Okay ViacomCBS, let’s talk “priorities”

Yesterday, Star Trek: Lower Decks had its digital “red carpet” event, officially kicking off the show’s first season. The first episode, Second Contact, will debut tomorrow – but only if you’re lucky enough to live in the United States or Canada.

Having written about this topic previously, and with my excitement for the show building, I wasn’t going to revisit the issue of the show’s international release. However, something I read this morning really pushed my buttons, and it has to do with one single word: “priority”.

I do not in any way blame anyone who worked behind-the-scenes or in the voice cast of Lower Decks for what’s happened. In many ways, the stupid decision to only broadcast the show in North America hurts them too, tainting their work with a moronic business decision. But unfortunately this article was prompted by a comment from Lower Decks’ creator Mike McMahan, who said that it’s “a priority” that fans outside the US and Canada will get to see the series. The full conversation, for context, can be found on TrekCore by following this link (warning: leads to an external website).

So let’s talk priorities.

Lower Decks will be the first Star Trek project since the 1990s to not get a near-simultaneous release in the UK. Even Enterprise managed to do that in 2001, and as I’ve said repeatedly, in 2020 with the internet and online fan communities being such a big deal, companies can no longer get away with splitting up their biggest releases by geography. If ViacomCBS couldn’t get the paperwork for Lower Decks signed in time to guarantee its international broadcast, then the only way the company could demonstrate to its international fans that we’re just as much of a priority would have been to delay the series until everyone could share it and watch it together.

That would have sent a very clear message: Star Trek is for everyone, and ViacomCBS wants everyone to be able to watch it at the same time. It would have been a sensible business decision, generating double the excitement and hype for the show online – the buzz around Lower Decks has been muted at best, and at worst tainted by questions surrounding its international release. Every tweet, every post, every article that they publish online receives dozens of such comments and queries, detracting from the message ViacomCBS wants to put out.

It’s incredibly galling to hear that ViacomCBS considers its international fans to be “a priority” when everything they’ve done regarding Lower Decks’ broadcast categorically demonstrates that it’s not true. Saying they consider us “a priority” is a lie. If they did, Lower Decks would either be coming out for everyone tomorrow, or would have been delayed until it could.

There are clearly very difficult negotiations and discussions going on at high levels of the company trying to secure some kind of overseas broadcast. And I understand that these things are complicated. It’s arguable that, depending on circumstances, the failure to secure international broadcast rights isn’t wholly ViacomCBS’ fault. They can make the case that it’s out of their control; something in the hands of these intransigent international broadcasters. But you know what categorically is within ViacomCBS’ control? The decision to go ahead and broadcast the show in the United States and Canada. Doing so is their decision, and thus choosing to split up the show and not allow its international fans to see it is entirely ViacomCBS’ decision.

And it’s a bad decision. Not just because of the message it sends to Star Trek’s millions of fans who live in the rest of the world, but because the international broadcast will lead to widespread piracy of the new show, undermining ViacomCBS’ own position in the aforementioned negotiations. Not only is the show and its brand now damaged in the eyes of many viewers by not being broadcast at the same time in the rest of the world, but it’s also going to be heavily pirated. Many of Star Trek’s biggest fans won’t wait because they don’t want to miss out. In fact, if there’s no legal and lawful way to access the show, piracy is literally the only option. ViacomCBS, by failing to provide access to the show internationally, is essentially condoning piracy of its own series and undermining any efforts which may be underway to see the show receive an international broadcast.

Even if it were announced now, today, that Lower Decks will receive an international release imminently, the hype and buildup that the show should have received has already been damaged; its brand soiled by the unnecessary delay of any such news coming out. Many fans outside of the US and Canada will have stopped paying attention on the expectation that the series isn’t something they’ll be able to enjoy and wouldn’t even hear any hypothetical announcement.

It’s also not, as some may suggest, wholly the fault of coronavirus. While production and release schedules have doubtless been affected – Lower Decks was originally planned to premiere after Discovery’s third season, for example – I again restate what I said a moment ago: it is still wholly within ViacomCBS’ control when to broadcast the show in the United States. The pandemic may have forced changes, but if the international rights for Lower Decks had not been secured, it is still entirely ViacomCBS’ decision to go ahead and broadcast it to half its fanbase – or less – regardless. Coronavirus and its associated issues is a factor, but that is not the whole story, and to lay the blame there is little more than a distraction from the real heart of the matter – Star Trek fans outside of the United States are not any kind of “priority” to ViacomCBS.

Lower Decks is the most unique Star Trek project in a generation. It’s a crossover with the kind of animated comedy shows that are popular with a far wider audience than Star Trek’s typical niche, and thus it’s a show which had the potential to bring in legions of new fans – including new fans in other parts of the world. But how can that happen with the show segregated by geography? How are those potential new fans supposed to get on board and be excited about a series that they can’t even watch?

At the very least, ViacomCBS owes its international fans transparency. It doesn’t just upset me that Lower Decks isn’t going to be broadcast here, it upsets me that there’s been no word at all from the company. They leave it to Mike McMahan, and it’s not his job. There’s been nothing official at all from anyone higher up involved in the production of Star Trek, just a gaping void and an absence of any news. The briefest of statements would have been adequate – something like “we understand fans are anxious and we want to reassure you that negotiations are ongoing.” They could even provide a tentative estimate, such as Lower Decks receiving an international broadcast “before the end of 2020.” It wouldn’t be good enough, but it would at least be an acknowledgement that fans outside the US and Canada exist.

Far from being “a priority”, ViacomCBS has completely ignored its overseas fans. Not only have they done so by not securing the broadcast rights for the show before premiering it in the United States, but by failing to tell us anything. Star Trek’s official website and social media channels are all gearing up for Lower Decks’ premiere, yet there hasn’t been any acknowledgement of this problem. The social media managers ignore comments and messages asking about the international release date, and we’re left with the inescapable realisation that ViacomCBS simply does not care. Calling that “a priority” when it’s patently nothing of the sort is really just insulting.

I feel sorry for Mike McMahan and the rest of the cast and crew of Lower Decks. This isn’t their fault, yet they’re left picking up the pieces. To McMahan’s credit, he has at least acknowledged that there’s a problem, which ViacomCBS has wholly failed to do. And I appreciate that he at least gives lip service to Star Trek’s international fanbase. This article was prompted by his comment, as I find the use of the word “priority” to be a complete joke, but it isn’t his fault at all; ViacomCBS have put him in an awkward position through their own ineptitude and lack of care.

The launch of Lower Decks should be a moment where Star Trek fans from all over the world could come together and celebrate a new addition to the franchise we all love. Instead, it’s ruined by ViacomCBS choosing to prioritise one group of fans over another. They have deliberately chosen to release the show without securing its international broadcast rights, clearly demonstrating that Star Trek’s overseas fans do not matter to them in the slightest. It’s clear where their real “priorities” lie.

The Star Trek franchise – including Star Trek: Lower Decks – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.