On Star Trek: The Original Series

How Star Trek Liberated Television

By Paul Levinson

Minerva’s owl begins its flight only in the gathering dust….


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 ninety 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 major networks today (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) 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  …

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