Star Trek and American Television History
In 1966, the original Star Trek series was just another television show, as subject to the established institutional practices of the television industry as all the other shows made by Desilu Productions and broadcast by the NBC network. By 2005, when Star Trek: Enterprise ceased production, Star Trek and its spin-off series had become an unprecedented television phenomenon and a major asset for Paramount and its United Paramount Network (UPN). This chapter tells the story of how Star Trek went from failure during the classic network era to astonishing success in the multichannel era. We begin by arguing that, despite the subsequent renown of the original series (hereafter referred to as TOS) and its creator, Gene Roddenberry, the program emerged from and typified the standard business practices and assumptions of the classic network era. Yet from its inception, Star Trek also atypically diverged in several ways from these practices and in doing so looked forward to the multichannel era. This chapter's second section examines three significant divergences from the classic network era's standard practices and assumptions: Roddenberry's construction of a producer brand; TOS's appeal to niche audiences; and Star Trek's role in the decline of the three-network oligopoly and the transition to the multichannel environment. The chapter focuses primarily upon TOS and upon the broad economic strategies of the television industry in the classic network and multichannel eras. The following three chapters continue the story of Star Trek during the multichannel era by examining the day-to-day production practices of the post-TOS series.
Star Trek and the Classic Network Era
Understanding Star Trek's initial conditions of production and distribution requires an understanding of the basic operations of the classic network era: that period, from roughly 1960 to 1980, in which the oligopoly constituted by the big three networks-CBS, NBC, and ABC-secured control of production, distribution, and exhibition through what Michele Hilmes calls a "tight vertical integration, similar to that of the movie studios before 1947." In terms of production, by 1965 the networks owned or had an interest in 91 percent of the prime-time programs made for them by the Hollywood studios or independent producers. Despite the fact that a "variety of players" produced these programs, the networks' oligopolistic control of distribution and exhibition mandated that producers conform to a narrow range of accepted practices in originating new programs. In terms of distribution and exhibition, the networks had rapidly expanded their market penetration, purchasing stations in the largest metropolitan areas while at the same time signing up 80 percent of independently owned stations as network affiliates. These affiliates, with contractual agreements to broadcast network programming in return for a percentage of the advertising revenues that underpinned the entire system, were persuaded to devote ever-larger proportions of airtime to the network feed. These tactics expanded the audience for network programming to over 90 percent of American households, making television a very attractive medium for advertisers. Such exhibition practices, asserts Hilmes, militated against artistry and originality: "With a system that attracted a national audience and a market so neatly divided between the nets, few openings existed for creative, innovative productions that challenged the bland, formulaic network patterns."
Fundamental to these bland, formulaic network patterns was the networks' consensual interpretation of the mass audience's viewing habits, best expressed by Paul Klein, NBC's vice president for audience measurement, in his theory of "least objectionable programming." A least objectionable program was one that would not cause viewers to switch to a rival network and ensured that each of the three networks would get the largest possible share of the national audience in each half-hour slot. Although not using the term, Klein articulated the concept of "flow" in the pages of the popular publication TV Guide two years before Raymond Williams did so in the scholarly Television and Cultural Form. In a 1972 book chapter based on his TV Guide article, Klein explained that "the single most important thing to know about the American television audience" was that it stayed the same size (about 36 million TV sets) irrespective of the quality of the programming. Klein believed that, during prime time-the most valuable time of day in the United States in terms of advertising revenues, generally from 7 P.M. to 10 P.M.-audiences switched on their sets to watch television rather than to tune in to individual programs. Wanting to stay tuned in no matter what was on offer, viewers chose the program that "can be endured with the least amount of pain and suffering." Network programmers operated on the assumption that a program didn't have to be good but only "less objectionable than whatever the hell the other guys throw against it." The "least objectionable program" strategy, aiming to ensure that viewers stayed with a network's prime-time schedule throughout the evening rather than switching over to the opposition, dictated program commissioning, production, and scheduling.
Reluctance to innovate stemmed from network executives' belief that the mass audience would immediately reject any show departing from the lowest-common-denominator norm by tuning to a rival network's offering. According to Muriel Cantor, in her book The Hollywood TV Producer, most producers shared the networks' assessment of their viewers, seeing them as "a mass audience, rather than a segmented one" and having a "low opinion of their audience's intelligence, urbanity, and discrimination." Said one producer: "We try not to do anything controversial. Nor do we try to reach people of high intellect. Because of this we are a success. . . . The formulas work for television and will continue to work." But some of Cantor's interviewees believed that the networks' conservatism was "losing a valuable group of viewers" who might watch "higher-level television shows." One producer said, "I know the audience is smarter, more intelligent that they [the networks] think it is. One of the reasons so many shows fail is that the networks and others underestimate the IQ of the audience. How many of the same kinds of shows can be on the air? There should be shows with more character and originality that tap the more intelligent audience."
Many years later, Robert Justman, an associate producer of TOS, retrospectively aligned himself with these minority voices when speaking of NBC's reaction to the first Star Trek pilot: "They [the network executives] mentioned things like our concepts were 'too intricate for the normal television human mind.' I thought it wasn't that way at all. I felt that we could barely keep up with people." Even in the classic network era, some began to pay attention to the niche audiences that became key drivers of the multichannel era. We return to this point below.
When Gene Roddenberry first conceived of Star Trek in 1963, he needed a studio and a network to realize his idea for the series; acquiring that studio and persuading that network would require compliance with the industry's dominant assumptions and practices. Roddenberry, however, was a marginal player within the industry's power structures, having come to television relatively late after previous careers as a US Army Air Force and Pan Am pilot and then as a Los Angeles policeman. Roddenberry was a minor writer-producer who had begun his television career as a freelance writer for such shows as Highway Patrol (ZIV Television Programs, 1955-59), West Point (ZIV Television Programs, 1956-58), and Have Gun Will Travel (CBS Television, 1957-63) and had just graduated to producing his first series, the US Marine Corps drama The Lieutenant (1963-64), made by MGM for ABC. Roddenberry first offered Star Trek to MGM, in the person of executive producer Norman Felton, who oversaw production of The Lieutenant. When Felton expressed no interest, Roddenberry's agent suggested going to Desilu Productions.
Cofounded in 1950 by Lucille Ball and her husband at the time, Desi Arnaz, Desilu had built on the wild success of I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-57) to become a significant figure among the independent studios supplying programs to the networks in the early 1960s. The term "independent" served to distinguish Desilu and similar enterprises devoted solely to television production from the television units of the major studios such as Warner Bros., but as Michele Hilmes put it, these so-called independents were "dependent on network investment to stay afloat; they had essentially become production arms of the networks." The independents had come to dominate television production during the 1960s, accounting for nearly 70 percent of prime-time fiction shows by 1963. Desilu was a member of that tightly closed circle of networks and their executives, and studios and their producers, that made the mostly bland and formulaic programs of the classical network era. But even this tightly closed circle permitted some limited degree of innovation; as Mark Alvey put it, "[P]roducers and networks are involved in a constant process of redefinition, attempting to strike the right balance of entertainment and ideas, familiarity and innovation, continuity and flexibility." Alvey dubs this balance "regulated innovation." Desilu had already achieved success and even some degree of notoriety with the innovative crime drama The Untouchables (ABC, 1959-63), noted for its fast-paced action, over-the-top violence, and noirish visual style; there was a probability that the studio would be willing to reformulate another established genre-science fiction-that had up to that time been associated primarily with a children's audience.
At this point, enter another key figure in the birth of Star Trek: Herb Solow, Desilu's vice president in charge of production. While many equate Star Trek solely with Roddenberry, Solow himself claims a great deal of the credit: "I ran the studio. I was the one who dealt with Gene, who developed the concept with Gene and worked with Gene on the script, who sold the script to NBC, sold the pilot, sold the series to NBC and supervised it." Solow may not be a completely reliable source. His public pronouncements indicate resentment of the godlike status bestowed upon Roddenberry within Star Trek fandom, and he has for years sought recognition for his part in Star Trek's origins, most prominently in his book Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, coauthored with TOS associate producer Robert Justman (a work that we recommend to the reader for a full account of Star Trek's development and production and on which we draw in this chapter). While his accounts of Star Trek's early days, and particularly of Roddenberry's role in them, are for this reason subject to a degree of skepticism, we try to assess Solow's claims in light of our understanding of the operations of the classic network era. From this perspective, we conclude that, although the idea for Star Trek indubitably originated in the mind of Gene Roddenberry, it required Herb Solow, or someone like him, to bring that idea to the television screen.
Solow first met Roddenberry in 1964 when the writer-producer came to the Desilu lot to pitch his new series. Roddenberry did not make an initial favorable impression on the executive, who reports telling him, "It must be good because you sure as hell can't sell it. You're not a good salesman." Despite his reservations about Roddenberry and about some elements of the Star Trek concept, Solow offered him a script-development deal. Soon thereafter, Oscar Katz, Desilu president, took Roddenberry to CBS to do another pitch; the network passed, ostensibly because Star Trektoo closely resembled their already commissioned Lost in Space (1965-68). Contra this, Solow suggests that the failure stemmed from a lack of conformity to the classic network era's dominant practices: the concept was as yet insufficiently developed to take to a network, and Roddenberry was "probably the most ineffective pitchman for a series . . . that [Solow] had ever met in the television business." While Roddenberry was disappointed at CBS's rebuff, Solow, who had just recently moved from NBC to Desilu, saw an opportunity: "It was actually a happy day for me as I was able to offer it and sell it to . . . my . . . friends and former associates at NBC." Among these friends was "Grant Tinker who later became the CEO of NBC, but at that time was the Vice President of Programs on the West Coast. So I could call Grant and I could say, which I did, 'I have something that I think would be good for you guys.'"
