The Star Trek Civil War Part 3 — Viacom’s Breakup & Licensing Explained
Greetings fellow Star Trek fans! This is the third part of my examination surrounding the mismanagement of the Star Trek franchise by the corporate entities that own it. If you have not yet read parts one and two, please do so by clicking these links:
Star Trek’s Civil War: Part 1
Star Trek’s Civil War: How Infighting, Corporate Rivalry, & Incompetence Is Destroying The Franchise — Part 1
Star Trek’s Civil War: Part 2
Star Trek’s Civil War Part 2 — Star Trek’s Revival And Subsequent Downfall
The first article in the series was meant to establish the history of Star Trek and its rise to prominence in the late 80s and early 90s. It was also meant to establish its ultimate downfall at the hands of Viacom and their failed attempt to launch the UPN network, which ultimately destroyed the franchise on television.
The second article examined Star Trek’s rebirth on the big screen under J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot production company. It also looked at how the very man who breathed new life into Star Trek also sabotaged it through his lack of interest and the downfall of the cinematic reboot, which lead to the re-launching of Star Trek on television streaming services and the chaos surrounding the production of Star Trek: Discovery.
This article will focus on the company that owns Star Trek — Viacom — and how its break-up caused even further mismanagement of the Star Trek franchise that led to Bad Robot and J.J. Abrams abandoning their ambitious plans for the property. It will also attempt to explain how movie licensing works, and how the complicated licensing structure run by the CBS Consumer Products division impacts the Star Trek franchise.
Though this article is very long, this is the meat of this series of articles because licensing is at the core of Star Trek’s mismanagement. All issues regarding Trek’s downfall can ultimately be traced to the franchise’s licensing deals and the business practices by it’s parent company to protect those deals. If you’re already upset over how Star Trek has been handled in the past, prepare to get enraged as you discover how “Star Trek’s Civil War” is waged on a daily basis.
Who Owns What, And Why: Corporate Restructuring For (And By) Dummies
To understand exactly how the licensing structure of Star Trek works, one almost needs a business law degree as well as the ability to make sense of extreme stupidity to comprehend it all. Most people — at least those who care enough about Star Trek to pay attention — know that after the Viacom break up in 2005 that the rights for Star Trek were split between The CBS Corporation and the new Viacom Inc. (which owns Paramount Studios). The common belief is that the rights to Star Trek were divided up so that CBS owned the rights to make new TV series and Paramount owned the rights to make new movies.
But it’s nowhere near as simple as that.
Before the break-up, Viacom was a massive megaconglomerate that owned numerous different companies within the entertainment industry, ranging from movies, to TV, to radio, to billboards, to theme parks, and publishing. When Viacom operated as a single entity, it had a lot more flexibility in how its properties were used within the companies it owned. For instance, if Paramount Television Studios, which owned the rights to the Star Trek TV series, wanted to make a new Star Trek show, it could easily do that just like any normal production company would. And if Paramount Studios wanted to make a new Star Trek movie, it could do so whenever it wanted, even in tandem with a new Star Trek TV show. This is essentially how Star Trek operated up to 2005, when everything was under the roof of one company — Viacom.
When Viacom was split into two separate companies, the split was performed under the categorization of the growth potential of all of Viacom’s owned companies rather than how they worked with one another. The companies with the most potential for growth were all grouped together to form the new Viacom, and the companies that were seen as stagnant but steady were grouped together as The CBS Corporation. This grouping was all based on how the stock of the new companies was expected to perform. The new Viacom was meant to attract investors looking for high risk high reward growth stocks, while CBS Corporation was meant to attract value investors who were looking for a safe company to park their money in and collect a dividend.
CBS’s television properties, with their steady ad revenue model and syndication licensing agreements, were seen as steady companies that belonged in the “value company.” Paramount Studios, on the other hand, was seen as a riskier property, due to the hit-and-miss nature of the movie industry, and was lumped in with the “growth company.” On paper this makes sense, because movies and TV operate differently, so there shouldn’t have been any issue when it came to separating Viacom’s TV companies from its movie companies. However, after decades of being under one corporate umbrella, there was a lot of cross-pollination between the movie and TV businesses those who structured the split didn’t take into account.
So, for those of you who don’t have a degree in legal affairs or corporate restructuring, allow me to explain what happened here…
In the break up, The CBS Corporation was granted ownership of a great many companies pertaining to the old incarnation of Viacom’s television operation. This included CBS Broadcasting (which is essentially the CBS Network we all know and sort-of love), CBS Television Distribution (which handles the distribution rights for all TV series, mini-series, made-for-TV films, syndication rights, and home entertainment), and CBS Television Studios (which produces television shows as CBS’s in-house production company). However, somewhere along the line, someone thought it would be a good idea to include Paramount Studio’s television arm, called Paramount Television, into the group of companies CBS would have control over rather than keeping it associated with Viacom and Paramount Studios. After the split of the company was finalized, CBS absorbed Paramount Television into a new subsidiary called “CBS Paramount Television” (which would eventually be renamed to CBS Television Studios).
The issue here is that Paramount Television owned the rights to the Star Trek TV shows, which included The Original Series, The Animated Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. Essentially, any iteration of Star Trek that ever aired on television was owned by this company, which was now owned by CBS Corporation.
