Star Trek: Picard might be CBS All Access’ last, best hope in the streaming war

The first episode of Star Trek: Picard finally arrived Thursday on CBS All Access, the streaming video service launched by ViacomCBS that’s the streaming home to much of the Star Trek franchise.

The premiere of Picard follows nearly two years of buzz, dating back to star Patrick Stewart’s surprise announcement of the series in August 2018 during a Star Trek convention in Las Vegas, and fortunately for fans, the first episode lives up to the hype.

Aptly titled Remembrance, the show’s premiere episode manages to blend nostalgic call-backs to Star Trek: The Next Generation — the series that introduced Stewart as iconic USS Enterprise Captain Jean-Luc Picard — and the events of various other Star Trek shows and spinoff films with plenty of fresh, intriguing concepts that will shape the story to come.

Remembrance is a fantastic debut for Star Trek: Picard — but is this franchise enough to finally make CBS All Access a serious competitor in the streaming world?

First launched back in October 2014, CBS All Access typically remains an afterthought in the streaming conversation. Although CBS hasn’t reported the service’s total number of subscribers, reports suggest that the number is somewhere between four and five million. That might seem like a respectable subscriber pool, but it’s dwarfed by the 158 million subscribers Netflix has accumulated, and even the 28.5 million Hulu subscribers.

The number is particularly dwarfed when you consider that Disney+ reportedly had 10 million subscribers within 24 hours of launching (just a few months ago in November 2019 — we called it clunky but hard to pass up), making the gap between CBS All Access and other major streaming players strikingly apparent.

That’s why Star Trek: Picard is so important for All Access: The series is, without a doubt, the strongest argument the service has made for new subscribers.

As has been showcased so effectively by TV and movies in recent years, nostalgia is a powerful force. Whether it’s the generational throwback appeal of Stranger Things on Netflix or Disney’s wildly successful dip into old-school (read: original trilogy) Star Wars mythology with The Mandalorian, streaming services have seemingly gone all-in on the past to secure their future.

Look at the hundred-million-dollar bidding wars waged by various streamers over beloved sitcoms like Friends and The Office, and it becomes abundantly clear that streaming services see plenty of value in tapping into the familiar and making it a foundation of their offerings.

ViacomCBS seemed keenly aware of this fact when it launched CBS All Access, having promised a bounty of new Star Trek projects in addition to the existing vault of Star Trek shows and movies, and plenty of other CBS classic series. It also delivered a new version of another classic franchise, The Twilight Zone, updated for modern audiences and featuring one of Hollywood’s hottest filmmakers, Academy Award winner Jordan Peele, as the face of the project and host of the sci-fi anthology series.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham in Star Trek Discovery

Despite a rocky beginning for the show, CBS All Access seemingly delivered on its Star Trek promise with Star Trek: Discovery eventually winning over franchise fans and critics alike and earning a second season that received even more positive praise, as well as an upcoming third season (and potential spin-off projects).

And yet, despite two well-received iterations of beloved franchises (one of those franchises ranking among the most popular sci-fi properties in the world), as well as the critically acclaimed original drama series The Good Fight and a vault of classic sitcoms and dramas available to subscribers, CBS All Access seems to be having trouble finding its footing in an increasingly crowded field of contenders.

ViacomCBS certainly seems willing to fund its streaming future, having reportedly poured upwards of $8 million per episode into the first season of Discovery and likely even more into future seasons and Picard. And though it’s not spending the kind of megabucks Netflix is (amounting to billions every year on new content) at $6 per month for an ad-supported version of the service and $10 monthly for ad-free access, CBS All Access is priced very competitively.

At this point, CBS All Access is running out of reasons to explain away its low profile in the streaming landscape, and Star Trek: Picard is shaping up to be its best hope to turn its fortunes around. With a cast representing some of the most popular Star Trek projects, a story that walks the fine line between nostalgia and innovation, and a lead actor who is just as popular now (or more so) as he was when The Next Generation was still in its broadcast run decades ago, Picard checks off all the boxes for a tentpole production with the widest appeal possible.

After one episode, Star Trek: Picard certainly looks like a hit, but it will be interesting to see whether its compelling blend of old-meets-new is powerful enough to finally elevate CBS All Access from minor player to serious contender in the battle for the hearts and wallets of streaming audiences.

There’s a lot of ground to cover, but if anyone can do it, it’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

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