How airlines decide what they show on inflight entertainment

There are some people who, as soon as they sit down on the plane for a long-haul flight, start tapping at the entertainment system to see what movies are on offer that month. And then there are those who look haughtily at those scrolling through page after page - they've read the guide online in advance and already know what to watch before they've even put on their seatbelt!

Airlines put a lot of effort into curating their in-flight entertainment - not just to make them enjoyable for passengers, but to try to get an edge against competitors. Picture: Shutterstock

Airlines put a lot of effort into curating their in-flight entertainment - not just to make them enjoyable for passengers, but to try to get an edge against competitors. Picture: Shutterstock

For many passengers, the quality of a long flight will be defined by what's available on the entertainment system. It's not simply a way to pass the hours while they're stuck 10 kilometres above the ground. It's also a chance to catch up on the blockbusters they've missed at the cinema (or perhaps watch that trashy comedy they're too embarrassed to pay for).

The statistics back this up. Virgin Australia says its most watched movie in 2019 was the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. While, for Qantas, the three most popular movies of the year were: A Star is Born, Avengers: Endgame, and Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.

Avengers: End Game was among Qantas's top three movies of 2019. Picture: Walt Disney Studios

Avengers: End Game was among Qantas's top three movies of 2019. Picture: Walt Disney Studios

"We know the big blockbusters are always really popular," says Philip Capps, Qantas head of customer product & service.

"However, when it comes to television, a big trend we've seen in recent years is a shift away from sitcoms and cartoons and more towards longer, binge-worthy drama series - which has been largely driven by a rise in online streaming services."

On Qantas planes, the most watched television box sets in 2019 were Game of Thrones, Big Little Lies, and Chernobyl.

Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon in Big Little Lies. Picture: HBO

Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon in Big Little Lies. Picture: HBO

Behind the scenes, airlines all across the globe put a lot of effort into curating their in-flight entertainment systems - not just to make them enjoyable for passengers, but to try to get an edge against competitors. Some airlines work directly with particular studios to negotiate deals, while others use agencies to choose from a broad selection.

In some instances, Qantas can be showing movies before they're released in Australian cinemas because it's acquired it in line with a US release date. Philip Capps says that means a lot of audience research.

"We show films onboard the same time they become available in cinemas, so we invest a lot of time into keeping across professional reviews, early box office returns and general public feedback, as well as our own judgement, to ensure we maintain a strong selection for our passengers."

Virgin Australia, which has fewer long-haul flights and is trying to compete more in the domestic sphere, has made an effort to find its own way to stand out.

"Virgin Australia differentiates itself by creative and innovative content activities including the Parenting Panel 'Snackable' content for short-haul flights and content partnerships with local producers," says Virgin's product and customer general manager Sarah Adam.

"Capitalising on our amazing homegrown talent, we pride ourselves on encouraging and featuring content from the next budding generation of Australian content creators through relationships with the Australian Film Television & Radio School and Screen Australia."

Just like the big Netflix-style streaming companies, the airlines are able to use the enormous amount of data they get from viewing habits to make decisions about what to include in their in-flight entertainment systems. It's common to add local content for international destinations and change what's on offer for different routes.

For many passengers, the quality of a long flight will be defined by what's available on the entertainment system. Picture Shutterstock

For many passengers, the quality of a long flight will be defined by what's available on the entertainment system. Picture Shutterstock

"The selection of content available is tailored to flight lengths so passengers have enough time to enjoy whole movies or television episodes without being caught short by arrival," says Qantas's Philip Capps.

Most airlines also take seasons into account.

"We like to keep our in-flight entertainment consistent but who doesn't love watching Love Actually at Christmas time and a kids' movie during the school holidays?" says Sarah Adam from Virgin Australia.

In the age of big data, who knows what will come next? I wonder if, for example, airlines will start curating the entertainment selection by looking at which demographics are watching which movies, or even start offering suggestions using our personal viewing history? They certainly know a lot about us, as evidenced by the fact that Qantas released information that seat 47H on the Perth-London flights watched the most content in total in 2019.

Research firm MarketsAndMarkets has predicted the global in-flight and connectivity market will be worth about $16 billion a year by 2027 (at the same time cinema box office revenue is stagnating), meaning film and television studios will probably be looking at ways to maximise their profit from passengers. It's not clear how that might change things in the near future.

But for now, looking ahead to the rest of 2020, Virgin Australia's Sarah Adam has some guesses for what will be big on the entertainment system. She expects Wonder Woman 1984 and No Time to Die to be particularly popular, but she thinks the biggest may be Top Gun: Maverick. Meanwhile, Philip Capps from Qantas is predicting Ford vs Ferrari and Knives Out to be big this year, and thinks the four seasons of Mr Robot will be one of the most popular additions to the television box set collection.

Regardless, there's never been a bigger selection of things to watch while up in the air. Considering how much it costs to go to the cinema these days, perhaps it's worth hopping on a flight just to catch the latest Marvel blockbuster!

  • Michael Turtle is a journalist who has been travelling the world for nine years.Check out his travel adventures at timetravelturtle.com.
This story How airlines decide what they show on inflight entertainment first appeared on The Canberra Times.