Unlike Roddenberry, Solow was a consummate insider among the handful of networks and studios that originated the vast majority of American television programs: "I was fortunate in going from college to working in a talent agency mailroom, the William Morris Agency in New York, and learning that world, and then going into syndicated television programs at NBC and then into daytime programs at NBC and CBS, and on to . . . Desilu." Solow's characterization of his relationship with his friends at NBC resonates with Todd Gitlin's analysis of an "industry dominated by a small world of executives, suppliers, producers, and agents spinning through revolving doors," in which "[network] executives with passable records and good contacts slide through the revolving door and get good jobs as suppliers and studio executives." The revolving door functioned as one of the networks' risk-reduction strategies, as Gitlin explains: "Since the networks don't know how to read popular moods and therefore listen to established suppliers, an established supplier is in a stronger position than a producer off the street to devise a fresh show and sell it." Solow, having revolved from network executive to studio executive at established supplier Desilu, was in a much stronger position than Roddenberry, "a producer off the street," to sell a fresh show, while his insider status and proven track record mitigated the risk posed by Star Trek's more innovative elements. As Gitlin says, "Market power eventually rests on a record of continued success, but it can also be used . . . as a license to break the rules from time to time." In other words, there was in the classic network era, to use Alvey's formulation, a balance between regulation and innovation-a balance that Star Trek typifies.
By the time Roddenberry and Solow took their first meeting with Tinker and Jerome Stanley, NBC's director of current programs, they had refined the Star Trek concept, putting itinto the "language of television" and foregrounding regulation in order to sanction innovation. A few decades later, William Shatner told us that this, rather than the "Roddenberry vision" of a utopian future, attested to the producer's skill: "It takes a certain genius to do that, to sell a series, to come up with a commercial enough theme, and a kind of concept that speaks to these network executives." A few years after we spoke with Shatner, Catherine Johnson echoed his words, saying that while there has been a "mythologisation of Gene Roddenberry as [Star Trek's] maverick creator who used the 'cloak' of science fiction to disguise the treatment of contemporary socio-cultural issues," TOS should not be understood "as a uniquely innovative programme enabled by Roddenberry's ingenious use of science fiction" but rather as a response to the "needs of commercial US television."
Roddenberry himself said that he had decided that Star Trek "should appear on the outside to be nothing more than safe, acceptable adventure stuff," although we suspect Solow's influence (unacknowledged by Roddenberry) in making the show safer and more acceptable. For example, Solow reports that Roddenberry initially conceived of Mr. Spock as having "not only pointed ears, but a long tail and was red!" While this was "inventive," Solow told Roddenberry, "it's terrible because television will not accept that." The show that the two pitched to NBC conformed in many ways to the classic network era's dominant assumptions-most crucially, those concerning the mass audience and least objectionable programming. The outline of the series's format, reproduced in its entirety in The Making of Star Trek, stressed the familiarity of the unfamiliar: "Star Trek keeps all of Science Fiction's variety and excitement but still stays within a mass audience frame of reference by avoiding 'way-out' fantasy and cerebral science theorem, and instead concentrating on problem and peril met by our very human and very identifiable continuing characters." By contrast with the anthology format and in keeping with the series format that had dominated American television since the mid-1950s, Star Trek would each week return the audience to recurring characters and a recurring setting, the Enterprise, a "permanent set" that "provides us with a familiar, week-to-week locale." This would seem familiar to an audience accustomed to the hit series Gunsmoke, with its Dodge City, and Dr. Kildare, with its Blair General Hospital-both, like the starship crew, "complete and highly varied" communities. In addition to familiar characters and settings, a show aiming for "least objectionable program" status also had to draw upon the familiar conventions of the action-adventure genre that, as Johnson says, "had become the dominant form of episodic television drama by the mid-1960s." Invoking another hit series, the outline described the format thus: "The Format is 'Wagon Train to the Stars'-built around characters who travel to other worlds and meet the jeopardy and adventure which become our stories." Roddenberry also had in mind another variant on the action-adventure genre-the naval saga, most successfully exploited by C. S. Forester in his Horatio Hornblower series. As Shatner told us, "Wagon Train and Horatio Hornblower were the antecedents of Star Trek. Gene gave me a book written by C. S. Forester on Horatio Hornblower. Horatio Hornblower was a young captain of a British vessel that was plying the seas around the world, and he was a world unto himself because he was so far away from a command center."
The format outlinealso asserted that Star Trek would "combine the most varied in drama-action-adventure with complete production practicality." The network executives needed to be persuaded that the show would not unduly challenge their audiences, and also that it would not unduly challenge their and Desilu's budgets. NBC, under then-current licensing practices, had to foot the greater part of the bill and wanted to ensure that Desilu would be able to make up the shortfall. The format outline explained that Star Trek allowed "production-budget practicality by extensive use of a basic and amortized standing set" as well as through the "similar world concept" that permitted "a wide use of existing studio sets, backlots, and local locations, plus unusually good use of in stock costumes, contemporary and historical." A great deal of the action would take place on that basic standing set, the Enterprise bridge; Los Angeles locations would stand in for alien planets; and the historical costumes would be used in episodes such as "Patterns of Force" (2:21) (Nazis), "Bread and Circuses" (2:25) (Romans), and "A Piece of the Action" (2:17) (1930s gangsters).
Nonetheless, Star Trek still became one of the most expensive shows on network television. Compared with the industry standard cost of $160,000 per episode, its budget was $200,000. This left Desilu to pick up the $40,000 discrepancy between NBC's payment of $160,000 per episode and the actual cost of production. The studio, as was then standard practice, expected to lose money during the show's first run and to make money when it went into off-network syndication.
While Shatner locates Roddenberry's "genius" in selling Star Trek, Michael Okuda, chief graphics designer on the post-TOS series, locates it in Star Trek's production practicalities:
Gene Roddenberry's genius wasn't really that he constructed a fun science fiction universe. It was that he and his colleagues on the original Star Trek consciously sat down and said, "We're going to do a television show about the vastness of the cosmos and all the strange things that one finds there." And for a low-budget television show, even a high-budget television show, that's something that's very nearly impossible. You can't do that. So how do you make it doable? Roddenberry said, "OK, we're going to tell the majority of that story from one control room." So you can afford to build one control room. "And most of the rest of the stories are going to take place on the standing spaceship sets . . . most of the time when you go to planets, it's going to be on earthlike planets and with earthlike aliens." And if you accept those conventions, you set out to do something which was entirely impractical and made it very practical. And that was genius.
But, despite Roddenberry's and Solow's best efforts to present Star Trek as a typical classic-network-era show, they had not convinced Tinker and Stanley that "it would make a commercial television series, that there was enough of an audience out there to support the mixture of science fiction and fantasy." Just as Solow claims that his insider status had secured the pitch, he claims that it also secured the network's acquiescence: "I wasn't going to take no for an answer. These were my friends. At least they could give me a script commitment. They went ahead and agreed to a script, which was great." The executives committed twenty thousand dollars to the development of three story ideas, from which the network would choose one for the pilot; of the three, the network preferred the story outline for "The Cage." This first pilot features James T. Kirk's predecessor, Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter), who leaves the USS Enterprise with a landing party in response to a distress signal from the planet Talos IV. The Talosians, strange-looking, monklike creatures with translucent heads, have lured Pike and his colleagues to the planet in order to encourage them to breed and help regenerate their enfeebled race. The humans refuse to be used in this way, and the Talosians give in and let them return to their ship.
Unfortunately, the network was less tractable than the Talosians, the pilot's divergence from more customary bland formulas indicating that a Star Trek series might pose too great a risk. As Robert Justman later told us, "NBC was considerably appalled by the pilot we made. So much so that they called Herb and Gene in and said, 'Look, we like what you did, but there's some things we want to change, especially in the areas of casting, and especially in the areas of "don't be so smart."'"
Network executives thought the pilot "too cerebral," a phrase that appears in both Whitfield and Roddenberry's and Solow and Justman's books and was repeated by Justman in his interview with us. Whitfield and Roddenberry report that NBC thought that the "story line was too involved, too literate, and dwelt too much upon intangibles" and that "there just wasn't enough action in the show." Roddenberry wrote, "I had known the only way to sell Star Trek was with an action-adventure plot. But I forgot my plan and tried for something proud." The network was unhappy with the lack of action and adventure in a program that Solow and Roddenberry had pitched to them in terms of the action-adventure format. The pilot had tipped the balance between regulation and innovation too far toward the latter.
There were also, as Justman told us, problems with the casting. NBC particularly disliked Majel Barrett in the role of the Enterprise's first officer. Solow insists that Barrett was not right for the part and that the network had doubts about her ability to carry the show as the costar. Whitfield and Roddenberry tell a different story: according to them, when the network tested the pilot, viewers' opinions of the Barrett character "ranged from resentment to disbelief," leading NBC to conclude that audiences would "resent the idea of a tough, strong-willed woman as second in command." Despite this, the questionnaires showed that audiences liked the actress-the reason Roddenberry gives for subsequently casting her as Nurse Chapel. The fact that Barrett was one of his retinue of girlfriends (which also included the other two female members of the cast, Nichelle Nichols and Grace Lee Whitney) might also have influenced his decision. It may also have influenced Solow's report of NBC's dislike. Whatever motivated NBC's wariness toward Barrett and/or her character, their concern about the Spock character stemmed from NBC Sales, which was worried about his pointed ears and slanting eyes "being seen as demonic by Bible-Belt affiliate station owners and important advertisers." NBC's Broadcast Standards and Practices more generally worried about how the pilot's "eroticism" would play out in an ensuing series. Solow and Justman assert that NBC's dissatisfaction was primarily due to sensitivity to "the manners and morals of mid 1960s America." A least objectionable program could not feature a demonic Spock or scantily clad slave girls.