The new Viacom, on the other hand, owned Paramount Studios, as well as Paramount Home Media Distribution (Paramount’s home video distribution company). Because Paramount Studios had made and distributed the Star Trek movies, the films were part of their movie library, thus giving Paramount ownership of all films based on The Original Series and The Next Generation that were made before 2006. Paramount Home Media Distribution also retained the rights to distribute Star Trek movies and TV shows, along with other CBS programming, via VHS, DVD, and Blu Ray, despite the CBS Corporation having its own home entertainment division. This is because before the split, Paramount Home Media Distribution handled the home video market for all Viacom properties. But now that CBS was its own company, Paramount Home Media Distribution still had the rights to CBS’s programming library’s distribution, which included Star Trek.
Due to Star Trek being such an important tentpole franchise for Paramount, part of the arrangement that was established during the Viacom break up was that Paramount Studios would have the exclusive right to produce and distribute Star Trek movies in perpetuity. This was necessary to ensure that rival movie studios would not be able to somehow acquire the Star Trek license, as the loss of such a profitable film franchise would negatively affect the new Viacom’s profits and stock value. The new Viacom was designed to be a “growth company,” and nothing spelled growth more than launching a huge evergreen movie franchise. Because National Amusements Inc. owned both The CBS Corporation and Viacom Inc., the two companies were still meant to work together despite being separate entities. The provision that Paramount would have exclusive rights to make Star Trek films was an important safeguard for the continuing health of Paramount Studios and its owner, Viacom.
However, just because Paramount has exclusive rights to make Star Trek films doesn’t exactly mean they WOULD be able to make them.
Allow me to explain…
Just because Paramount Studios was the exclusive producer of feature film versions of Star Trek didn’t give them the ability to actually make Star Trek movies, due to the licensing structure of Hollywood. Though Paramount owned the existing slate of Trek movies, this didn’t mean they owned the elements that made up those films. The name “Star Trek”, along with all the characters, aliens, starships, and gadgets within the films belonged to the TV shows, whose rights resided with CBS. If Paramount wished to make a new Trek movie, it required them to obtain a license from CBS to use the elements required to make a Star Trek movie. This was not an issue when Paramount Studios and Paramount Television were all under one corporate roof, but now that Paramount Television was owned by CBS, and CBS was its own separate entity, the only legal way for Paramount Studios to make a Star Trek film was by paying its sister company for the licenses of the elements necessary to do so. Though this essentially amounts to the left hand giving money to the right, it created a legal complication to the process of producing Star Trek films that had not previously existed.
This is also how Les Moonves was able to threaten Paramount with the loss of their license to Star Trek when CBS and Paramount were initially feuding over how to bring Star Trek back after the Viacom split. When the split occurred at the start of 2006, Paramount was automatically granted a standard film license from CBS to produce a Star Trek film as part of the separation agreement between CBS Corporation and Viacom Inc. These licensing agreements come with a standard duration clause which determines the length the license is valid for. Once that license duration has been reached, the license expires and must be renewed. When Moonves gave Paramount 18 months to get a Star Trek film into production or lose the license, he was simply threatening not to allow Paramount to renew the license for Star Trek, even though he couldn’t give that license to another film studio. Preventing the renewal of the Star Trek license for Paramount would give CBS the ability to move forward with a TV series without objection from Viacom.
I believe the reason Moonves even gave Paramount the option to get something going in the first place rather than seizing Star Trek for his own company right off the bat after the break up was twofold. Firstly, Moonves would have undoubtedly come under pressure from CBS’s parent company, National Amusements, if he’d pushed to sabotage Paramount’s ability to relaunch Star Trek as a film franchise, due to the fact that Paramount’s parent company, the new Viacom, was specifically intended to be a “growth business” and nothing helps a business to grow like a successful film franchise. So, if push had come to shove, Moonves would have been told to stand down by Sumner Redstone and the National Amusements board members in favor of Paramount anyway. The second reason is that CBS’s licensing department, now called CBS Consumer Products after the break up, was the sole owner of all Star Trek licenses for merchandise, TV, and films. And big feature films help drive higher licensing fees, all of which would be going to CBS, thus improving Moonves’s company’s profits should a new batch of Star Trek movies hit it big. Therefore, it was actually in Moonves’s best interest to have a successful film franchise of Star Trek once more. The only drawback would be that Moonves wouldn’t have direct control over it.
So, here’s the dumbed-down version of how all this works:
- The CBS Corporation owns all the rights to everything Star Trek.
- The CBS Corporation has the exclusive rights to make Star Trek TV shows.
- Viacom Inc. owns all the film versions of Star Trek.
- Viacom Inc. has the exclusive rights to make and distribute Star Trek feature films.
- In order to make Star Trek feature films, Viacom Inc. needs a license from The CBS Corporation giving them the rights to the name, characters, and other elements of Star Trek.
- No other company is allowed to make Star Trek feature films. But if Viacom Inc. doesn’t have the Star Trek license from CBS, they are unable to make Star Trek films despite having the exclusive rights to do so.
