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Friday, June 23, 2006

How Star Trek Liberated Television

This essay was first published in Boarding the Enterprise, edited by David Gerrold and Robert J. Sawyer, BenBella Books, 2006.

How Star Trek Liberated Television

“Minerva’s owl begins its flight only in the gathering dust…”
-- G.W.F. Hegel, 1770-1831

by Paul Levinson

Hegel was talking about how the greatest writings of the classical world –- those that would have the most lasting impact on our popular culture –- took shape as the civilizations around them started to decline. He was thinking about Socrates and Plato in Athens, Cicero and the Roman Republic, Augustine and the end of the Empire.

Let’s think about Star Trek and the decline of network television.

The twenty-first century has not been kind to traditional network television in America. Overall viewership has been falling for more than a decade. The premiere of The Sopranos several seasons ago drew more viewers than any program on the networks. A mere handful of millions separates Fox News on cable from network news on free TV. Although the Nielsen ratings in the Fall of 2005 show more people watching television than ever before, it’s often not the networks they are watching.

It wasn’t always so. Television entered the 1970s at the height of the networks’ oligarchic power. CBS, NBC, and ABC accounted for 90 percent of the prime-time audience back then, which watched television on some 36 million TV sets. This translated into more than 100 million people. In contrast, the four networks today (the original three plus Fox) often have trouble attracting more than half that number of viewers in total.

The competition back then was as fierce as it is now. In order to attract the top advertising dollar, networks had to field a reliable 30-percent share -- a consistent third of all network viewers. Programs that achieved less lived on short leashes, regardless of their quality and the passion of the their audiences. The original Star Trek on NBC was such a program. It was one of the best series I had ever seen on TV. And it was cancelled in 1969, after just a three-year run. The reason: its ratings were slipping. Even worse: the majority of its viewers were children and teenagers, not the kind of audience that advertisers were looking for the 1960s. In those days, kids didn't have much purchasing power. And they spent what they had on products not advertised on prime-time TV.

I was one of those kids (well, I was 19 when Star Trek debuted on NBC TV in 1966). I was furious and heart-broken when it was cancelled.

We all know what happened afterwards to Star Trek. How it first returned in the afterlife of syndication, on local, unimportant stations throughout the country, at midnights on Sunday on Channel 11 in New York City, at after-school hours and other decidedly non-prime time showings in other cities. How it inspired a following that generated four subsequent television series and ten motion pictures, and propelled Star Trek into the popular culture zenith inhabited by the creations of Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens.

This is the story of how that syndication not only launched Star Trek into mythic levels in our popular culture, but signaled the beginning of the end for the network domination of television. From The Sopranos to Rome, also on HBO, from MTV to CNN and Fox News to the Discovery and the Sci-Fi Channels, all that we see on cable today is the result of Star Trek’s amazing off-network voyages.

Syndication and Star Trek

Syndication before Star Trek was an afterthought for viewers. The pleasures it afforded were akin to those you got when you drove a friend’s jalopy, or enjoyed food you took home from a fine restaurant the night before.

Other enormously successful reruns had only a fraction of Star Trek's impact. "To the moon, Alice, to the Moon!" is no doubt recognizable to countless viewers around the world who have seen The Honeymooners in reruns since its CBS prime-time debut on a Saturday evening in 1955. So is the theme music from Bonanza. But only one movie has been made of The Honeymooners -- with Cedric the Entertainer in 2005 -- and no movies have been made of Bonanza. No further series carried forth the story of The Honeymooners, and Bonanza had one failed "prequel," The Ponderosa, on cable TV in 2001. Lost in Space, on CBS from 1965 through 1968, did manage a movie adaptation, but it and the original series have had little to no effect on our popular culture.

