Star Trek is well known for its cultural impact, but it has also been at the forefront of changes in how TV is delivered and consumed. With the September debut of Discovery on the horizon, Star Trek is poised again to go where no show has gone before.
1965 – A second pilot: NBC commissioned a pilot for Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the Stars” in 1965. Rather than the adventure show they expected, Roddenberry produced “The Cage,” a thoughtful science fiction story starring a somewhat low-key Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Christopher Pike. Unlike nearly every other pilot episode ever produced, NBC’s answer wasn’t a “Yes” or a “No,” it was “Try again.” The result was “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” with everyone except Leonard Nimoy replaced by new cast members.
1968 – The Write-in Campaign: Amid rumors of the show’s impending cancellation after Season Two, fans sent more than 100,000 letters to NBC to request that the show be renewed. The letter-writing campaign was one of the earliest examples of successful fan-network interactions.
1969 – Syndication: While Star Trek was cancelled after Season Three, the 79 original episodes were enough to take the series to syndication. Kaiser Broadcasting stations in many markets began airing the show on Sept. 8, 1969, three years to the day after the series premiere on NBC. It was these daily airings that made the show a much bigger hit than it had ever been on network TV. The success of Star Trek in syndication not only launched franchise, it changed the syndication market forever.
1973 – Animated Series: Star Trek’s first return to TV came in the form of Filmation’s animated series. While it was not the first live-action show to make the jump to Saturday morning cartoons, most other similar cartoon series were based on comedy shows and featured kid-ified versions of the original. Star Trek: The Animated Series — run by many of the same people as the original and featuring most of the original cast — was not completely dumbed down the way many contemporary cartoon series were.
1977 – The Paramount Network: This time around, Star Trek failed to change TV, but instead launched as a motion picture series. As part of the company’s attempt to launch a fourth TV network, Paramount Television commissioned Star Trek: Phase II, a new series that would anchor the network’s weekend programming block. Six months before the network’s launch, plans were cancelled and Phase II became Star Trek: The Motion Picture launching a franchise that would stay in continuous production for the next 27 years.
1987 – First-run Syndication: With the success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in movie theaters, Paramount was finally ready to bring Star Trek back to the small screen as Star Trek: The Next Generation. But instead of selling the show to a network, the studio did something new, offering it to the stations that already aired The Original Series. And they offered to let the stations air it for free as part of a barter deal. This system, which was used far more often for game shows, took a lot of the pressure for immediate success. Paramount was able to support the show by retaining part of the ad time from each airing. And if TNG had been a failure after one year, Paramount would have just added those episodes onto the end of their existing package of TOS episodes. However, TNG was a huge success and it created a huge market for first-run syndicated dramas such as Babylon 5, Hercules, Highlander and TNG’s own spinoff, Deep Space Nine.
1995 – United Paramount Network: Nearly two decades after Star Trek: Phase II, Paramount again tried to launch a new network. This time, Star Trek: Voyager was the UPN’s flagship show and the only show to launch with the network and be renewed for a second season. Voyager would run seven years, followed by Enterprise for four seasons.
2017 – CBS All Access: Discovery will not be the first streaming-only series. But it is the first big budget scripted series produced specifically for the streaming component of a traditional TV network. CBS has been a radio and TV network for 90 years and is now making a major step into the online world. If this series is a hit, Star Trek will again change how TV is delivered, marketed and consumed.