Jon Stewart, 'Star Trek' developments deepen digital TV pool

Jon Stewart, HBO, 'Star Trek," CBS boldly go into digital space.

Jon Stewart and "Star Trek," two of the most successful franchises in media history, are returning to television. But neither is actually going to be on TV.

Stewart signed a four-year contract with HBO, and "Star Trek" has a new deal with CBS. Each development was big news this week for millions of fans. But taken together, they have something even larger to say to all of us: The digital future for TV is arriving a lot faster than many analysts thought. In fact, when it comes to the very best TV has to offer, it is already here.

These two cultural juggernauts are not going to appear on the broadcast network and premium cable channel that made CBS and HBO famous. They are instead scheduled to take up residence on digital platforms, HBO Now and CBS All Access, where subscribers will be able to stream them on demand — for a price.

With "Transparent," the Golden-Globe-winning comedy about a retired professor (Jeffrey Tambor) on a transgender journey, only available at Amazon Prime, and "House of Cards," the Maryland-made political thriller starring Kevin Spacey, only available via Netflix, I would argue that television's best comedy and drama have already migrated to digital.

(Season 2 of "Transparent" arrives Dec. 5, while Season 4 of "House of Cards," which will wrap production in December, drops on a date yet to be announced in February.)

And there appears to be more digital-first, cable-quality programming arriving weekly.

Thursday, Amazon debuted six pilots, including "One Mississippi" starring Tig Notaro ("Boyish Girl Interrupted"). Among the executive producers of this dark comedy are Louis C.K. ("Louie") and Diablo Cody ("Juno"), who wrote the screenplay. That's impressive talent. Viewer votes will determine which of the pilots go to series.

Meanwhile, "The Art of More," a 10-episode series about the dark side of premium auction houses, arrives on Crackle Nov. 19. The drama stars Christian Cooke, Dennis Quaid, Kate Bosworth and Cary Elwes. It's the first scripted series for the streaming service.

Crackle is best known as the home of Jerry Seinfeld's brilliant "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," a series of casual interviews with other comic performers like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert.

The Crackle formula of letting Seinfeld be Seinfeld in finding what the comedian considers a suitable digital format appears to be the route HBO will take with Stewart.

HBO declined a request for an interview seeking details on Stewart's deal, but said in its announcement, "In his first project for HBO under the new deal, Stewart will view current events through his unique prism."

The release went on to say, "Working with the pioneering cloud graphics company OTOY Inc., he is developing new technology that will allow him to produce timely short-form digital content, which will be refreshed on HBO Now multiple times throughout the day."

HBO could hardly be more vague. But it's easy to imagine Stewart introducing regular pieces that allow him to speak his mind on the ups, downs and craziness of the 2016 presidential campaign.

And no matter how partisan I might believe his take on politics to be, I would be there in a heartbeat at HBO Now — even at premium prices. And, I expect, so would many of his fans.

And that's exactly what HBO is counting on, according to Dom Caristi, a telecommunications professor in the Digital Policy Institute at Ball State University.

"HBO is very smart in this regard," says Caristi, ticking off HBO's history of making winning moves in response to rapidly changing technologies. "The idea behind acquiring Jon Stewart and wanting him to be primarily on the digital platform is that he's going to drive traffic to that digital platform."

And while that's good business now, it's even better long term, Caristi says.

"If you're a subscriber to the regular [cable] service, you now get the digital platform for free," he says. "But HBO is thinking five years from now, when you may cut the cord to your cable company. They still want you paying monthly for HBO."

And Stewart is one of the few performers in American popular culture whose fans will follow him anywhere — much like Seinfeld.

Caristi says the thinking is the same with CBS and "Star Trek," the series created by the late Gene Roddenberry that spawned perhaps the most devoted followers in TV history.

"I think connecting the Jon Stewart and 'Star Trek' announcements is right on target," he said. "It's all about these guys getting exceptional original content on their digital sites to attract subscribers."

The number of Trekkies today might be small by network standards, which involve attracting millions of viewers and delivering them to advertisers during commercial breaks. But in the subscription model pioneered on cable by HBO, their loyalty makes "Star Trek" fans exactly the kind of consumers willing to pay for new episodes.

The model here is the one pioneered by Netflix with "House of Cards" and "Orange Is the New Black." You have the content people want to watch, but to do that, they have to subscribe to your digital platform.

Netflix, which jumped to the head of the field with "House of Cards" in 2013, is not standing pat. This week, it launched "Master of None," a 10-part comedy starring Aziz Ansari. "Marvel's Jessica Jones," the second of four live-action series based on Marvel Comics, drops Nov. 20. And it has a "Fuller House" update of the 1990s sitcom on the way in 2016.

As it stands now, CBS All Access is mainly a repository for shows that have already aired on CBS. But the debut of a new version of "Star Trek" could help it move within shouting distance of Netflix.

"A lot of conversation went into what we were going to do with 'Star Trek,'" CBS president and CEO Les Moonves said in a conference call with analysts last week.

"All Access is very important. All Access will put out original content, and knowing the loyalty of 'Star Trek' fans, this will boost it," he added. "There's about a billion channels out there, and because of 'Star Trek,' people will know what All Access is about."

CBS declined an interview request on "Star Trek."

Change of this magnitude always means winners and losers.

The biggest losers could be the 200 network affiliates of CBS and the other networks, should they go to the same model. For more than six decades, the core structure of American broadcast television has been that of a network — like CBS, ABC, NBC or Fox — and the 200 or so stations in cities across the country with whom they have affiliate agreements.

The basic model: Networks air programs on stations across the country at a common time and sell that national audience to programmers. Local stations sell local ads within those programs.

The digital model could blow up the very structure of American TV.

If you can watch "Empire" on a Fox digital platform before it airs on TV, why would you bother tuning in to WBFF (Fox 45) on Wednesday nights at 9? Worse, if you are only able to see it on a digital platform, as CBS plans with "Star Trek," what happens to the local affiliate during prime time?

"If I were a CBS affiliate right now, I'd be shaking in my boots," Caristi said. "They can cut the middleman, the affiliates, out and make more money. The Internet makes that possible."

And the "Star Trek" plan, scheduled to begin in 2017, says they are willing to go there.

The future looks brighter for viewers: more diverse programming from more sources as the "billion channels" and new digital platforms cited by Moonves try to offer something distinctive, and the ability to go a la carte, to some extent, which cable blocked with its heavy-handed bundling.

But you will have to pay with a subscription for every a la carte choice you make. And "free" network TV will get even worse than it is now — as hard as that might be to imagine for a realm where "NCIS" is considered the epitome of quality prime-time programming.

The best talent — Stewart, Spacey, Tambor, Seinfeld — is already on digital.

Some people believe that TV shapes the culture and that it is to blame for bad things that are happening in American life. But in this case, TV, like most industries, is just chasing the tail of technological, lifestyle and economic change unseen since the Industrial Revolution.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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