Its maiden voyage having revealed serious design flaws, the Enterprise might have remained in dry dock had not NBC radically deviated from its established practices to offer Desilu, Roddenberry, and Solow an unprecedented second chance to demonstrate the proposed series' conformity with those practices. Mort Werner, head of programming, who had "loved" "The Cage," persuaded the network to pay for a second pilot, arguing that the story chosen for the first pilot had not "properly showcased Star Trek's series potential." According to Whitfield and Roddenberry, the chance to make a second pilot "shattered all television precedent." Happy with this pilot ("Where No Man Has Gone Before," written by science-fiction author Sam Peeples), NBC told Desilu to put the series into production. Despite the precedent-shattering second pilot's violating the period's dominant assumptions and practices, when Star Trek went into production, the network for the most part managed it in accord with those dominant assumptions and practices with regard to content, scheduling, and, most crucially, ratings. Muriel Cantor articulated one assumption that had particular applicability to Star Trek: "It is well known that networks are reluctant to try new ideas and would rather remake series with themes that have been successful, particularly in the recent past. When a show is considered 'different,' creative, or controversial, the networks take more interest in its production." The first pilot had certainly alerted the network to Star Trek's potential for difference, creativity, and controversy, perhaps inclining NBC to keep a closer eye on it than upon its more conventional programs.
Chief among those keeping a close eye would be Jean Messerschmidt, representative of NBC's Broadcast Standards and Practices, who, according to Robert Justman, "performed her job and performed it well," being both "firm and reasonable." But some degree of conflict was inevitable, given her responsibility to ensure that Star Trek did not transgress "the manners and morals of mid 1960s America," as had the first pilot. The three networks' Standards and Practices departments enforced a voluntary self-censorship, similar to that of the Hollywood film studios, reviewing "all non-news broadcast matter, including entertainment, sports and commercials, for compliance with legal, policy, factual, and community standards." Most important, Standards and Practices ensured compliance with the National Association of Broadcasters Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters, to which both the networks and their affiliates subscribed. Solow said that "every story line, every teleplay, every completed episode resulted in a memorandum from Broadcast Standards detailing items that either had to be changed or removed." The code prohibited "profanity, obscenity, smut and vulgarity"; Broadcast Standards recommended the omission of a "damned" from the script for "Miri" (TOS 1:8). The code mandated that "reverence is to mark any mention of the name of God"; Broadcast Standards recommended that "McCoy's line 'Thank God for that fantastic strength of his' must be delivered in a reverent manner." The code instructed that "the use of horror for its own sake will be eliminated; the use of visual or aural effect which would shock or alarm the viewer"; Broadcast Standards recommended "restraint here and throughout the script [of "Miri"] to ensure that the blemishes are not unnecessarily gruesome to the viewer." The code dictated that "the costuming of all performers shall be within the bounds of propriety"; Broadcast Standards recommended "caution here [in "Miri"] when Janice opens her uniform to check on the progress of the disease; avoid exposure which would embarrass or offend." The code also said that "the movements of dancers . . . shall be kept within the bounds of decency"; so much for green Orion slave girls.
From a twenty-first-century perspective, network executives fretting about gruesome blemishes or embarrassing exposure may seem risible, but we should remember that the code's dos and don'ts reflected-indeed, enforced-the consensual view of the mass audience described above, advising broadcasters to "bear constantly in mind that the audience is primarily a home audience." Solow, we think correctly, defends the network from those such as Roddenberry who accused NBC of undue interference: "Star Trek suffered no more than any other network show. All programming was subject to the same restrictions." But the comments of Solow's coauthor, Robert Justman, indicate that these restrictions, even if common to all shows, were nonetheless irksome. Justman told us that the biggest difference in working on TOS and TNG was that for the latter series there "was no network. There was no Broadcast Standards department. There were no censors. We censored ourselves, so to speak. We did not have to submit one of our stories to the network for approval by Programming, and that same script to Broadcast Standards for approval by the broadcast censors." We say more about this in the next chapter.
Just as NBC followed standard practices in censoring Star Trek, so it did in scheduling Star Trek. Despite the period's assumptions about programs having to appeal to a mass audience, the network's schedulers were aware that Star Trek appealed primarily to high school and college students. (For more on the concept of niche audiences, see below.) The Thursday at 8:30 slot assigned for the first season worked for this young audience; subsequent time slots on a Friday night did not, since the young viewers were more likely to be out of the house than watching television. The Friday slot resulted from the first season's disappointing ratings. Following the standard practice with underperforming shows, NBC scheduled Star Trek after the more successful Tarzan, gambling that viewers would stay with the network. They didn't, and ratings continued to be disappointing. After giving a last-minute reprieve from cancellation in the second season, NBC once more moved Star Trek, this time to the 10 P.M. Friday slot that helped to seal its doom as a first-run network program. But the schedulers were once again acting in accordance with conventional industry strategies, as Solow and Justman explain:
Due to its audience "age and gender" appeal, Star Trek would be most successful in an early-evening time period. But the programming and sales structure of network television necessitated a building-block effect. Shows on a given night were expected to move their audience on to the following shows, building to the late evening prime-time shows, more adult in nature, that would capture the time period and those big advertising dollars. However, the building-block effect did not work if the early-evening shows had no appreciable audience."
Star Trek's appeal to otherwise hard-to-reach young people probably kept it on the air for three seasons, but its failure to deliver the required audience share made it increasingly unattractive to advertisers, at that time concerned with absolute numbers and not with viewers' demographic profiles. For the most part, the networks wanted large numbers of viewers, not desirable, niche viewers. Since the first season's ratings were already weak and ratings continued to decline in the subsequent seasons, it's not surprising that NBC canceled Star Trek; what is surprising is that NBC renewed it for its second and third seasons.
In Defense of the Network: Supporting NBC
Continuing to act as industry insider long after his association with the network ceased, Solow has mounted a vigorous public defense of NBC, central to which is criticism of Gene Roddenberry, the man often regarded and even revered as Star Trek's prime mover by the fans. In one interview, Solow referred to "the usual Roddenberry self-promotion technique of blaming any personal shortcomings on NBC or the studio." He elaborated in another interview:
There were certain obligations and responsibilities I had to . . . NBC who put up a lot of money to buy the series. Gene was treated as every other television producer was treated in that you have leeway to do what we had discussed you should do. If you go past those boundaries, then of course we at Desilu, myself would come down and NBC would. . . . what he would do is take out the frustrations of not being in total control by picking scapegoats, so he would treat NBC as someone who was against him, for instance, which just wasn't the truth. NBC was trying to be supportive, but if there was a problem, Gene would turn it around and blame NBC, at times blame Desilu.
The strained relations between Solow and Roddenberry stemmed partly from their respective positions in the industry: Solow, the manager, with "certain obligations and responsibilities" to both Desilu and NBC; and Roddenberry, the self-proclaimed "artist," who valued self-expression and resented institutional constraints. Said Roddenberry while TOS was still in production: "The television writer-producer faces an almost impossible task when he attempts to create and produce a quality TV series. Assuming he conceived a program of such meaning and importance that it could ultimately change the face of America, he probably could not get it on the air or keep it there."
As we discuss in the following chapter, there is a fundamental tension between concepts of art and the requirements of commerce in the entertainment industry, one that seems to have played out in the relationship between Solow and Roddenberry. This conflict has also shaped the historical record, as seen in the often-divergent accounts of Star Trek's first incarnation offered by Solow and Roddenberry and their coauthors. Roddenberry's penchant for claiming the lion's share of the inspiration and the credit no doubt fed into Solow's negative assessment of the man, but we are inclined to concur with Solow's defense of NBC. We do so because: (1) NBC's treatment of Star Trek mostly accorded with dominant practices; and (2) NBC's occasional departure from those dominant practices led to Star Trek's later success. NBC's commissioning a second pilot got the show on the air; it's keeping the show on the air, in the face of disappointing ratings, resulted in just enough episodes for the syndication success that jump-started the Star Trek phenomenon. Just as there would have been no Star Trek without Solow, or someone like him, there would have been no Star Trek phenomenon without NBC, or a network like it. Star Trek was conceived in the mind of Gene Roddenberry but was incubated and came to maturity in accord with the dominant practices and assumptions of the classic network era.
The network had not failed Star Trek, according to those assumptions and practices; Star Trek had failed the network, consistently running over budget, despite Roddenberry's assurances of production practicality, and consistently delivering low ratings. True to form, the seventy-ninth and final episode, "Turnabout Intruder," exceeded its budget by six thousand dollars and its shooting schedule by a day. The last shot, taken at 11:30 at night, was not followed by the traditional season-end wrap party, for there was nothing to celebrate. Increased budgetary constraints imposed by the studio in the hope of decreasing its losses, the departure of several key figures, among them Solow and Justman, and Roddenberry's stepping down from the executive producer role had resulted in a season of twenty-four episodes that fell far short of the show's initial promise. The Enterprise had crash-landed; its triumphant relaunch in a feature film a decade in the future would have seemed as wildly improbable that final night as the most fantastical Star Trek plot. In Solow's words, "At the time of the series' cancellation, any Paramount executive . . . who predicted there could ever be Star Trek profits would have been immediately incarcerated in the nearest asylum for the severely insane." Solow speaks of Paramount executives because Desilu had been acquired by Gulf + Western in 1967. The company had also acquired Paramount Pictures, and as a result Desilu became Paramount Television.
"A Huge Asset of the Company"
In 2002, Paramount executive Kerry McCluggage, then president of Paramount Pictures Television, told us of Star Trek, "It is a huge asset of the company. If you were to separate out the value of that brand, that would be certainly in excess of a billion dollars, just on its own. It has meant over ten movies. We're on now the fifth iteration of a television series. So add all that up, and the merchandising and books and fan clubs, and it's a multi-billion-dollar industry, just in and of itself. So, it is very important to the overall profitability of Paramount and its parent company, Viacom."
WhenNBCcanceled TOS in 1969, Star Trek was not "a huge asset" but had in fact been losing money for both Paramount and NBC because of high production costs and low ratings. The show's prime-time performance indicated that the chances of Paramount's making up even its initial outlay, let alone a profit, in syndication were not good. When UPN canceled Enterprise in 2005, Paramount was potentially losing a huge asset, since the television show was meant to be a continuation of the money-spinning franchise that Star Trek had become. A studio press release at the time said: "All of us at Paramount warmly bid goodbye to Enterprise and we all look forward to a new chapter of this enduring franchise in the future." Paramount had too great an investment in the Enterprise to leave it in dry dock; it released that "new chapter," the first entry in the rebooted film series, in 2009, only four years after the last television series went off the air. The next section explains how Star Trek became a huge asset, in the process turning into one of the most atypical television programs ever made.
