À La Carte TV? For One Trekkie, It’s Gone Too Far

Posted January 26, 2018 4:16 p.m. EST

No, I have not watched the new “Star Trek” series. Sore subject. CBS is airing the latest spinoff, “Star Trek: Discovery,” only on CBS All Access, yet another paid video streaming service, in this case for $5.99 a month, or $9.99 without commercials. And I’m not doing that.

I’ve got Netflix. I’ve got Amazon. I’ve got cable. I’m done.

Let’s not pretend this was a decision made lightly. The only political offices I’ve ever held were as vice president, and then president, of my high school Star Trek Club. These roles came with a lot of self-sacrifice and certainly a monkish devotion, since they effectively ended my dating prospects at the time, though a curly mullet didn’t help either. But it was the path I chose. I have no regrets. Some of us view “The Wrath of Khan” as a major work of American cinema. Others have no idea what I’m talking about. That’s fine. I just want my bona fides to be clear so you understand the principled stand that I’m taking.

The point is, I don’t know how I’m supposed to watch TV anymore. In industry jargon, we’re years into the great “unbundling” of cable television. Comcast lost another 125,000 residential cable subscribers in its most recent quarter, while DirecTV lost 90,000. ESPN’s subscriber base has fallen by about 12 percent since 2010. Now we patch together hardware and software from different companies and make the best of it.

For consumers, this won’t get any easier. Disney has two streaming services in development, one for entertainment and another for sports. If Disney’s acquisition of much of Fox goes through, that would further alter the landscape. And then there’s net neutrality, which could take the whole picture and shake it up like a snow globe.

Martin Kon, a partner at the Boston Consulting Group, in the firm’s technology, media and telecommunications practice, said that “over time, all major content owners will have ways of presenting their content offerings” in what he referred to as on-demand “bouquets of content.”

“It will be onerous for consumers to have a couple dozen discrete relationships,” he added. “The question then is how do they get reaggregated back into a very compelling consumer proposition?”

Breaking the cable bundle is also changing how television is developed, because more companies have access to our data. McKinsey, the consulting firm, has been collaborating with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, using artificial intelligence to help media companies make sense of the viewer data they collect. Among other things, they did a computer analysis of 1,500 short films from the website Vimeo, graphing their emotional peaks and valleys and correlating them to user comments.

The analysis found the stories that resonate most either “culminate with a positive emotional bang” or have characters that achieve “early success and happiness before a steady decline into misfortune.” Such insights “could mean a new musical score or a different image at crucial moments, as well as tweaks to plot, dialogue, and characters,” the analysis concluded.

“The risk in the industry is spending large amounts of money for early-stage television series, most of which fail,” said Jonathan Dunn, a McKinsey partner and an author of the analysis, adding that the goal is to “take all of that information you’ve learned about recommendation and discovery” and “get an edge on your production and greenlighting choices.”

Things used to be simpler. My father made a ritual of coming home from work, settling in a leather chair with a scotch and soda and watching reruns of “M*A*S*H.” I stationed myself on a couch to his right.

Now we have our own content corners. There’s a 12-year-old in my house who watches YouTube videos of other kids playing video games. I’m catching up on “BoJack Horseman,” the Netflix cartoon about a washed-up drunken actor who happens to be a horse. Hulu and Showtime haven’t made the cut. As for HBO, get back to me in 2019, when “Game of Thrones” returns.

Marc DeBevoise, president and chief operating officer of CBS Interactive, said “Star Trek: Discovery” was in production when the company was looking for an anchor for its new streaming service, which now has more than 2 million subscribers.

“We realized that building this into a multimillion-subscriber service was going to take a great base,” he said, “and we realized we were going to have our own exclusive content to differentiate it.”

I understand the business rationale. But I’m done paying for more TV, even if it means turning my back on “Star Trek.” This is an absolute red line I will not cross until after Feb. 11, when the first season of the show ends and I can sign up for the free trial week being offered and binge-watch it all at once.

Until then, the entertainment industry should remember we don’t have to watch television. I read a novel recently, and I might read another one, if it’s short enough. Really, I will.