I Love Lucy is the high watermark of this kind of syndication. The show began filming for CBS in 1951, continued for 23 years in one or another version, and soon was syndicated all over America and the world. By 1974, Viacom had 179 syndicated episodes of Lucy in the field. In New York City alone, you could see reruns of Lucy on three different local TV networks -- in fact, twice a day on one of them. Lucy is as hilarious today as she was in the 50s, and you can see her in a fair number of old movies, too. But of course there can be no new Lucy series, and nor are there any sections in bookstores stocked with paperbacks that tell the story of her further or alternate adventures.

What did Star Trek have that all these other shows did not? It was not only the story line. It was the specific way in which Star Trek broke into syndication. It fit none of the patterns. It broke all of the molds. Unlike Lucy and Bonanza, which were huge successes throughout much of their prime-time original runs, Star Trek was a ratings disappointment. Indeed, Lucy and Bonanza were still riding high in prime-time network television during their syndications -- which of course far outlived their original lives -- but Star Trek was dead and all-but-buried when its syndication began in 1970. Its success in syndication was thus a slap in the face of network television and its ratings logic from the very beginning.

But Star Trek’s syndication also came along at just the right time in the history of television.

Diversification of Media

The history of media shows a very interesting pattern that has repeated itself many times. When new mass media start out, they attempt to please everyone. They create entertainment, report news, in a way that is designed to appeal to as many people as possible. They are the most “mass” of mass media at these outsets.

But sooner or later, this changes. The first American magazines that rolled off the printing presses in the 1840s were intended for all readers. Harper’s had something for men, women, children, outdoors types, bookworms, everyone. A hundred years later, a hundred different magazines on newsstands beckoned to fisherman, gardeners, coin collectors, doll collectors, businessmen, housewives and almost every conceivable taste and interest. Radio underwent a similar, if faster, development. Stations in the 1920s and 30s broadcast news, talk, sports, all kinds of music, and soap operas and mystery shows, to boot. By the 1960s, we had stations devoted entirely to rock ‘n’ roll, country and western, classical music, or talk.

Television from its inception did everything faster than every other medium. It was in ninety percent of American homes by the end of the 1950s -- a decade after its commercial introduction –- a record for adoption still not exceeded by personal computers and cell phones.

Although few people realized it, television’s sped-up evolution made it ready for diversification by the early 1970s. Certainly the network executives had no idea what was coming. Having pulled the rug out from under Hollywood and the neighborhood movie theater in the 1950s – Hollywood moguls hugely underestimated the appeal of staying at home and watching TV – the network execs made the same kind of mistake about cable. They overlooked the public’s appetite for specialized choices in TV viewing, and how cable could feed it.

Star Trek in syndication provided the first example. In retrospect, a science fiction show was an ideal vehicle for this maiden voyage.

Although the 1950s is known as the “golden age” of science fiction, the sales of its leading authors, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke, were far from golden back then. On television, Captain Video and His Video Rangers ran on the third-rate Dumont TV network from 1949 through 1955. Actually, Dumont was fourth-rate - always struggling, limping far behind the big three networks. Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh kindly describe it as "perpetually impoverished" in their 1979 Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows. Captain Video's budget was so pinched that it provided the grand total of $25 per week for props! (That's right - twenty-five dollars - I didn't leave off any zeros.) The Twilight Zone had considerably more success in its original 30-minute format on CBS from 1959-1962, but failed to make the transition to an hour-long show.

Given this ambiguous status of science fiction – the mixed signals it gave to the popular culture – it is entirely understandable that NBC first took a chance with Star Trek, and then was quick to cancel it. What happened afterward to the networks is also understandable, but only now with the wisdom of hindsight.

The Time and the Place: Guerrilla Television

How can TV – how does any medium – cater to a specialized taste? How can it satisfy that appetite in a way that invites the rest of the public to join the party? What is the best time and place for such presentations?

The thing about syndication is that it had no time and place - nothing appointed for everyone at the same time, at least not nationally. It was off or under the radar. It went totally contrary to the mainstream miracle of network television, in which everyone in the country, or at least 30 or so million viewers, watched the same show at the same time. In its heyday, network television reveled in everyone arranging calendars, making a point of staying home at a particular time, to watch a hit show.

