that happened to 'Star Trek' was getting cancelled after the 3rd season. Syndication made 'Star Trek' iconic.
    Part of the allure of Trek is that it was cancelled prematurely, it went into syndication, it then aired in the afternoons for the kids 5 times a week. Millions of kids grew up on 'Star Trek' in the 70's and hence Paramount thought it would be profitable to make a studio film in 1979.
    Imagine if Trek had a long series run, ran 9 or 10 years, weekly episodes, aired at night, 22 episodes per year, cast members inevitably leaving the series, story lines exhausted. Would there have been a movie franchise? Would there have been a TNG in the late 80's if the original series ran for 10 years?
    I don't know, but Roddenberry was as astute a businessman as he was a visionary producer.

  2. Hi John,

    Your piece is very accurate, and puts some trivia bits (like Star Trek's original airing "low ratings") into perspective. Yes, you are right, tv has changed. The original show was peaking at about 17 million viewers per week in first run; but insufficient numbers for a "big network show" (read: expensive) in the days of tv schedules packed more densely than neutronium. It really was a time of "survival of the fittest", if you know what I mean. It seemed that almost every show had a mortal enemy playing at exactly the same time on a competing network. You don't get that anymore; not for a while, actually. There is direct competition, but such examples are more spread out over the week.

    CFTO, CTV's flagship station here in Toronto, played Star Trek weekdays at 5pm in the Fall of 1970, and did so for quite a while. The show was huge; I was there... bigger than SF programs today. But again, times have changed. Shows today, especially the lower-budgeted ones of networks such as HBO and Syfy, can afford to cater to more niche-ish audiences; and profit at the same time. A show grabbing eight million viewers per week is considered very good, nowadays.

    (Before I sign-off I should make it clear that I am not suggesting that there is necessarily a direct relationship between numbers & quality.)