Star Trek and the Multichannel Era
Some New Yorkers may first have seen Captain Kirk not on a television screen but in an advertisement for a television. On Wednesday, August 24, 1966, the day before Star Trek's first-ever TV appearance as part of an NBC fall-season preview night, the New York Times ran an advertisement that touted three of the "full color" network's new shows and the new Magnavox color television, available from Macy's department store. Tarzan (Banner Productions, 1966-69) would deliver tigers, elephants, and Cheetah the Chimp; The Hero (Talent Associates, 1966-67), an actor smoothly gunning down the bad guys on a movie set; and Star Trek, "exciting missions to worlds beyond imagination." The twenty-one-inch Magnavox color TV console would deliver a "265 sq. in. viewable area," "automatic degausser," and "automatic gain control"-all for the price of $459.50 (worth $3,052.83 in 2010). A montage photo included images of all three new series, but the screen on the product photo showed a medium close-up of William Shatner as the heroic Enterprise captain.
On April 22, 1968, two months after NBC responded to fan protests by renewing Star Trek for a third season, the New York Times ran another Macy's advertisement mentioning the program: "Imagine yourself luxuriating in a bath of bubbles, martini in hand, television tuned into Star Trek." This might sound "out of this world," but the new Pearlwick hamper, combining clothes bin, built-in TV, radio, clock, telephone, bar, book compartment, electric razor, and jewel hideaway, would make all this possible for a mere thousand dollars (worth $6,643.81 in 2010).. Although its signature peacock debuted in 1956, NBC did not became the "full color" network until 1965, at a time when the high cost of color receivers kept ownership to around 6 percent of American families. Penetration figures for Pearlwick hampers aren't available, but we can safely assume that even fewer than 6 percent of American families could have afforded or would have wanted a bathroom entertainment center featuring a "jewel hideaway." Macy's had chosen its demographics well, aiming both advertisements at well-educated and affluent New York Times readers inclined to be technologically savvy early adopters and to watch shows such as Star Trek, subsequently labeled "cult television."
Associations among desirable demographics, cult television, and technology drive the multiplatform, transmedia storytelling of the postnetwork era, but these two advertisements show that the classic network era also forged such connections, demonstrating the danger of engaging in rigid historical demarcations. As we said at the chapter's outset, while TOS in many ways typified the classic network era, it also presaged the business practices of the multichannel era. The rest of the chapter uses Star Trek as a case study to examine the complexities of the transformation of the American television industry from the classic network era to the multichannel era. We look first at Roddenberry's creation of what we call "the producer brand," then at TOS's attraction to niche audiences, and finally at the role that TOS and its successors played in undermining the three-network oligopoly and establishing the multichannel environment. In doing so, we show that television history has not proceeded in neat teleological fashion, with clear breaks between distinct periods defined on the basis of their dominant assumptions and practices. There is, instead, a certain degree of continuity, as individuals, programs, and institutions in one era experiment with practices that may (or may not) subsequently become dominant in the following era. Lacking the comparative evidence to do so, we cannot claim that Star Trek was the only classic-network-era program to engage in this experimentation, but we think that its level of experimentation was at least atypical.
The Producer Brand
The multichannel era made Chris Carter, Steven Bochco, David E. Kelley, Aaron Sorkin, and other showrunners household names. More showrunners, such as Carlton Cuse and Matthew Weiner, gained similar status in the postnetwork era. In the classic network era, only a very few producers forged a recognizable public profile-the producer brand. In the simplest terms, a brand is the association of desirable values with a corporation or person that is intended to generate value by encouraging consumer loyalty. Channel proliferation and audience fragmentation have led to a strong emphasis on the branding of networks in the multichannel and postnetwork eras. As Roberta Pearson has argued elsewhere, these factors have also led to the increased significance of the producer brand, as audiences, freed from the constraints of televisual flow, pay less attention to distributors and more attention to content and its creators. The showrunners of the multichannel era served as the well-known public spokespersons for their programs, their brands lending their products distinction in a crowded field and serving as a guarantor of quality or, at least, of potential quality. Producers and their brands suit the needs of the multichannel and postnetwork eras; they did not serve the needs of the classic network era.
In that earlier period, most producers kept a low public profile. Least objectionable programs were expected to acquire their requisite one-third of the audience through the network's scheduling and promotional practices, not through a public spokesperson who might radically distinguish the show from the competition and in so doing potentially render it objectionable. In 1971, in his forward to Muriel Cantor's book, Frank La Tourette stated that the television producer "prefers to turn the publicity spotlight away from himself so that it may shine fully on the program or the series he produces. He . . . would embrace even anonymity if that would help his program achieve a higher Nielsen rating." But at least two classic-network-era producers, Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry, sought higher ratings by turning the spotlight on themselves through creating a producer brand, an intangible asset with no legal status that nonetheless generated value. Serling and Roddenberry were both associated with an artistic integrity and social conscience that contrasted with what contemporary critics often saw as the commercial degradation of a television industry acting in accord with the "least objectionable program" assumption. Roddenberry also forged an association between himself and the 1960s "new frontier" of space travel, his "vision" of the twenty-third century reflecting the optimistic view of a scientific and technocratic future then most fully represented by NASA. Both were seen as mavericks in the classic network era, but the public self-promotion in which they both engaged became the standard practice of the later eras.
Just as Serling's most lasting achievement, The Twilight Zone, probably inspired Roddenberry's vision of Star Trek, Serling's prominence outside the industry may have inspired Roddenberry's construction of his producer brand, particularly in its emphasis upon the metaphoric uses of the science fiction genre and public opposition to the "least objectionable program" strategy. Together with Paddy Chayefsky and Reginald Rose, Serling was one of the best-known writers of the so-called golden age of live television, winner of three Emmy Awards for his scripts for Patterns (Kraft Television Theatre, ABC, 1955), Requiem for a Heavyweight (Playhouse 90, CBS, 1956), and The Comedian (Playhouse 90, CBS, 1957). In 1959, in a move that some saw as surprising, the well-known advocate of quality and opponent of censorship abandoned the live drama of New York for the filmed drama of Los Angeles to produce a new science fiction anthology series, The Twilight Zone. Saying he didn't "want to have to compromise all the time, which in essence is what the TV writer does if he wants to put on controversial themes," Serling emphasized that abandonment of the live drama didn't entail abandonment of artistic integrity. "We [the sponsor and Serling] have a good working relationship wherein with questions of taste, questions of the art form itself, questions of drama, I'm the judge. In 18 scripts we have had one line changed." Conflicts with the sponsor were unlikely, however, because The Twilight Zone was "strictly for entertainment. Because [the shows] deal in the areas of the imagination and of fantasy and of science fiction, there's no opportunity to cop a plea or chop an ax or anything." As we now know, although allaying sponsor concerns by dismissing The Twilight Zone as "strictly entertainment," Serling used the fantasy/science fiction format to address many of the most controversial issues of the 1960s: prejudice, the Cold War, individual conscience, and the like. Post-Twilight Zone, Serling, no longer having to placate sponsors, was free to admit this: "I found that it was all right to have Martians saying things Democrats and Republicans could never say." In retrospect, he reclaimed the mantle of angry young man and staunch opponent of censorship that he had shed for a time to accommodate the realpolitik of the classic network era.
Those metaphoric Martians did Serling a favor since, in an ironic twist worthy of one of his own scripts, the public identity he so craved now rests securely on the filmed rather than the live drama. Only television historians remember Requiem for a Heavyweight, but Twilight Zone fans old and new still happily recount their favorite episodes. Serling's producer brand, seemingly alien to the sensibilities of the classic network era, perfectly suits those of the postnetwork era.
Prior to Star Trek, Roddenberry, like most classic-network-era writers and producers, remained unknown outside the industry. While Serling received copious coverage in the New York Times, Roddenberry's only pre-Star Trek mention is a credit for his Kaiser Aluminum Hour script "So Short a Season," a "drama of the old West." But Star Trek, and its creator's assiduous self-promotion, would give Roddenberry a public reputation and a fan base to rival, and eventually surpass, Serling's. In 1985 the former became the first television writer to be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, while the latter, despite his preeminence during the "golden age," had to wait another three years for his star. At Star Trek's debut, Roddenberry immediately began crafting the Star Trek myth and with it his producer brand, seeking cultural legitimacy through many tactics. Claims to scientific accuracy seemed intended to liberate the show from the kiddie-TV associations of most previous televised science fiction-for example, CBS's Lost in Space, the program it chose over Star Trek. The show's initial publicity foregrounded Roddenberry's consultations with personnel from the Rand Corporation, NASA, and Caltech to obtain the latest scientific opinions on space travel and spacesuit/starship design. At the end of the show's first season, the Los Angeles Times reported that Roddenberry would attend formal presentation ceremonies at the Smithsonian to donate the pilot episode, still photos, and descriptive material that the institution had requested. By the end of the second season, Roddenberry was claiming that "over a hundred high school science classes assign Star Trek as credit" and that "even educational journals ask students to analyze the show." In the third season, when the show's future seemed bleak, Roddenberry wrote to Herb Schlosser, vice president of Programs, West Coast, citing the Smithsonian's acquisition of production materials as a reason for renewing Star Trek despite its low ratings.
The New York Times ran an interview with Roddenberry at the start of Star Trek's second season, in which the reporter stressed the distinction between Roddenberry's show and previous television science fiction: "Science fiction has been notably unsuccessful on TV. The fact that Star Trek has made it into a second season . . . makes it an exception. Its success must be attributed to creator-producer Roddenberry and his insistence on the credibility factor. For this reason, he urges his writers not to get too wrapped up in the wonder of it all. 'People aren't going to stop eating, sleeping or getting dressed in a few hundred years. We're trying to imagine . . . what they'll most likely be eating or thinking or wearing.'"