But even locally here in New York City, Star Trek's schedule in syndication was sketchy. It was on midnight on Sunday, but sometimes it was also there on Saturday.

I remember calling my girlfriend Tina, long since my wife. "Did you see 'City on the Edge of Forever' last night? I tuned in in the middle, and didn't want to wake you."

"When will be it on again?"

Who knew? Maybe a year, maybe next week, if you took into account the Saturday schedule, but who knew what that was or how long it would be in effect?

The people at Channel 11 presumably knew, though come to think of it, maybe not. I'm sure I saw "The Trouble with Tribbles" at least three times in syndication in one year, and "Spock's Brain" twice ("You'll get nothing more from her, Jim -- hers is the mind of a child!"). Where was the sense in that?

It didn't make much sense but that was its charm – and its power. Marshall McLuhan's celebrated 1960s distinction between "hot" and "cool" media explains part of it. Hot media put everything out clearly and precisely. But once we get it, hear it, read it -- like a newspaper -- we have little further interest in it. We already know its stories. We know what to expect. Cool media are more low-profile, ambiguous, imprecise. We therefore can never get enough of them. We can't get our fill because we can never imbibe them completely. Star Trek's banishment from the networks immersed it in a dark, cool pool of our memories. The vagaries of syndication brought it a lot closer -- yet still somehow always just a bit beyond our calendar and reach. You couldn’t really make a plan or precise appointment with yourself to see it. But you also knew that it was somehow always there, anyway. Like some ubiquitous, invisible being, it was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Many people worship such beings. Star Trek's fans felt that way
about Star Trek in syndication.

And cable television was just about ready to pick up on that.

Dumont Avenged!

Ironically, cable was introduced in State College, Pennsylvania in the 1950s as a way of providing TV network programming to people beyond broadcast range. The town of State College is located right smack dab in the middle of that wide state, too far from Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west to receive their signals via air. But it is a big college community, and the television networks and their advertisers wanted to reach it. The answer was cable. Like FM radio when it was first introduced in the 1940s, cable was thought of as an adjunct, an extra channel, for mainstream broadcasting.

This did not change until the early 1980s, when CNN, MTV, and HBO began offering programs not available at all on the networks. This was less than a decade after Star Trek in syndication had shown the good sense of providing a program no longer available on network TV. Cable was the brain-child of many people, all of whom were aware of the success of Star Trek in syndication. Only a TV-exec confined to a planetoid around Alpha Centauri could not have been. But at least one of the great pioneers of cable in the 1980s had a more explicit connection: Star Trek reruns had been a big hit on Ted Turner’s WTBS television station in Atlanta in the 1970s. He had seen first hand, in his profit-and-loss columns, that there was not only life but spectacular impact beyond network TV. You need only to hear Darth Vader as the voice of CNN to appreciate how deeply Ted Turner was tuned into science fiction and its power in the real world.

When a medium begins to falter, it has no shortage of would-be successors nipping at its heels. Videotaping technology was also invented in the mid-1950s, and soon replaced the feeble kinescope, which at first was the only way of making copies of television shows. Among the early successes of video was the taping of the 1959 Nixon-Khrushchev "Kitchen" debate for broadcast on NBC. But these Ampex videotape devices were used by the networks to enhance their programming – like cable TV in those days, videotaping was an adjunct of network TV, not a stand-alone medium – and the taping devices were in any case not available to the general public. An Ampex recorder had a price tag of $45,000 in 1958.

Sony came to the rescue of videotape and television viewers starved for diversity and more control over their television in the mid-1970s – just as Star Trek was beginning to make a big name for itself in the backwaters of syndicated television. VCRs introduced by Sony were intended for the viewing public, and cost less than one-tenth of the 1958 Ampex. As demand quickened, prices dropped to below $2000 per device. Still no bargain, but affordable to the upper middle classes. Soon VCRs would be in reach of everyone, and become standard gear for television.