As is plain to see, the decision to separate the old Viacom into two independent companies, each of which owned aspects of Star Trek, was a horrible idea that really hindered the ability to make new Star Trek material. And the real crux of the issue in this regard is the licensing practices of Hollywood, and in particular, CBS. In order to better understand just why everything surrounding Star Trek is so dang complicated, we’re going to have to dive into the practice of licensing in Hollywood.
What Is Licensing And How Does It Work?
Sometimes talking about business concepts — particularly when it comes to the entertainment industry — can get a bit confusing, so I just want to define the whole concept of “licensing” and how exactly it works before going forward.
When we talk about “licensing” or a “license” in regard to a business deal, we’re referring to what is known as a “licensing agreement.” A licensing agreement is a legal contract between two parties, known as the licensor and the licensee. In a typical licensing agreement, the licensor grants the licensee the right to produce and sell goods, apply a brand name or trademark, or use patented technology owned by the licensor. In exchange, the licensee usually submits to a series of conditions regarding the use of the licensor’s property and agrees to make payments to the licensor known as “royalties.”
The complexity of licensing agreements can vary depending on what’s being licensed, but all licensing agreements tend to include the same basic elements, such as the deal’s scope, financial aspects, time schedules, renewal options, etc. The more elements that are involved, the more complex the license can be. The financial arrangement of the agreement is often seen as the most important element, as it outlines how and how much the licensee is to pay the licensor. Some agreements require an advanced payment to obtain the license, while others can be paid out over time. Royalties typically range from 6% to 10% depending on the specific property involved, but can be more or less depending upon the agreement. Licensors can require certain guarantees from the licensee, such as a minimum sales figure. If the licensee meets the minimum sales figure, the agreement can automatically be renewed. If not, the licensor has the option of discontinuing the agreement.
The second biggest element of any licensing agreement is the time frame of the contract. Many licensors will write in a firm market release date for all products licensed to outside manufacturers. For movies, this type of guarantee usually establishes that a film must be into production by a certain date or the license will be terminated and revert to the licensor. All license agreements will specify the length of the contract, renewal options, and conditions for termination.
Most license agreements will also outline certain guarantees concerning quality control. This usually has to do with the licensor having final approval of the end product and any marketing materials associated with the license as a method to prevent a license from being misused and hurting the brand that is being licensed. For instance, if a company is using their licensing agreement to sell cheap knock-off products, it can hurt the reputation of the brand and the licensor, devaluing the brand being licensed and harming the licensor’s reputation in the marketplace.
The licensing agreements will also typically establish which party maintains control of any copyrights, patents, or trademarks. They’ll also outline territorial rights and who manages distribution in various parts of the world. For instance, a licensor may grant the US rights to one licensee, and the European rights to another, effectively doubling the value of their license by allowing it to be sold twice. Or, they can grant multiple geographic rights for an increased fee.
When it comes to Hollywood, licensing can work in many ways, depending on who owns the IP (intellectual property) the license is based on. Marvel comics began their foray into movies by licensing out the rights of specific characters of theirs to Hollywood. An example of this is Sony Pictures licensing the rights to Spider-Man. After obtaining that license, Sony went on to produce a number of Spider-Man films. After Disney acquired the rights to Star Wars in 2012, its ownership of that property gave it the ability to license the Star Wars brand to various other companies.
In Star Trek’s case, there are a number of rights which can be licensed out. An example of this is when Paramount licensed the syndication rights of The Original Series back in 1969. It was Star Trek’s syndication which allowed its popularity to grow and its fanbase to be established and expanded. After Star Trek was resurrected in feature film format, lucrative merchandising licenses were developed, which attributed to Star Trek’s massive growth in financial value.
Essentially, Hollywood licensing breaks down into these categories:
- Film Rights
- Television Rights
- Distribution Rights
- Syndication Rights
- Publishing Rights
- Music Rights
- Merchandising Rights
And when it comes to Star Trek, all these (and more) are controlled by a company called CBS Consumer Products. If you really want to know who actually owns Star Trek, then they are your answer.
What Is CBS Consumer Products?
If you ever wanted to know what a real-life version of the Borg is, one need look no further than CBS Consumer Products. They are a cold, heartless, unstoppable entity whose goal is to assimilate anything and everything related to Star Trek. When it comes to dealing with CBS Consumer Products, be it as a licensee or a fan, resistance is futile.
When Viacom’s split was formalized in 2006, CBS Corporation had licensed the right to produce Star Trek films to Paramount Pictures, but the newly formed successor of the Viacom Consumer Products Department, CBS Consumer Products, remained the sole entity responsible for the marketing and licensing of the ENTIRE Star Trek product line for both the television as well as the movie properties, instead of farming out the latter to Paramount’s own division, Paramount Licensing, Inc.
Essentially, CBS Consumer Products is the licensing and merchandising unit of CBS Corporation and manages the licensing of products for the various television shows owned by CBS, CBS Television Studios, and CBS Television Distribution. Any and all products associated with CBS’s properties (like The Big Bang Theory, for example) are managed by this entity.