In the same article, Roddenberry also distinguished Star Trek from mainstream television by virtue of its social relevance, which, as Serling had constantly pointed out, could worry sponsors. The New York Times quoted Roddenberry as saying, "The point we'd like to bring home is that we on earth have the choice of living together or dying together." The Times noted that Roddenberry would "attempt to stress this point by introducing . . . a Russian character as a crewman aboard the ship" (this at the height of the Cold War, of course).
Less battle scarred and perhaps thus less wary than Serling, Roddenberry made explicit the metaphoric interrogation of contemporary mores. In another article after the end of the show's first season (and at the height of the Vietnam War), the Los Angeles Times said that "[b]ecause Star Trek takes place in the 21st century [sic], Roddenberry finds it easier to take on subject matter which, if it were pinned on contemporary characters and situations, would probably be tossed out by the network as too controversial. For example, war between the planets on Star Trek can be condemned. Here on earth in 1967, TV would rather not make a comment on war."
On that same date, the paper featured an interview with Roddenberry: "We did shows last year about sex, bigotry, unionism, racism and religion. We even did one on Vietnam-disguised of course." The reporter's comments indicate the contemporary status of mainstream, commercial television even in its "hometown" newspaper: "You are justifiably surmising that we were talking with the producer of an educational or closed-circuit tv project or an experimental lab in some small eastern university. . . . [But Roddenberry] was discussing stories he released over normally gutless, non-commital, play-it-safe, fun-and-games commercial television." This comment reflects a culturally prevalent assessment of television in the 1960s, echoing as it does Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow's famous characterization of the medium as a "vast wasteland." Cultural critics such as Minow and Serling routinely lambasted the dominant medium's timidity and sameness. Discursive opposition to the putatively gutless mainstream, a hallmark of cult and quality television in the multichannel and postnetwork eras, was a significant aspect of Roddenberry's producer brand at the height of the classic network era.
Roddenberry forged his producer brand not only in the newspapers but also through his book The Making of "Star Trek" (published during TOS's initial network run). Catherine Johnson suggests that Roddenberry and his coauthor, Stephen Whitfield, used the book to characterize Star Trek as "an unusual networked series that went against the dominant network strategy of producing formulaic programmes designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator." The book, says Johnson, shows how Roddenberry used the science fiction genre to buck the trend of network programming by developing television drama that was intellectually stimulating and addressed social issues. After TOS's cancellation, Roddenberry cultivated the image of himself as valiant David against NBC's oppressive Goliath. In 1973, the Los Angeles Times reported that Roddenberry "still grows darkly angry at NBC's cavalier treatment of Star Trek." His ingenious end runs around network censorship figured prominently in his narrative. In the run-up to the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the New York Times once more interviewed Roddenberry: "TV was so tightly censored that science fiction was the only way to escape the taboos in politics, religion or anything else that was considered controversial. I thought of 'Star Trek' as a 'Gulliver's Travels.'" A few years later, speaking this time to the Washington Post, Roddenberry elaborated on the Gulliver theme: "When Swift wanted to comment on his time, crooked prime ministers, insane kings and queens . . . he would have gotten his head chopped off for it if he'd written it straight. So in Star Trek I did much the same thing. I talked about things you couldn't talk about . . . sex, religion, union management, labor, all that stuff. . . . It went right over the network's heads. But all the 14- and 16-year-olds in the audience knew exactly what I was talking about."
In case the readers missed the parallel, the reporter helpfully explained that "the demented monarchs in Roddenberry's case were the TV network executives."
Contemporary journalistic accounts demonstrate that Roddenberry successfully created a producer brand consonant with the period's fascination with space travel and anxieties over the cultural status of television. His championing of Star Trek's scientific credentials and quality may have nudged the hitherto devalued science fiction genre on a path toward respectability and even critical acclaim that eventually led to The X-Files (Twentieth Century Fox Television, 1993-2002) and Battlestar Galactica (Syfy Channel, 2003-2009). Roddenberry's championing of artistic innovation and social conscience in television was a legacy to his (and Serling's) spiritual heirs, the showrunners of the multichannel and postnetwork eras who similarly position themselves against the putative artistic wasteland of network television.
Roddenberry's producer brand did not immediately aid his career, however; after cancellation, he was "perceived as the guy who made the show that was an expensive flop" and he "couldn't get work." His associations with the franchise remained vexed; he was fairly quickly reduced to marginal participation in the feature-film series, was not consulted when Paramount first contemplated TNG, and was rapidly sidelined once that show began production. Paramount wanted the brand, not the potentially troublesome man behind it. According to Roddenberry's authorized biographer, David Alexander, "Gene's name on [TNG] was, [Paramount] thought, critical to its success. Gene's magic name would be out front for all to see . . . he was the single person who could say, 'It isn't Star Trek until I say it's Star Trek." That magic name had to remain out front even as Roddenberry's failing health reduced his input into TNG to a name in the credits. Interviewed for a trade publication after Roddenberry's death, Rick Berman, his successor as executive producer, said: "The fans never knew that Gene Roddenberry's active involvement in The Next Generation diminished greatly after the first season."
Nonetheless, the Roddenberry brand's value was increased by the need to distinguish content in the free-for-all resulting from multiplatform distribution and audience fragmentation, as well as by Star Trek fandom's attachment to TOS's creator, and continued to thrive into the multichannel and postnetwork eras. Roddenberry received a credit as the "creator" on all episodes of all four spin-off series, and also on all the TOS and TNG films. And of course he continues to receive creator credit on the feature-film reboot, the first installment of which was dedicated to him and his recently deceased widow, Majel Barrett Roddenberry. As the New York Times put it in an editorial the week after Roddenberry's death, "His imagination continues to beam." That imagination continues to beam even today in part because of Roddenberry's astute construction and Paramount's calculated exploitation of his producer brand. It's particularly notable now that Roddenberry's is the only name associated with the Star Trek television series and the previous films that is acknowledged in the new J. J. Abrams movie versions.
It's unlikely that Rick Berman will be memorialized in a New York Times editorial, since he refused to cultivate his own brand during his eighteen-year association with Star Trek. We discuss Berman at this point in order to stress once again the dangers of a teleological television history. While many showrunners of the multichannel and postnetwork era have embraced the Serling and Roddenberry legacy of brand promotion, some, Berman among them, have not. If Roddenberry behaved like a multichannel or postnetwork producer in the classic network period, Berman's failure to construct a producer brand made him in some ways similar to Roddenberry's contemporaries who were, in La Tourette's phrase, happy to shine the spotlight elsewhere. We suspect that Berman, like the classic-network-era producers to whom La Tourette referred, would have been happy with anonymity if it resulted in higher ratings.
Roddenberry's most active involvement with the franchise was as executive producer on the first two seasons of TOS and TNG, but Berman contributed to the development of TNG, acted as the chief executive producer of Star Trek television from 1989 to 2005, and had significant input into all the TNG feature films. As Berman told us, "in terms of Paramount's perception I sort of became the Star Trek guy. I am the only person who has been involved in all of it." He resolutely resisted attempts to portray him as Roddenberry's creative heir: "All the things that I've read and heard over the years about Gene passing the mantle of Star Trek on to me are all nonsense. I don't recall any passing of a mantle. I was the person who was an executive producer under him." In 1986, when Berman, then Paramount Television Network's vice president for long-form and special projects, was invited by Roddenberry to become executive producer on TNG, he had "never seen a Star Trek movie. I had, I guess, watched some of the original Star Trek series, when I was a kid or in college. Maybe a little bit, but not a lot." Said Tracey Torme, a staff writer during TNG's first two seasons, "Rick is not a wide visionary. He is more of a professional producer. He always approached the show from a practical level. When I first met him, he was a straight-ahead-producer who was Paramount's guy and he adapted. But he wasn't dying to be on "Star Trek." This was just his next job."
Berman represented himself to us as someone doing his job, not as a "wide visionary." While he was happy to make "provocative, issue-oriented shows," he said that "four or five of those a season is usually enough. After that, it starts getting kind of preachy." We asked Berman how he felt about the term "Roddenberry vision," used to refer to Roddenberry's conception of an ideal utopian future without war, poverty, or racial conflict:
I know, it's become a very common terminology-Roddenberry's vision of the show-and I think it gets blown a little bit out of perspective. The answer to . . . your question 'Is there a Rick Berman vision?'-the answer is, absolutely not. There is none. I have never even dreamt of it. My vision is to create the best and most entertaining television shows that we can for the money that they give us, and to try to have some fun doing it, and to try to keep the audience from having the same thing shoved down their throat week after week.
Berman's failure to construct his own brand or to publicly embrace Roddenberry's did him no favors in the fan community. As part of his brand-building activities, Roddenberry cultivated fans from the moment that he premiered TOS's first episode at Worldcon (the World Science Fiction Convention) in 1966 and continued to do so up to his death. As the spin-off series increasingly diverged from the original series format of a starship boldly exploring the universe and achieved lower and lower ratings, doing justice to the Roddenberry vision become a point of contention among Star Trek fans. Perhaps influenced by Roddenberry's narrative of epic conflicts with NBC over creativity versus the bottom line, fans began to accuse Berman and fellow producer Brannon Braga of pursuing profits and ratings at the expense of the creator's original formulation of the Star Trek storyworld. A 1996 post to a thread on "what is going wrong with the Star Trek series" listed several factors, including "Gene Roddenberry's Example Not Followed. When this man died the integrity, warmth and fascination of the Star Trek series diminished." Fan disgruntlement escalated as TNG films Insurrection and Nemesis flopped critically and at the box office and as the Enterprise series garnered dismal ratings. In December 2002 a group of fans began the Save Star Trek Campaign, "a major initiative calling for sweeping changes within the Star Trek franchise leadership and creative direction with the goal of 'restoring' the franchise to Gene Roddenberry's creative precedents." The campaign's online petition to Paramount leaders Sumner Redstone and Sherry Lansing demanded the removal of "the current leadership of the franchise from their positions, including Rick Berman, Brannon Braga, and their entire staff." Roddenberry's imagination continued to beam so strongly that fans resented Berman simply for not being Roddenberry-a resentment probably intensified by the fact that, as Tracey Torme suggested, Berman had no qualms about admitting that he himself "wasn't a dyed-in-the-wool fan."