When the television networks finally realized what was happening, they were horrified at the prospect. People were watching rented movies rather than prime-time shows on their TV screens. Even worse, viewers could tape a program, play it back, and speed past the commercials. So upset were the networks about this possibility that they went all the way to the Supreme Court – in 1984, as cable was first beginning to flex its muscles as an independent medium - in an attempt to make it illegal for viewers to videotape television shows. (So much for corporate network support of the First Amendment, when it can hurt their pocketbooks.) The Supreme Court, in a rare display of good judgment about the media in the twentieth-century, wisely decided not to give the networks what they wanted.

Today, TiVo and similar technologies, as well as “on demand” cable, are making the VCR obsolete, and the networks along with it. V-casts and mobisodes are debuting on cell phones. How much longer commercial television can endure with viewers effortlessly able to delete commercials, or watch programs by subscription on cable and cell phone with no commercials to begin with, is anyone's guess. But the successful assault on network hegemony began in 1970, on the date that Star Trek went into syndication.

The feature shared by all of these developments -- Star Trek in syndication, the rise of cable TV and VCRs, and now TiVo and its siblings -- is the assertive viewer, the basic human desire to see and hear our entertainment when we want it, rather than wait passively for a network to dole it out.

The Internet probably has been the least injurious of new media to the traditional television networks. We can look on the Web for additional information about our favorite network shows. We can discuss them in online communities and message boards. And we can "stream" or download a missed episode of a current network series -- or simply see one we want to view again. But these very benefits of the Web cater, again, to our hunger for entertainment on our schedule rather than someone else's, and in the long run only expose the rigidity and unresponsiveness of traditional network TV to our needs.

The Internet as a medium for first military and then scholarly work goes back to the 1960s. The personal computer as a device at hand for everyday people was introduced in the 1980s, and its connection to the Web took wings about a decade later. Once again, the transformation from corporate and administrative to personal satisfaction took place just a few years after Star Trek debuted in syndication on Channel 11 in New York City, Ted Turner’s WTBS in Atlanta, and local stations across America. Coincidence? Well, one could argue that the impulse to satisfy our entertainment needs on our own schedule was so strong, and the networks so inept in fulfilling it, that the revolution would have happened anyway, with or without Star Trek. Certainly the technology of cable and the Web, and the daring of innovators like Ted Turner, would have been there, anyway. But revolutions need a first shot, a Paul Revere, to signal their onset. And Star Trek in syndication provided that.

It is probably also worth noting that David Gerrold, author of the acclaimed "Tribble" episodes and one of the editors of this book, also contributed to the digital revolution with a column about personal computing in Profiles, a magazine devoted to the Kaypro "CP/M" computer in the 1980s. In fact, so did my friend Rob Sawyer, the other editor of this book. The roots of the revolution fomented by Star Trek run wide and deep.

Human-Fashioned Futures

The evolution of television towards greater satisfaction of viewer tastes and choices is no coincidence. Along with the diversification and specialization of mass media, the empowerment of the viewer points to a crucial truth about the human relationship to technology: in the long run and the last analysis, we control our technology and media, not vice versa.

You wouldn’t know this given what most critics of media say. Those who pass judgment on our popular culture often depict us as creatures of our media, which increasingly dictate our tastes, schedules, and lives. In fact, the liberation of television begun by Star Trek shows just the opposite.

It is entirely appropriate that science fiction in general and Star Trek in particular led this charge. At its best, science fiction shows human rationality struggling with and triumphing over a chaotic, hostile, dangerous universe. Until 2006, The New York Times confined most reviews of science fiction to columns on page 38 or the equivalent in which three or four novels are accorded a paragraph or two each of review -- almost literally on the margins. That may in fact have helped science fiction, by keeping it suppressed and edgy, but it missed how science fiction is the quintessential story-telling of our time, uniquely capturing the human connection to the cosmos: our capacity to first know it and then reshape it to our own specifications. (Not only science fiction got short shrift in The New York Times. Mystery and detective fiction still do. And romance novels are not reviewed there at all. The genres are apparently too popular to merit the Times' attention. If it's not about a dysfunctional Southern family, the "newspaper of record" has little interest in reviewing it. But that's a story for another essay.)