CBS Consumer Products is also the company that controls the licensing to produce ALL Star Trek-related home media formats, print media, live shows, parks, rides, exhibitions, conventions, games, toys, clothing, and merchandise. Essentially, this division of the CBS Corporation serves as the legal guardian for the ENTIRE Star Trek franchise. The only exception to this guardianship is the actual production and sales to cinemas/broadcasters of the live-action productions. All movies and TV shows (and their subsequent sales to theater exhibitors, television networks, and other distribution pipelines) are handled by their respective mother/sister companies (CBS Television & Paramount Studios).
This division of CBS also doubles as an archive for the Star Trek merchandise they have licensed as well as serving as a repository for the surviving original live-action production documents, art, and other assets (such as uniforms, props, and models) that have been created throughout the history of the franchise and used in the TV shows and movies. All remastering projects of the Star Trek television series and movies were initiated by, and have fallen under the authority of, CBS Consumer Products.
More than that, CBS Consumer Products has final approval of all written works regarding Star Trek, such as novels and comic books. Though the published media for Star Trek is done under third-party companies (at the time of this article, those companies being Simon & Schuster and IDW Publishing), without CBS Consumer Product’s approval, these works cannot be legally distributed. CBS Consumer Products reads and evaluates all print media regarding Star Trek and must sign off on it as part of the “quality control” aspect of the licensing agreement before it can be officially brought to market. This means CBS Consumer Products can demand any change or alteration within a written work and will get such changes less they refuse to allow the work to be published.
In recent years, CBS Consumer Products has also taken on the responsibility of evaluating all products sold at official Star Trek Conventions to ensure only officially licensed products are available at such events. If CBS Consumer Products does not approve of the products being sold for any reason, they can deny a vendor’s place at the convention. (This is also why fan-made products and projects, such as fan films, are no longer welcome at Star Trek conventions.)
Beyond simple approval of licensed products, CBS Consumer Products is also the watchdog meant to guard the value of the Star Trek licenses they have already sold. It is because of the licensing department (formerly the Viacom Consumer Products Department under the original version of Viacom) that the crackdown on Star Trek fan-fiction initially began. Star Trek was given new life and grew in popularity across the world initially due to the love of its fans. These fans kept the cancelled Original Series alive long past its final season by not only putting on conventions, but by creating a thriving fan-fiction expanded universe that were published in fanzines and later on the internet.
When Paramount was its own company, the studio seemed to understand the role the fanbase played in increasing the value of the Star Trek franchise and permitted the creation and distribution of fan-made art and stories in an effort to foster this phenomenon. However, once Viacom bought out Paramount Studios in 1993 (by merging with Paramount’s then parent corporation, Gulf+Western) their new licensing department initiated a crackdown on all fan-related projects regarding Star Trek in an effort to protect the value of its licensing deals involving the franchise.
What came to be known among fandom as “The Viacom Crackdowns” began in 1995 and encompassed many successful attempts by Viacom’s licensing department to shut down fan sites, close down fan publications, and extract licensing fees from fans who wished to continue producing Star Trek related material.
This crackdown put the breaks on much of what had caused Star Trek to thrive over the course of its “golden age.” The Viacom Crackdown hit fan communities in the UK and Australia the hardest, with many clubs, publications, and conventions being shuddered by Viacom’s relentless and unyielding legal department.
Viacom was also aggressive in going after websites that published fan fiction but was less successful in keeping these entities suppressed than they were with things such as fanzines, clubs, and conventions, due to the decentralized and murky legal nature of the internet. And because most of the officially licensed companies were based in the US, Star Trek fans in the United States did not notice the crackdown as acutely as fans in other parts of the world did.
More noticeable were the new round of crackdowns brought about in 2005 when Viacom was preparing to split into two companies and CBS Consumer Products came into being. From 2005 onward, CBS Consumer Products lead the charge against the Star Trek fandom using their legal team to threaten, shut down, or sue anyone they deemed was illegally using Star Trek’s license. Most recently, this is what lead to the elimination of most Star Trek fan films, with CBS Consumer Products not only policing YouTube for copyright violations by fans who made Star Trek related videos, but also fans who crowdfunded large sums to make non-profit versions of their fan-fiction. The biggest example of this was the lawsuit CBS filed against Axanar Productions and its owner, Alec Peters, who crowdfunded millions of dollars to produce high quality fan films such as Axanar and its prequel Prelude to Axanar (which actually used actors who had appeared in official Star Trek series).
As is plain to see, CBS Consumer Products is the entity responsible for ruling any and all Star Trek related media with an iron fist, and they are also the most directly responsible entity for attacks against Star Trek’s fandom. But why are they so vicious in their safeguarding of Star Trek? Why do they jealously guard their licenses so fervently when it was shown that a more lax hand regarding the fandom helped Star Trek to thrive and the value of the franchise to increase (particularly during periods where no new Star Trek media was being created)?
To answer this question, we’re going to need to examine the value of the Star Trek license and why the company that owns the license values it so highly.
A Brief History Of Star Trek’s Licensing & Why It’s So Important
To understand why CBS Consumer Products and its predecessors have been so fervent in their guardianship of the Star Trek licenses, we must first understand this simple concept:
Licenses are basically free money for the licensor.