Berman remained unruffled by the controversy. When asked about the fans' attitude toward him, he wryly replied: "There are people who probably think that the quality [of Star Trek] would improve greatly if I were to be hit by a truck." Some academics who have written about Star Trek since we spoke with Berman seem to share that sentiment. In the Star Trek chapter in her Cult Telefantasy Series book, Sue Short asserts, "Contributing staff such as D. C. Fontana, Robert Justman and Gene L. Coon may have played an integral part in developing the series, yet Roddenberry created Star Trek, investing it with his ideals and affirming a faith in our potential to improve which is integral to the franchise." She claims that Berman was "personally mentored by Gene Roddenberry on the 'rules of Star Trek' and vowed never to break them," an account very much at variance with what we heard from the man himself. Speaking of Enterprise, she says that "the executive producers didn't seem to care about the show, its fans, or the legacy it drew upon." In her book "Star Trek," Ina Rae Hark discusses the negative fan appraisals of both Berman and Brannon Braga, executive producer on Enterprise. She, like Short, blames them for Enterprise's failure, saying that the producers were "clearly not writing Enterprise out of love for the stories they were telling or of the audience members who viewed them." Again, this is not what we heard from Berman-or, for that matter, Braga. There were many reasons for Enterprise's comparative failure, but the executive producers' lack of love for the stories and respect for the audience were not among them. We take up this point in the following chapter but now move on to a section on Star Trek's niche audiences in the classic network era.
Star Trek arrived twenty, perhaps even thirty, years too soon, at a point when the television industry still placed much greater value on the sheer number of viewers than on the demographic profiles of specific audience segments. Herb Solow said that while the TOS ratings were disappointing, they had an upside: "Although in the first season, numbers were low, they were steadily low-no dramatic fluctuations week after week. That was positive, indicating an intensely loyal audience. These forerunners of 'Trekkers' watched Star Trek because they liked the series, not tuning in or out because of a prior week's episode or the TV Guide advance description of the upcoming week's episode."
But in 1966, sheer numbers dictated a program's success or failure; it was not until the multichannel and postnetwork eras that appealing to demographically desirable niche audiences became standard business practice. TOS appealed to a relatively small audience of loyal viewers, but it did not deliberately set out to do so; all concerned would much rather have attracted the one-third of the audience that would have guaranteed the show's survival. We do present some evidence that TOS's attraction to niche audiences played a part in persuading NBC to renew the show for its second and third seasons, but NBC eventually canceled the show because it was not competitive according to the dominant assumptions of the classic network era about the mass audience. Nonetheless, a discussion of Star Trek's initial audiences reveals yet again the unevenness and complexities of television history and contributes to a growing interrogation of the assumption that the mass audience completely dominated the thinking of the classic network era.
The shift to demographic thinking is seen as one of the primary demarcations between the classic network and multichannel eras. The conventional wisdom has it that CBS's 1970s youth-oriented sitcoms (All in the Family [1971-79], The Mary Tyler Moore Show [1970-77], and M*A*S*H [1972-83]) pioneered niche-audience strategies that became dominant from the early 1980s onward with quality dramas such as Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981-87). But, as Mark Alvey argues, these sitcoms signaled the culmination of "more than a decade of research and rhetoric" not only at CBS but at the other two networks as well. Elana Levine says that, during the 1960s, ABC used daytime programming to brand itself as the "young, unconventional network" through shows aimed at young audiences: the gothic soap Dark Shadows (Dan Curtis Productions, 1966-71) and the Chuck Barris-produced game shows The Dating Game (1965-73) and The Newlywed Game (1966-74). Aniko Bodroghkozy says that from 1967 onward "broadcasters and advertisers tended to fall back on the eighteen-to-forty-nine demographic as the general age composition they wished to attract" but "continually tried to refine and further limit the age range in attempts to figure out what the audience really wanted." But, as Alvey notes, "as the 1970s wore on, mass ratings maintained considerable importance." Jason Jacobs sums up: "[T]hroughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, the 'big three' broadcast networks alternated between long-held strategies for mass-ratings success and newer ideas for attracting more demographically specific audience segments."
Clearly the roles of niche audiences, demographics, and narrowcasting in the classic network era require further investigation; we make a small contribution to that investigation by providing evidence about a specific 1960s niche audience: Star Trek viewers. Because of its often poor performance against its rivals, NBC was an early champion of demographic thinking. Alvey tells us that Paul Klein, he of the "least objectionable program" doctrine, flaunted "his network's demographic superiority at every opportunity, citing it as the criterion for leadership." By 1963, NBC's research bulletins began to emphasize the "quality" of the audience, characterizing NBC as the "leading network for upper income, upper educated young adults." These claims continued throughout the mid-1960s, with phrases such as "number one network among young adults," "the leading network among the better marketing groups," and "the preferred network among college-educated adults" showing up in the bulletins. But NBC used demographic analysis primarily to defend poorly rated programs; it had "negligible" influence on programming decisions. By 1967, however, demographics "began to play a role in the retention of programs with marginal audience share (twenty-eight to thirty-one)." In a 1967 article in Television magazine on programs in this "vast gray belt," Klein said that audience "quality" might justify renewing shows despite relatively poor Nielsen numbers. "A quality audience-lots of young adult buyers-provides a high level that may make it worth holding onto a program despite low over-all ratings," said Klein, specifically citing this as a key motivation for Star Trek's renewal after a first season in which its poor ratings would normally have portended cancelation. As Klein told TV Guide in a later interview, Star Trek was retained after a second season of poor ratings "because it delivers a quality, salable audience"-in particular, "upper-income, better-educated males."
From the beginning, NBC emphasized that while Star Trek would "stimulate the imagination," it would not do so at the expense of "bypassing the intellect." Judging from the contemporary press, Star Trek's appeal to the intellect and to the quality audience seems to have formed the main talking points in the network's publicity for the show. The Los Angeles Times's Hal Humphrey reported halfway through the first season that "[s]o much of [Star Trek's] mail is from scientists and clergymen that the NBC sales department has been able to use that fact in making its sales pitch to particular potential sponsors." The article also mentions another cult favorite, saying that the heavy mail protest against canceling the UK-made series The Avengers (1961-69, ABC Weekend Television) caused ABC in the United States to bring the program back to replace the canceled Custer (1967). Avengers and Star Trek viewership probably overlapped; some of those who wrote to ABC to save the former may well in a few months' time have written to NBC to save the latter. Reporting NBC's decision to renew Star Trek for a third season, the Washington Post said that the show drew "more mail from upper educative viewers than any other program on NBC." The article characterized Star Trek as having "relatively low ratings and high prestige." The Los Angeles Times article reporting the renewal used almost exactly the same phrase-"high prestige but relatively low ratings"-indicating common provenance in the network publicity that Alvey references.
Perhaps aware of their network's views on the subject, Star Trek's showrunner and stars also emphasized appeal to demographically desirable viewers. Roddenberry told Hal Humphrey that the show received four thousand letters a week during its first season, "a lot of it . . . highly literate," from "graduate students at Harvard and from astrophysicists." A Los Angeles Times profile of Shatner said that the show was "extremely popular in the intellectual community, especially among scientists and rocket engineers." Shatner had toured Cape Kennedy the previous spring and discovered that "the people at the Cape are out of their minds about the show. . . . [They] enjoy [it] because it gives an insight on what the future will be like." In a New York Times interview, Shatner spoke of the amalgamation of several niche audiences: "It has action-adventure . . . so the kids like it. On another level, we deal with a philosophical concept-that what's alien isn't necessarily evil-so we reach their parents. Many of our episodes deal with scientific concepts, so our program entertains the technicians and space scientists. And with the hippies, we have a far-out show. They think we're psychedelic."
First officer Leonard Nimoy (Spock), also speaking to the New York Times, added teenagers to the mix. The article said that "teenagers avidly follow Nimoy-Spock in the fan magazines and bid at auction for his foam-rubber ear-tips at science fiction gatherings." Nimoy thought that teenagers appreciated the fact that Spock, "in spite of being an outcast, being mixed up, looking different . . . maintains his point of view." Like any multichannel-era or postnetwork-era show aimed at a niche audience, Star Trek most probably appealed to a combination of smaller audiences, ranging from disaffected teens to rocket scientists. For example, Mary Celeste Kearney says that Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Twentieth Century Fox Television, 1997-2003) would not have succeeded by appealing only to teenagers, since that age cohort watches less television than others; network executives know that teen shows must target multiple demographics even in the age of narrowcasting. Again, Star Trek seems to have gotten there first.
Star Trek viewers were not just a demographically desirable audience; they were also an active audience in the days before the active audience became a commonplace. Frequently invoked by Roddenberry and Trekkies as evidence of the show's unique status, the campaign that reputedly prevented cancelation after the second season has long contributed to Star Trek mythology,but the pages of the Los Angeles Times corroborate the protest's impact: "When news of the rumored cancellation of NBC's Star Trek reached the hinterlands, it started the biggest rumble since Tony Galento fought Max Baer. On the surface it appears that the series has more fans than Lawrence Welk. Even a large contingent of Caltech students will protest with a torchlight parade over the weekend."
The paper ran a page-three article on that Caltech protest, which increased to nearly three hundred as "sympathetic students from other colleges and high schools" joined in. At NBC's Burbank studio, "NBC director of film programs James Seaborne appeared . . . with a small army of press agents and studio photographers to assure fans a decision on Star Trek is 'still pending.'"
On March 1, 1968, over the end credits of the episode "Omega Glory," NBC officially announced that the program had been renewed for a third season. The Los Angeles Times ran follow-up articles in July and August. The first filled an entire page-a big picture at the top, text in the middle, and another big picture at the bottom: "NBC was inundated with thousands of protests. Students from scientifically oriented universities literally marched on NBC-even delegations from MIT [who had picketed NBC's New York headquarters] and Caltech. In a rare showing of candor, NBC has admitted that this had an 'influence' on saving the series. The turn of events was so startling that it began to sound like a far-fetched science fiction story."