More than any program in the history of television, Star Trek exemplified these highest ideals of science fiction. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu and the rest were standard-bearers for our human encounter with the cosmos, for the unique mixtures of passion and logic that we bring to our encounters with everything.

Back here on Earth, in the 1960s, the program failed. But its lessons and thrills were far more profound than could be contained in any decade or network. It was and is a story for the centuries and the millennia, and its appropriate medium could therefore never be just network television, or indeed any single means. Its proper vehicle is, instead, every possible kind of communication at hand, which today includes books, television, motion pictures, and the Web.

Who back in the 1960s could have predicted such pollination, which broke through network TV like an explosion of dandelion seeds, invigorating half a dozen media and transforming television in the process? Not even Harlan Ellison, author of "City on the Edge of Forever" (in my and many other people's estimation the best script and episode in the original Star Trek series), who told the Washington Post in 1972 that in his opinion Star Trek was "dead." (Thanks to David Alexander's 1994 biography of Gene Roddenberry -- Star Trek Creator --for salvaging Ellison's classic of poor prediction from the historical dustbin.)

In those days, after all, gone was pretty well gone on television. Like an enemy of the state who had been declared a non-person in Orwell's 1984, with all images expunged from the public record, a television show once cancelled was invisible, unattainable. It wasn't like an old book that stayed on the same shelf, in the same library, for years and years. Its exile was far worse than yesterday's newspaper, which you at least could keep to wrap fish in. For that matter, last year's and earlier newspapers were available on microfiche in the library, for anyone who wanted to peruse them.

It was into the pit of such programmed, televised amnesia that NBC and just about everyone assumed Star Trek was headed after its cancellation. Instead, when NBC cancelled the series, it actually was taking the first big step in canceling itself and the two other networks as the mighty triumvirate that once dictated everything new that we saw on television.

The twenty-first century revolution in media had begun.

See also: Star Trek: Reborn, Reset, Resplendent and Star Trek Into Darkness: Echoes, Resonances, Great



Cicero said...

What a good article.

I must admit to being a lurker on your blog, specifically in articles about Rome. After reading such a great article, it had to say it: Chapó

Paul Levinson said...

Thank you, ricardo! I'm really glad you enjoyed this article - it's one of my favorites.

Now that Rome is over, I'll be putting all of my reviews together into single article, which I'll post here in addition to the individual reviews.

Glad to have you here as a lurker, reader, commentator!


Anonymous said...

Great article.

You left out that Star Trek was one of the first TV shows to be released on video tape, then LaserDisc, then DVD, and HD-DVD(first season).
I'll bet it will ultimately make it on to Blu-ray.

Also, that Star Trek is now available with most of the special effects (Space ships, space, viewscreens) redone using latest CGI computer technology (on a low budget though).

Robert K. Blechman said...

Thanks for posting this article. I myself was sixteen when the first episode of Star Trek aired (I call it "The Salt Vampire", but the official title was "The Man Trap"). Though I was, even at that young age, already a television scifi junkie, I could tell that Star Trek represented something new and unique. What you don't discuss is that, as in many origin stories, the ultimate success of Star Trek was a happy combination of the right executive producer, the right actors playing key roles and the right amount of indifference by Desilu in greenlighting the project in the first place. Without Gene Roddenberry's particular sensibility applied to the science fiction genre, without the empathy brought to their admittedly stereotypic characters by Shatner, Nimoy et al, Star Trek would not have been the medium-defining series it became.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting through a viewing of "The City on the Edge of Forever" with my seventeen-year-old daughter who was seeing it for the first time. In spite of the tacky sets and costumes, the admittedly hammy acting in places and other production limitations, I am pleased to report that I watched my normally unimpressible daughter catch her breath when McCoy disappears into the time portal, changes the past and Kirk announces "We're totally alone!"

Now that's show biz!