The licensing deals CBS Consumer Products makes are almost pure profit for the CBS Corporation. The only expense CBS incurs in its licensing deals are the salary they pay to those in the Consumer Products division and any legal expenses that may be required to draw up contracts or protect their licenses. Beyond that, CBS Consumer Products is a consistently profit-positive division of the company. All expenses regarding the development, creation, production, and distribution of licensed products is incurred by the licensee. CBS outlays no cash at all to produce these products but collects royalties off them.
In 2016, CBS’s license portfolio was valued at $300 million, which is a far cry from other studios. Warner Brothers, with their DC Comics and Loony Toons licenses have a portfolio estimated at $6 billion, and the licensing juggernaut that is Walt Disney has a portfolio estimated at $52 billion. However, in down years, even that “paltry” sum of $300 million has been imperative in keeping Paramount and CBS afloat among underperformance and other endeavors that did not pay off as expected.
In addition to CBS’s licensing portfolio being small compared to its competitors, they also do not have the library of properties necessary to increase its value. Both CBS and Paramount have precious few breakout properties that have proven to remain evergreen for sustained periods of time. Paramount’s most successful recent franchise, that being Transformers, is actually owned by Hasbro. Hasbro licensed the film rights for Transformers to Paramount, so CBS/Viacom don’t even own their most profitable movie franchise at the moment and must share revenue from that with Hasbro. Thus, CBS must rely on its own properties for licensing profits, and almost all of its licensing revenue reportedly comes from Star Trek!
Though other popular CBS shows, like The Big Bang Theory, contribute to its $300 million bottom line, all my research seems to indicate that Star Trek not only accounts from anywhere from 50%-80% of CBS’s total licensing profits (it’s hard to get an exact figure for these numbers since studios are usually quite secretive about the accounting of their profits, which is why I cannot determine a solid number for this claim), but is also responsible for any growth CBS sees from its licensing division. For instance, in the last quarter of 2016, the 16% growth in CBS’s overall content and licensing revenue was attributed entirely to Star Trek, fueled by the release of Star Trek Beyond that year.
Thus, the reason CBS so vehemently guards the Star Trek license is because Star Trek, alone, makes up the vast majority of it’s licensing profits AND growth! Without Star Trek, CBS’s licensing revenue would be almost nonexistent. In fact, Star Trek is SO IMPORTANT to the licensing portfolio of its parent company, without Star Trek, Paramount would have never had a licensing division to begin with.
The first incarnation of CBS Consumer Products was created back in 1967 as part of Paramount Pictures when Desilu Studios merged with Paramount Television after being acquired by Gulf+Western. Desilu’s marketing department, then called “Desilu Publicity” was run by a man named Frank Wright. When Desilu Publicity was merged into Paramount Studios, it was renamed to the “Paramount Publicity Department” with Wright being retained to run the department.
It was Wright who handled the legalities surrounding the Star Trek merchandise that was produced at that time, when the Original Series was airing. He was responsible for creating the first official Star Trek license to a third-party company, that being AMT, which produced model kits. This license was sold on August 1st of 1966 before Star Trek had even aired.
However, the potential for merchandising and licensing was not recognized by movie studios at this time, and thus remained a rather passive and haphazard endeavor that generated very little revenue. Despite this, the department had been renamed to the “Paramount Marketing and Licensing Department” and handled both the television and movie properties of the studio, focusing more on publicity and marketing than licensing.
The true potential for licensing, particularly when it came to Star Trek, did not come to the attention of studio heads until around the time Star Trek: The Motion Picture was in production. This was due to the efforts of the department’s newly appointed Vice-President Dawn Steel.
Due to Roddenberry’s constant rewrites, the budget for Star Trek: The Motion Picture had ballooned past what Paramount had initially planned to spend on the film. Steel was charged with creating another revenue stream to help cover the ever-increasing production costs of the movie. She did so by organizing an innovative and aggressive licensing push to many large companies. She held a presentation at the largest theater on the Paramount lot for a number of prospective licensee companies which she personally invited to attend.
In preparation for her presentation, Steel reportedly went to Star Trek conventions and recruited anyone who made any merchandise related to Star Trek and used their wares to prove to the companies in attendance the potential Star Trek had for attracting sales from consumers. Her presentation was reportedly so imaginative and impressive, that numerous companies signed up to buy licenses for Star Trek-related branding and merchandise, including unusual companies for sci-fi related fare (at the time), such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds.
Steel’s gambit reportedly covered all the cost overruns for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and then some. Paramount executives were stunned that licensing revenues of such magnitude could be generated before a film had even premiered. From that point on, Paramount Pictures placed a growing emphasis on licensing and made the Paramount Marketing and Licensing Department an integral part of their over-all profit strategy regarding their development of TV and movie properties. As more Star Trek movies were released and its popularity grew, so too did the licensing revenues, further inflating the value of the Star Trek brand and helping it cement its place as “the franchise” for the studio.
When Viacom absorbed Gulf+Western and Paramount Pictures in the early 1990s, the Paramount Marketing and Licensing Department was merged into theirs and renamed “Viacom Consumer Products”. When Viacom split in 2006, Viacom Consumer Products became CBS Consumer Products. At that time, the executive most actively involved in managing the Star Trek licensing was CBS Consumer Products Vice President John Van Citters.