The second article included an interview with Roddenberry, who told the reporter about a "sub-culture in our flakey society that supports cultist publications, known as fanzines" and said that "hundreds of fanzine people" had visited the studio and even written "lengthy critiques of the shows, some of them very helpful." He also spoke of the "save Star Trek" campaign, saying that "prestigious groups," including Werner von Braun's White Sands Missile Range staff, had signed petitions and that "the network got over one hundred thousand pieces of mail, over a million signatures." According to Herb Solow, Roddenberry exaggerated the extent of audience response: "I located the man at NBC back in 1967 who was responsible for answering all the fan mail. That one million letters was really 12,000 letters. But 12,000 was huge. It was the largest outpouring of mail NBC had ever received." He also pointed out that, as has now become common knowledge, Roddenberry himself was behind the campaign: "It was an orchestrated event. The executives at NBC became aware that it was orchestrated and kind of resented the embarrassment. So it helped to get Star Trek renewed from year two to year three, but when year three came along, Star Trek found itself in a terrible time period with very little promotion behind it, so you have to say the letter writing campaign helped and hurt at the same time."
It is nonetheless telling that in a time before organized television fandoms, the fans were willing to be orchestrated not only to write letters but to march in the streets.
Even those NBC executives familiar with Star Trek's demographics might have been surprised by the show's ability to get the most elusive of all audiences marching in the streets. As Variety's Les Brown said of demographic thinking in 1969, "To speak of an 18-49 viewership is to obscure the fact that 18-25 scarcely exists-for television. . . . It isn't that American youth will not watch television, but rather that it doesn't watch it very often. Although the population census represents 18-25 as a large group, it's probably a small one before the set at any given hour. And with three networks and any number of independent stations trying with all their might to capture that single element of the audience, it is necessarily being splintered to almost negligible size."
And yet hundreds, perhaps thousands, in this age category were so committed to sitting in the front of the set during Star Trek's hour that they were willing to write, petition, and march to keep doing so. While this was admittedly a very small fraction even of the Star Trek audience and a minuscule fraction of the television audience, their very public engagement with their beloved show may have sent a signal to the networks. According to Bodroghkozy at this time, "Warning bells were ringing within industry circles, suggesting that the seemingly successful formula of escapist fare consisting of sit-coms, westerns, cop shows, variety shows, and the like were quickly alienating younger and highly educated viewers. . . . Paradoxically, the tried-and-true approaches for maximizing the total audience were driving away the more lucrative viewers the industry needed to maintain its economic growth in the future."
The very public attraction of niche audiences to Star Trek was an early, and admittedly faint, signal that the three-network oligopoly would give way to the multichannel era of audience fragmentation. The signal may have been strengthened by Star Trek's appeal to niche audiences in off-network syndication, which the next section addresses.
The Emergence of the Multichannel Era
Star Trek struggled during its network first run but took off in off-network syndication, a surprising success that led directly to the establishment of the great and powerful franchise it became by 2005. This franchise produced TNG, the most successful drama series in first-run syndication to date, and launched a new network, UPN, centered around its flagship show, Voyager. After the original series, no Star Trek television show appeared on a major network; Star Trek's success epitomized the weakening of the classic-network-era oligopoly. And it all began with TOS's off-network syndication-that is, the rerunning of old network shows on individual stations, both affiliated and independent-that from the early 1960s onward became an increasingly significant aspect of the television marketplace. Because of financing arrangements, television shows made money not in their network runs but in the syndication market. This is why Desilu was willing to make up the difference between the $160,000 that NBC contributed and the nearly $200,000 that making an episode actually cost. Star Trek had not performed well on NBC, but its surprisingly strong performance on nonaffiliated stations around the country led directly to Paramount first attempting to relaunch Star Trek as a television series and then launching it as a feature film series.
The syndication market received a considerable boost when the broadcasting regulatory authority, the Federal Communications Commission, required all television sets manufactured from 1964 on to receive channels broadcasting on the UHF spectrum-a move that immediately began to increase the number of independent (non-network affiliate) stations needing content. In 1967, while the original series was still on the air, Paramount Television Syndication struck a deal with Kaiser Broadcasting, which owned a number of major-market UHF stations-Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, and San Francisco. Kaiser, aware of the series' demographic profile, scheduled the show every night against their competitors' 6 P.M. newscasts, "gambling that young males were not heavy viewers of television news programs," as Solow and Justman put it. VHF stations followed this narrowcasting strategy as well. In the autumn of 1969, WPIX, one of three New York City VHF independents, scheduled Star Trek against the network news, hoping to emulate the success that fellow independent WNEW had had in "stripping" ( running every weekday at the same time) I Love Lucy in the same slot. WPIX president Fred Thrower said that the station was "banking heavily on Star Trek." He, like Kaiser Broadcasting, may have been motivated to acquire the show by virtue of its proven appeal to niche audiences, particularly those desirable young males.
Judging from Star Trek's performance elsewhere, Thrower's investment undoubtedly paid off. In the first year of syndication, the Los Angeles Times reported, the show continued to "acquire the most enviable ratings in the syndication field." Two years later the same paper reported that Star Trek was now seen in more than sixty countries and one hundred US cities. The show was still working its magic on those elusive younger viewers. "The time-slots for the reruns, usually late afternoon or early evening, make it an attractive lure for the young audience," reported the Times. Many in that young audience, in what was becoming established fan practice, watched the shows communally: "Students at many colleges such as Caltech cluster in rooms with televisions whenever the shows are aired." But the upmarket audience included professionals as well as students. STAR (Star Trek Association for Revival) was said to include doctors, dentists, lawyers, scientists, and college professors among its members. And just as in the NBC years, the Star Trek audience continued to be an active audience. The programming director of L.A.'s Channel 13 was quoted as saying: "We get more mail and phone calls about this show than any other show we've ever had on the air."
By the mid to late 1970s, university students were allegedly halting "their studies to watch the 50th re-run of Star Trek episodes on television" and, having "become addicted to continuing Star Trek re-runs on non-network stations," flocking to Star Trek conventions. Advertisers were reportedly lining up to "get into the Star Trek time slot at premium rates." Mary Barrow, publicity director for L.A.'s KTLA, which in 1977 was airing Star Trek seven days a week, said that it was one of the station's "hottest shows. . . . And it has gotten hotter as it has grown older." Two years later another KTLA spokesperson was still singing the show's praises: "It's as good now as it was the first day we ran it." By that time, episodes had "been seen 30 to 40 times in many markets." But, contrary to usual industry practice in which "shows usually get cheaper the longer they've been around," Randy Reiss of Paramount Television said that "we're now getting more for Star Trek and when the movie comes out [in 1979] it will get even better." Even by 1986, twenty years after TOS's premiere and seventeen years after its cancellation, it was still the fifth-highest-rated one-hour show in syndication, seen in 140 national markets covering 90 percent of the nation. The show was also continuing to perform well in overseas markets, already shown in 120 countries by 1977. It may be the case that Star Trek's famously multicultural-or, more accurately, multiplanetary-cast played a role in its overseas success. If so, Star Trek could be seen as the harbinger of a postnetwork-era trend: international casting specifically intended to appeal to foreign markets, as with Lost (ABC, 2004-10) and Heroes (NBC, 2006-2010). As California Business reported, Paramount certainly had an eye abroad with the first spin-off, TNG: "Paramount is smart enough to see that Star Trek, with its cosmopolitan, interplanetary cast of characters, travels well overseas. Next Generation is not just a domestic phenomenon; the overseas market is extremely lucrative." Once more, Star Trek got there first.
But it was the domestic phenomenon of the original series syndication that gave birth to TNG. Said Kerry McCluggage: "The original Star Trek . . . became a hit and a phenomenon when it was sold into syndication. There were only seventy-nine episodes, but they were stripping it five days a week, and it became immensely popular. And it was the popularity of that show in off-network syndication that spawned The Next Generation."
The key phrase here is "off-network." TOS, syndicated at a time when the mass-audience model still dominated network thinking, proved that a show aimed at the younger male audience could be very profitable. Paramount specifically designed TNG to exploit this market niche; according to Daily Variety, Paramount's "syndie prez," Steve Goldman, believed that the three major networks' prime-time programming (with the exception of sports) had ignored the eighteen-to-forty-nine-year-old male audience at which TNG was targeted. TNG not only surpassed network series "in the key selling demo" but also proved "a household success," showing that it, like the original series, amalgamated demographic segments. TNG became as hot in first-run syndication as its predecessor had been in off-network syndication, Paramount employing business practices that became standard in the multichannel era and contributing to the weakening of the established networks.
First-run syndication-that is, programs first aired in syndication rather than on the networks-had been a major component of early television programming, encompassing a range of genres, but had faded in importance as the networks, in concert with a small and closed circle of producers, took over origination of the vast majority of television content. By the late 1980s, first-run syndication had for a long time been the exclusive province of Wheel of Fortune, Entertainment Tonight, and similar fare. As Derek Kompare puts it, "[F]ictional first-run syndication finally returned to prominence in the late 1980s through the late 1990s (after an effectual twenty-five year absence) led by . . . [Star Trek: The Next Generation]. A rapid growth in the number of independent stations during the 1980s, increasing from 100 in 1980 to 328 in 1986, facilitated fictional first-run syndication's rebirth. These independents had "thrived by using a new method of financing called barter syndication to acquire first-run programs." Rather than paying an upfront acquisition fee, stations gave up a certain percentage of commercial time to the syndicator, who then sold it on to national advertisers.
