For Star Trek lovers, keeping up with the universe of content is difficult enough as it is, regardless of where you’re based. While ViacomCBS decided in October 2021 not to renew its streaming licenses for the classic series of the intergalactic show in the United States, international viewers like Leckie are currently still able to watch six separate shows tied to the brand on Netflix. Spin-off shows Picard and Lower Decks, an animated comedy, are available on Amazon Prime Video internationally and Paramount+ in the United States, while kids’ series Prodigy looks likely to land on Paramount+, too. “It’s bonkers,” says Gunnarsson. “A whole range of legacy rights are still active. Right now, this leads to a lot of confusion and frustration for customers, but in the long term these things will be ironed out and you’ll find all the IP for one series within their owner groups’ designated streaming platform.”
And what’s confusing for fans to understand is downright impossible for more casual viewers. Star Trek became such a totemic cultural touchstone because of its enormous viewership, built up at a time when there were far fewer options to choose from on television. While some brands, such as Squid Game and Breaking Bad manage to cut through in the saturated streaming era, it becomes much harder to do so to the scale seen in the past.
When Gunnarsson began analyzing the streaming world 10 years ago, Hollywood studios were lax in how they sold the streaming rights to their services, seeing it as an unnecessary extra. The deals were experimental. “They did market by market, then did bigger global deals, then realized it’s not good for them and removed rights from Netflix—because they are completely disrupting their markets,” he says. “Now we’re in a world where they’re launching their own streaming services.” The removal of series and shows from mainstream platforms into others is the logical conclusion of that shift in how things work. Star Trek is just the latest victim of the global rights tug-of-war, and the likes of the US Office and Friends, both of which are no longer on Netflix in the US, could soon also vanish from Netflix worldwide. Services like NBC’s streaming platform Peacock, which launched in the UK and Ireland this week, are unlikely to keep their biggest shows on Netflix for long.
Streaming services will soon have a difficult decision to make, says Johanna Gibson, Herchel Smith professor of intellectual property law at Queen Mary University of London: whether they want a smaller share of a crowded market or decide to team up through cross-licensing arrangements to share content. “If the market leader is Netflix then that’s a further motivation for others to cooperate in such ways in order to compete with Netflix,” she says.
Rosen is more blunt. “For Star Trek fans and ViacomCBS shareholders, it sucks,” he says. The latter, he believes, will be left carrying the can for the higher marketing expenses required to bring eyeballs to Star Trek on Paramount+, rather than leveraging the built-in benefits of Netflix’s massive audience. As for Netflix? It’s a loss, sure—but how big a loss is difficult to tell because there’s a dearth of data. How the company will plug the USS Discovery-shaped hole in its programming slate is clearer to Rosen. “The economics of producing its own content imply it will likely seek to produce the next Star Trek—and likely from a foreign country,” he says.
Every streaming service is seeking to develop its own IP precisely so they don’t struggle when rightsholders pull the rug out from underneath them. “The number of originals is increasing across different platforms,” says Gunnarsson. “If you have a streaming service, you must have exclusive content. Netflix and Amazon have been doing this. All of them have.” In 2016, Netflix revealed it had a target for half its content to be original, home-grown series or movies. While it’s not there yet, 40 percent of Netflix programming in the United States is original to the streaming service—up from 16 percent in January 2019. At that pace, Netflix will reach their goal around this time next year. As original content becomes more vital, the future of beloved existing series on streaming services becomes threatened. “Anything a streaming service doesn’t own and has to license may disappear from a platform if not supported by an ongoing significant audience,” says Gibson.
As for Star Trek, the universe is already expanding—and could expand at warp speed, says Rosen, aping the way Disney has built out the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With animated series about lower-ranked staffers on starships already streaming, future shows could delve deeper into the Star Trek canon. That could, in time, make Paramount+ a genuine Netflix rival—but there’s a long way to go. “I wouldn’t necessarily bet against them building a universe with that IP,” he says. “There are worse decisions they are making.”
This story originally appeared on wired.com.