Over time, John Van Citters has become THE ruler over all things Star Trek related. He was promoted in 2018 to “Vice President of Star Trek Brand Management at CBS Studios,” effectively making him the ultimate arbiter of Star Trek, lording over everything related to Star Trek and its licenses like an all-powerful dictator. Despite his corporate position, by all accounts, Citters is a passionate Star Trek fan himself. He reportedly attends many Star Trek-related events and conventions as a way to stay in touch with what fans want, thus helping him to figure out what new products and services to supply to them. His new job title as “VP of Star Trek Brand Management” seems to entail:
“primarily working on content development and new brand initiatives ranging from original fiction to gaming to online content and live events. Creative liaison to writers rooms and production teams across the Star Trek brand.”
From what I can gather, this basically means John Van Citters determines who is awarded licenses and is in charge of policing the film, TV, and print media in regards to Star Trek’s outstanding license agreements. Citters seems to be well-liked by the licensees he works with, but the extent to which he is in charge of how CBS Consumer Products deals with the fandom is unknown.
How Licensing Was The Downfall Of J.J. Abram’s Star Trek
To understand the magnitude by which licensing and CBS Consumer Products influences the well-being of the Star Trek franchise, we need look no further than what happened to the J.J. Abrams-led reboot.
The decisions behind Bad Robot’s initial alterations to Star Trek appear to be driven by creative license. J.J. Abrams, a casual fan of Star Trek, believed that the crux of what made Star Trek successful was the relationship between the characters of Kirk and Spock, thus driving the decision to return to the characters of The Original Series for his movie. Not only that, but The Original Series was the most popular of all the Star Trek incarnations, the most iconic of the incarnations, and the one that carried the most nostalgia appeal with it. From CBS’s point of view, a return to “classic Trek” for the reboot as opposed to doing a movie with a whole new crew and ship was preferable because it would also help boost interest in the original incarnation of Star Trek in addition to the reboot — something that would help raise the licensing fees for all Original Series agreements.
The decision to create an alternate timeline also stemmed from a creative necessity. J.J. Abrams didn’t want to have to be beholden to any of the pre-established canon of the Original Series and altering the timeline gave him leeway with which to tell the stories he wanted without any continuity constraints from the TV series or previous films. So the alternate timeline was not something that was necessitated by CBS either, both that and the decision to use The Original Series characters was entirely made by Abrams and his team at Bad Robot.
The real issues came into play after these decisions became settled upon. CBS Consumer Products was concerned about brand confusion with The Original Series and the reboot version Bad Robot was planning. The Original Series was by far the most popular and lucrative part of Star Trek’s licensing. If CBS Consumer Products was going to create new licensing deals based on the reboot films, whatever Bad Robot and J.J. Abrams came up with had to be different from what they were currently licensing out in regards to The Original Series. This was important not only to protect the licensing deals currently in place, but also to create a new license that could grow the Star Trek portfolio by adding yet another unique property that could be licensed out.
This necessitated the creation of a whole new license in order for the Bad Robot reboot concept to go forward. This license was an alternate one to The Original Series license, which allowed for the use of the elements from The Original Series so long as those elements were changed enough to be distinct from The Original Series. Thus, a legal requirement that all elements of the alternate license be 25% or more visually different was created as a way to make the reboot version of The Original Series characters distinguishable from their original counterparts. This is why the Abrams movies have uniforms and starships that are different from those in The Original Series. It wasn’t just an aesthetic choice made for creative reasons, it was also a legal requirement for licensing purposes in an effort to avoid brand confusion. It’s reported that internally this alternate license was referred to as “NuTrek” (New Trek) but there are conflicting accounts as to what the license created for the Bad Robot films was actually called.
It’s believed that part of J.J. Abram’s initial attraction to taking on the Star Trek reboot was the possibility for his production company to have a piece of a massive franchise, one which could potentially make him hundreds of millions of dollars. Before Star Trek, the only real major franchise Bad Robot had been involved in was Mission: Impossible, and though successful, it wasn’t quite what could be considered a “tentpole” for either Bad Robot or Paramount. To have a piece of the Star Trek pie meant Bad Robot could generate massive revenue from its association. Thus, J.J. Abrams created an ambitious plan for cross-platform media, all based around the NuTrek license. Abrams envisioned Bad Robot producing Star Trek television shows, comic books, video games, and digital media in addition to the movies. His company would also get 15% of the royalties generated from all merchandise based on the NuTrek license. As Abrams and Bad Robot began work on Star Trek 2009, the sky was the limit in regards to the storytelling and profit potential for being associated with Trek.
However, reality soon set in for Abrams after the reboot of Star Trek was released. Most likely ignorant to the intricacies of the CBS/Paramount licensing arrangement, it soon became clear that Abram’s grand ambitions for creating cross-platform media wasn’t a simple proposition. The rights to make a TV show rested solely with CBS, so any hopes Bad Robot had of creating a new Trek series was entirely dependent upon CBS agreeing to it. Though Bad Robot attempted to get new series going, CBS was not interested in doing anything with Star Trek while the focus was meant to be on the movies and the growth of the value of the Star Trek licenses.