Paramount decided to use this business model for TNG, the first fictional first-run series to be distributed on this basis. In a decision aimed at both short- and long-term profitability, the studio bypassed all four networks (including the fledgling Fox, which wanted to use the show to help launch its Saturday-night slate) and offered the show to the 145 stations (including 98 independents) that were broadcasting the original series. In exchange for running the new show for free, local stations would allow Paramount seven minutes of commercial time in each episode to sell to national advertisers. The station would sell the remaining five minutes of commercial time, keeping profits for themselves. This income from advertising still would not cover the cost of production, but Paramount already had their surefire money spinner in syndication-TOS. The deal clincher was that Paramount would sell the profitable TOS only to stations who took TNG as well. To have followed the standard deficit-financing model by licensing the show to a network for a fee that barely covered production costs would have meant Paramount would have to wait for off-network syndication to make money. Barter syndication made TNG profitable much sooner. As senior industry analyst Doug Lowell explained,
Because everyone else got so fearful of cable and worried about the bottom line they stopped making expensive programs for syndication. The attitude is: If it's cheaper to do an Oprah Winfrey or a live action cop show, then why run this big deficit financing if we don't have to? And suddenly, you have a zillion Geraldos. This is a big mistake because such a show has no library value-no one is going to want to watch it five or 10 years from now. But what Paramount did . . . is to continue to make the kind of TV programs that do build a library.
Kerry McCluggage explained how Paramount built the exploitation of the library into the original TNG deal:
Paramount made a commitment to do [TNG] in first-run syndication, and simultaneously sold the back end to the same stations that were buying the front end, which was how we did Deep Space Nine as well. And it was a huge success. The same stations that were airing it in first run also purchased the rights to strip it and run it in the equivalent of off-network syndication later. So they would be buying the right not only to air it once, but to then air it [again]; usually they'd get about six runs of each episode.
Paramount further exploited the back catalogue on its own television networks, beginning with running TNG, DS9, and Voyager on Viacom's Nashville Network, subsequently rebranded many times. CBS, as a result of the breaking up of Paramount Viacom, now owns the rights to Star Trek television and continues to run all five series on its various satellite channels at home and abroad.
TNG became a first-run syndication phenomenon, outperforming first-run stalwarts such as Wheel of Fortune as well as network hits like Cheers, LA Law, and Monday Night Football and consistently ranking in the top ten of hour-long dramas. Its biweekly airings attracted an estimated 20 million viewers, including many of those sought-after affluent young males. TNG's ratings triumphs so disconcerted the established networks that they joined together to dispute Paramount's claim that TNG (and the studio's other first-run shows, DS9 and The Untouchables) were delivering higher ratings among eighteen- to-forty-nine-year-old men than top-rated network shows. But as Paramount's Goldman put it, the networks were unable to stop the "first-run monster" that caused affiliates to preempt the network feed in favor of first-run syndication shows such as TNG. TNG's stellar ratings showed that a first-run show could compete on an equal basis with network shows, while Paramount's innovative business practices made the first-run market potentially more profitable. As Electronic Media reported, Paramount's taking TNG into first-run, with "several innovative marketing twists-including double runs, an aggressive seven/five barter advertising split [commercial minutes allocated to the network and the station], and upfront sales of back-end repeats [off-network syndication as part of the original deal]"-established "industry standards." Trey Paul, a writer for King Features Syndicate, credited TNG with "the current presence of so many fantasy hour dramas in syndication (Babylon 5, Robocop, Time Trax, etc.)." Kompare adds Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, Forever Knight, and Highlander: The Series to the list. All of this was directly attributable to TOS, since Paramount had linked the acquisition of TNG to the acquisition of the earlier show, already proven as a powerhouse in the off-network syndication market.
UPN, and an Earlier Risk Not Taken
Paramount's gamble with TNG and first-run syndication paid off to the tune of tens of millions of dollars and indirectly led to the launch of Paramount's own network, UPN. But ten years before TNG's debut, the studio had contemplated an even greater risk and an even more direct challenge to the network oligopoly-revealing more complexities hidden beneath historical periodizations. In 1977, Paramount tried to launch a fourth network, the Paramount Television Service, on the strength of Star Trek's syndication success. In June of that year, the New York Times announced that "Star Trek will return to the airwaves as part of a television service being established by Paramount Pictures." Paramount planned to revive the original series with the original cast (minus Leonard Nimoy, who was in dispute with the studio over revenues from licensed products bearing his image) as Star Trek: Phase II. This show, in conjunction with made-for-TV movies, would have formed a "three hour block of expensive original programming one night a week" to be offered to independent stations. In August of that year, Gene Roddenberry talked about Star Trek: Phase II, saying that the show was in preproduction, with filming scheduled to start in November. Roddenberry also said that Paramount was considering setting up a fully independent twenty-four-hour, seven-days-a-week network. A few days later, the Los Angeles Times reported that Shatner had been signed to reprise the Kirk role and confirmed that shooting would begin in November.
But come November, Paramount announced that the new Star Trek, which had been scheduled to air in April 1978, would not now be shown until September at the earliest. The studio said that although stations covering 57 percent of the country had expressed interest, recent falls in advertising rates had negatively affected the proposed network's economic viability. As we know now, audiences had to wait another ten years for more Star Trek television and another eighteen years for a Paramount network. In 2000, the Los Angeles Times's Brian Lowry gave the behind-the-scenes story of the abortive fourth network, "an epic tale full of intrigue, feuding and Star Trek."
"The men leading the 1 NEX Paramount Television Service," as a sales brochure for the venture said, became some of the most influential players in the entertainment industry. They included Barry Diller, then chairman of Paramount Pictures; Michael Eisner, the studio's president; Richard Frank, its vice president, later president of the Walt Disney Studios; and Mel Harris, currently co-president and chief operating officer of Sony Pictures. . . . To Diller's chagrin, Paramount pulled the plug six months before the venture was to make its debut. Studio chief Charles Bluhdorn worried that PTVS would lose too much money, though the $40 million projection is less than 5 percent of the losses incurred by UPN thus far.
Instead, Paramount decided to exploit Star Trek's popularity via the cinema rather than television, launching the feature-film franchise in 1979 with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The preproduction work on Star Trek: Phase II did not go entirely to waste; the film incorporated some of the elements, and TNG recycled two of the scripts. Barry Diller moved to Fox in 1984 to find Rupert Murdoch more receptive to the fourth-network idea, which became a reality in 1986 with the Fox Network. But the history of a 1970s fourth network that never happened shows yet again that developments strongly associated with the multichannel era have roots in the classic network era.
It wasn't until 1995 that Paramount finally launched its own network, UPN-which, together with Warner Bros.'s the WB, became the fifth and sixth networks of the multichannel era. As it had with TNG, the studio used Star Trek as a lure to pull in independent stations, which, to get the new Voyager, had to agree to initially carry four hours of Paramount programming from 8 to 10 P.M. Mondays and Tuesdays. Kerry McCluggage, who launched the United Paramount Network by "literally traveling around the country, forty-some-odd cities, to sign up affiliates," explained how Voyager persuaded stations to join UPN: "We could tell them what at least one of their shows would be, and that was Star Trek: Voyager." Because almost all of the stations McCluggage targeted either ran TNG or DS9 in syndication or competed with stations that did, "being able to talk to them, not just about our vision for a network, but to make that vision specific and real, and show them a tape of a presentation of what Voyager would be, made our job enormously easier, and we got the best affiliates. So we had a much better distribution start going in [than did the WB]. Primarily because of Star Trek."
However, explained McCluggage, even with Voyager and then Enterprise to attract the independents, distribution remained a problem. UPN and the WB could never rival the number of stations affiliated with the previously established networks:
There are some limits as to how far you can grow, just based upon the number of broadcast stations. We will continue to grow, but beyond the top fifty markets, there aren't going to be six broadcast stations in the market. So there's not going to be a station that can be ABC, a station that can be NBC, CBS, Fox, Paramount, and WB. The WB and UPN will have certain limitations about their growth. They'll cover it by building cable stations, satellite distribution, et cetera, and eventually, if the ratings continue to grow, you'll see affiliates switch. We've had some Fox stations become UPN affiliates. I think in one instance, an NBC station became a UPN affiliate.
UPN's relatively smaller number of affiliates accounted in part for Voyager's and then Enterprise's disappointing ratings. Rick Berman told us that "a lot of shows that are not half as good [as Enterprise]" were "watched by huge numbers of people" just because they were on NBC or CBS. "We have 86 percent of the people covered [through the UPN affiliates]. That means 14 percent of the US don't even get the show." Enterprise did continually struggle in the ratings and managed only a fourth year, enough to make up a syndication package, when Paramount reduced UPN's license fee. And UPN itself met its demise a year after Enterprise's cancellation, when in 2006 it merged with the WB to form the CW network. Star Trek may haveplayed a significant part in the transition from the classic era to the multichannel era, but it did not survive into the postnetwork era.
This chapter has outlined the broad industrial conditions in which Star Trek operated during the classic network and multichannel eras. While noting TOS's conformity tothe production and distribution strategies of the classic network era, it has also noted TOS's atypicality in foreshadowing the multichannel era and demonstrated that TNG and then Voyager played key roles in the transformation that occurred between the two eras. So far, we have told the story of Star Trek largely in terms of what Susan Christopherson terms the "competitive strategies of the firm." These competitive strategies changed in the almost four decades between the premiere of TOS and the cancellation of Enterprise. TOS had to attract the necessary one-third of the audience necessary for a network's profitability, and then recoup the studio's investment through a strong performance in the off-network syndication market. Enterprise had to perform well enough in the ratings not only to sustain itself but to serve as Voyager's successor as UPN's flagship program.
The competitive strategies of the firm, however, were not executed by Desilu, Paramount, NBC, or UPN; they were executed by individuals within those firms-Solow and Roddenberry, who together launched TOS; and Berman, who sustained the post-TOS franchise. Christopherson tells us, "It is difficult to understand either the nature of a creative worker's 'flexibility' or the degree to which self-expression or economic motives are important in their work lives without some understanding of the strategies undertaken by the firms to whom they sell their products or services." This chapter has offered an understanding of competitive strategies; the next chapter, together with chapters 3 and 4, considers creative workers and self-expression in the day-to-day process of making Star Trek television.