Attempts to do products in publishing, games, and digital media weren’t much simpler. They both required Bad Robot to obtain a NuTrek license for each medium and each license gave CBS Consumer Products final approval of all creations, not Bad Robot. These complications in creating cross-media properties began to frustrate Abrams and are credited with him losing his passion for the Star Trek endeavor (which no doubt contributed to his lack of focus when it came to producing Into Darkness in a timely fashion).
The real final straw for Abrams came when he discovered that NuTrek merchandise was being negatively affected by existing licensing deals for The Original Series. NuTrek merchandise wasn’t performing as well as expected (keep in mind, Bad Robot received royalties on all merchandise under the NuTrek license), and after commissioning a market study, Bad Robot learned that there was indeed brand confusion happening among consumers regarding The Original Series products and those of NuTrek. This prompted Abrams to go to CBS Consumer Products and ask that they stop making licensing deals for The Original Series so the focus could be on the NuTrek version of Star Trek that his company was working so hard to create.
As one could imagine, this request did not go over well with CBS Consumer Products. Licenses for The Original Series were the most popular and lucrative licenses in the Star Trek portfolio (and their royalties did not have to be shared with Bad Robot). To eliminate them would mean a massive drop in revenue. It should come as no surprise that Abram’s request was ultimately rejected. Abrams saw this rejection as a sign that no matter what he and his company created with their NuTrek licenses, they would always be competing with The Original Series for market share and recognition. Eventually, Abrams gave up on his ambitions, allegedly stating: “What’s the point if we’re just going to be competing with ourselves?”
It’s due to these frustrations that Abrams put less effort and attention toward Star Trek: Into Darkness, as well as why he waffled on committing to directing the sequel. It’s also a big reason why he ultimately decided to shift his focus to overseeing Star Wars. With Disney owning the rights to Star Wars outright, Abrams would actually be able to do the type of cross-platform products he’d originally envisioned for Star Trek. Without the corporate legal barriers to the franchise that CBS/Paramount had, Disney was able to offer Abrams a much more enticing arrangement that gave him more freedom with which to operate than Paramount ever could — despite Paramount trying its hardest to cater to Abrams.
How Licensing Affected Star Trek Discovery
In my research for this article I had a lot of difficulty finding sources concerning how licensing affected Star Trek Discovery, as the current production has been relatively tight-lipped after Bryan Fuller’s exit. Much of what I’ve been able to gather about the issues CBS Consumer Products has caused on Discovery comes from second-hand sources that may not be entirely accurate and from speculation on my part based on how I know the movie business works and how licensing works. In this regard, I cannot fully stand behind my conclusions regarding Star Trek Discovery in terms of the role licensing played in its creation, so take this section of the article with a grain of salt. If anyone should have any evidence to the contrary of what I am about to share, feel free to leave it in the comments of this article.
Despite not knowing exactly how Discovery was affected by licensing issues, I can state with 100% certainty that it was (and still is) affected by it. I do know that when Bryan Fuller was involved in the development of the show, he was aware of the mandate by CBS Consumer Products that Discovery had to be distinct enough from The Original Series and NuTrek so as not to create brand confusion. In that regard, Bryan Fuller had a vision for how he wanted Discovery to look.
Because Discovery was set 10 years before The Original Series, Fuller’s initial concept was to have the costumes, sets, and aliens be “transitionary” in nature. Everything was meant to be a cross between how things appeared in Enterprise and how they appear in The Original Series, but with some extra flare added in. In Fuller’s own words, things were meant to be “A little bit of this and a little bit of that,” with a bigger emphasis on the original 60s aesthetic.
However, this concept did not sit well with CBS brass, particularly Les Moonves, who had taken a great interest in Star Trek Discovery due to it being the flagship original series with which he planned to launch CBS All-Access (something Moonves had a great deal invested in, with the OTT service being his brainchild). It’s reported that Moonves and Fuller butted heads often, as Moonves didn’t want (or didn’t care) about things being accurate to Star Trek canon. He wanted the show to look and feel “more sci-fi” with flashier sets, different uniforms, and aliens who “looked” like aliens. It’s believed that Moonves involvement and lack of care about Star Trek continuity was a large factor in Fuller retreating away from his involvement in Discovery and investing more of his attention in American Gods, where he had far more creative control.
When Bryan Fuller did exit the show, it was a whole year before Discovery premiered, and without him around to fight for his vision, Moonves essentially got what he wanted. The Star Trek Discovery uniforms abandoned their Original Series inspired designs and were made to look more to Moonves’ liking. The sets were built to be more modern (because modern audiences want something that looks futuristic, not retro, according to Moonves). But probably most noticeable was that the design of the Klingons was drastically changed to make them “look like actual aliens.”
And, of course, this was all done with future licensing in mind. CBS was now dealing with a situation where they had three Star Trek properties set in the same time period with overlapping characters and events. The Original Series, NuTrek, and Discovery. The potential for “brand confusion” was very high, so in an effort to separate Discovery from Abram’s Trek and The Original Series, the changes demanded by Moonves for Discovery were meant to make it distinct enough where CBS Consumer Products didn’t have to worry about the look and feel of Discovery being too similar to the other properties, creating a clear and distinct licensing brand for the show.
This is not to say that some of the changes made to the look and feel of Discovery were not made by the show’s creative team. However, it is believed that Moonves’ edicts concerning how he felt things should be done regarding this show had an impact on those choices.
Another story which sheds some light on how licensing issues affected Star Trek Discovery broke in April of 2018 after the first season finale of Discovery aired. Not long after, show designer John Eaves took to Facebook where he discussed redesigning the iconic starship The U.S.S. Enterprise for its inclusion in the Discovery finale. During this chat on Facebook, he said:
“Back in April of 2017 the task of the Enterprise making an appearance came to be and work was to start right away,” Eaves explained. “The task started with the guideline that the Enterprise for Discovery had to be 25% different, otherwise production would have most likely been able to use the original design from the 60’s. But that couldn’t happen so we took Jefferies’ original concepts and with great care tried to be as faithful as possible. We had the advantage of a ten-year gap in Trek history to retro the ship a bit with elements that could be removed and replaced somewhere in the time frame of Discovery and the Original series.”
As I’ve stated before, the “25% different” guideline stems from CBS Consumer Products in regards to their metric which is meant to avoid brand confusion in the licensing. This was the same metric which Abram’s NuTrek license had to abide by as well. When Eaves was asked to clarify his remarks concerning the “25% difference” change, he stated that it came from the legal department.
“After Enterprise, properties of Star Trek ownership changed hands and was divided, so what was able to cross TV shows up to that point changed and a lot of the crossover was no longer allowed,” he said. “That is why when JJ [Abrams]’s movie came along everything had to be different. The alternate universe concept was what really made that movie happen in a way as to not cross the new boundaries and give Trek a new footing to continue.”
Eaves comments created a firestorm within the Star Trek community, which is largely ignorant of the complicated licensing issues surrounding the franchise. To the average Trek fan, Eaves essentially confirmed that CBS was meddling with established Trek canon by legally mandating changes to iconic elements of Star Trek which fans didn’t understand the reason for. Shortly after the story caught on, Eaves deleted his Facebook post concerning the Enterprise redesign and CBS issued a press release meant to squash the fan outrage. It reads as follows:
CBS TV Studios does, in fact, have the right to use the U.S.S. Enterprise ship design from the past TV series, and are not legally required to make changes. The changes in the ship design were creative ones, made to utilize 2018’s VFX technology.
The art that was used in the 2019 calendar is ‘concept art,’ which was completed long before the VFX process is completed.
Discovery’s production designer and its visual effects supervisor also publicly confirmed that the changes made to The Enterprise for Discovery were to make the ship fit in with the aesthetic of the show better. And while I have no doubt this is accurate, there are some things to take into account here.
Firstly, CBS does indeed have the right to use the U.S.S. Enterprise’s original design from The Original Series and are NOT legally required to make any changes. However, they would never permit that original design to be used in Discovery, simply because it would cross-contaminate their licensing agreements. In essence, the companies that bought licenses for Discovery would have access to an Enterprise identical to the one companies that bought licenses for The Original Series have. To avoid this, the Enterprise for Star Trek Discovery HAD to be different and distinct enough to separate it from the ones featured in both The Original Series and NuTrek. So even though CBS is not “legally required to make changes,” the legal department of CBS Consumer Products DOES require changes be made.
CBS’s assertion that the changes made to Discovery’s version of The Enterprise were “creative ones” is both true and misleading. CBS Consumer Products never mandated what changes should be made to Discovery’s Enterprise, just that there had to be changes. What changes, specifically, were left to the show’s creative team of designers. But make no mistake about it — the changes were mandated by the legal department due to CBS’s licensing deals.
It now seems that the creative team behind Star Trek Discovery is listening to fan criticism from the first season and at least making an effort to try to bridge the gap in continuity design between Discovery’s first season and its second. They appear to be moving more toward Fuller’s original vision of a “transitionary” look and feel regarding costumes, technology, and aliens. And no doubt this effort may be assisted by the fact that Les Moonves, a CEO who was famous for not liking sci-fi or Star Trek, is no longer in charge of CBS, nor associated with the company in any way where he could still exert his influence.
That being said, Discovery and all future Star Trek shows are still beholden to the whims of CBS Consumer Products and their myriad of licensing deals. Changes will continue to be mandated based on this alone.
To Be Concluded…
In the final part of this series, we’ll look at the infighting within Viacom after the company split and how that affected Star Trek. We’ll look at Les Moonves’ influence on the franchise and his ultimate downfall from his position of supreme authority at CBS. We’ll also look at the increased role Alex Kurtzman has with Star Trek Discovery and the slate of new Star Trek series planned for the CBS All-Access service. Finally, we’ll examine the possibility of CBS and Viacom merging once more, and what that could mean for the future of Star Trek. Be sure to subscribe to me here on Medium to be alerted when the next part of this series is available! And be sure to follow me on Twitter @MatthewKadish. If you’re on Facebook, be sure to sign up for my discussion group as well! Thank you for reading and be sure to leave a comment if you have any questions or insights you’d like to share!
Read the final article in this series here: