Entertaining at 30,000 feet

We all do it. Whether you joined 'the business' from college a few months back, or clearly remember when Britain had only two tv channels - we start to count market/festival attendance with a tad more wonder than the number of programs we have bought or sold.
September 1, 2001

We all do it. Whether you joined ‘the business’ from college a few months back, or clearly remember when Britain had only two tv channels – we start to count market/festival attendance with a tad more wonder than the number of programs we have bought or sold.

I did a tally the other day: 24 MIPS; every MIPCOM, Wildscreen and Jackson Hole; 12 Monte Carlos; six IWFFs; five NATPEs; four RTS Cambridges; one L.A. Screening; a Cannes Film Festival (and a partridge in a pear tree…).

All thrill and frustrate in unique and various ways – Missoula’s IWFF frustrates because it comes to an end every year – but the most recent and impressive attendance was my first to an event nearly my age: The Paris Air Show, Le Bourget. It was the 44th, and had nearly 400,000 visitors, not to mention airplanes enough to start WWIII. Billions of dollars of business was conducted (no accurate figures – some things just don’t get publicized) and bizarre occurrences just… occurred.

I watched one very short gentleman alight from a long limousine with four guys who looked as though they each ate a truck for breakfast. All wore dark glasses, and one carried a BIG black case. All quickly went into a security-guarded enclosure, past a dark green strike aircraft with a surrounding array of big spiky hardware. Some of these spikes can plant explosive cannon shells, at 90 rounds per minute, into anything whose entire day needs ruining. And it does this at temperatures below -35 degrees Celsius (in case terrorist fascists recruit dissident penguins).

Less bizarre, but nevertheless impressive, was watching my reason for being there come alive. IFE Services (Manchester), in association with L3 Communications (New York), Passenger Networks LLC (Santa Ana), and Tenzing (Seattle) had two flat screens running all day every day – each with a live feed from an uplink in Switzerland via a dish on the roof. The ‘black box’ that enabled this was a prototype from L3, slightly bigger than two shoeboxes and probably lighter than most laptops.

Within a short amount of time, this will evolve into a high-reliability package that will install on any commercial aircraft, and feed every screen onboard with live taped, DVD or cached content. Passengers will be able to connect with their own laptop or pda, enabling the viewer/passenger/customer to access email and internet simultaneously with the TV picture. If you’d been there – as two senior executives from BBC World were – you would have seen the BBC contents fade on cue (I used a cell phone), and pictures of the uplink site, complete with mountains, snow and blue skies, appear. The crew turned the camera inside the OB unit on themselves and waved to the fascinated visitors assembled on L3′s stand. Still live, we returned to BBC World – complete with advertisements and i-dents (which, crucially, become airline i-dents at the drop of a disk).

Now, if these aren’t the beginnings of a truly momentous revolution in program content delivery, I’ll eat all of my next in-flight meal. Before the next Wildscreen, there will be 2.2 billion passengers in the air every year, each facing a screen. These travelers are a captivated audience that represent demographics and spending capacities that advertisers dream about, but never find outside exceptional one-off events.

The hardware will be the answer to airline prayers – the entire ife system on an Airbus 380 will weigh less than the baggage of one passenger – and the capacity to sell everyone more goods than a battle fleet of duty-free trolleys will expand beyond imagination.

As with all things that indicate ‘progress’, there are risks. For the new audiences of the sky, the hardware and the technology are the lowest of the hurdles competitors will have to cross. The risk this contributor fears most is that dumbed-down channels aimed at ground receivers will try to claw their way skyward. I pray passionately that airlines repel the advances of pre-packaged scheduling with mindless advertisements and couch-potato content for the frontally lobotomized. Low-budget soaps and fashionably atrocious, grammatically naff vox-pop may help competing networks on the floor, but please – not when there are millions of dollars of Boeing strapped to my rear end… and so much better material out there.

Business or pleasure, air journeys aren’t everybody’s daily experience – even for the 2.2 billion. The comforts and range of in-flight services will always be major contributors to customer loyalty. It follows, therefore, that this level of service should offer something to which all carriers aspire and all passengers remember fondly. Program quality, suitability and choice need to be right to attract advertisers and channel sponsors on a higher plane. Thereby hang the challenge and the joy. Buying for audiences so varied, with budgets rapidly approaching those of national networks in the ’80s and ’90s, gives a guy a real buzz. It helps too to work in a team that knows every aspect of the airborne market so expertly, with more than 24 MIP etcetera of contacts under our belts… but limited explosive hardware.

Adrian Caddy started his TV distribution career with RPTA and went on to license programming for the Hearst Corp., help launch CNN International and license programs with AML International. Following copros with Partridge Films, Panthera Productions and Discovery he is now director of programming and acquisitions at IFE Services Ltd.

Evolution in flight

CARL MROZEK examines the then and now of in-flight entertainment systems

Memorable in-flight audio/visual experiences are few and far between. Not many passengers can lay claim to seeing something to crow about while flying the friendly skies, but indicators suggest this might change sooner than later.

Given the obvious benefits, it’s surprising airlines didn’t embrace in-flight audio/visual on demand (AVOD) years ago. In fact, several did try, but with disappointing results. The British Airways experiment of the early ’90s epitomizes the logistical problems the carriers face. ba offered multiple channels of taped programming on its Hong Kong/London route, but discontinued it due to excessive weight, fuel usage and costs.

However, since the failed ba experiment, audiovisual technology has undergone a transition from analog to digital. AV content, which previously required stacks of VCRs, can now be delivered digitally via servers. Quantum advances in the economy of disk storage have made it increasingly feasible to deliver high quality av content to each passenger via individual screens. Digital technology also allows for quick content updates, allowing new DVDs or software to be cached at each stop, so passengers have access to the latest news, sports and films.

Advances in satellite transmission may soon make it feasible to beam large packets of programming to onboard receivers while in the air. Within the next six months, some delivery companies will be ready to test satellite delivery and wireless broadband, which will allow for in-flight internet access. Even more dramatic advances in compression technology lie just around the corner and could be ready for in-flight AVOD applications soon.

Ironically, the plethora of new technologies may be the biggest impediment to aggressive adoption of a diversified in-flight entertainment plan by many airlines. The cost of retrofitting passenger planes can be as much as US$500,000 for broadband wireless. However, advertisers may be waiting in line to help defray the cost, as in-flight is a perfect delivery vehicle for brands targeting an upscale market, especially in the early days when AVOD will mainly be accessible to business and first class travelers.

The new technology may bring fresh legal hurdles as well, but it might be a situation factual filmmakers can exploit. Copyright and payment issues and threats from the legal departments of major studios are giving some airlines cold feet about licensing popular programs like Friends or Survivor. This might translate into more open doors for doc producers and distributors. Docs also tend to be easier to overdub than mainstream fiction.

Regardless of the delivery and advertising strategies adopted by airlines, customers will ultimately want quality choices, especially once the new technology grows old. Hopefully, that will mean an increasing interest in documentaries and factual programming in the air. The best advice for producers who may want to test this new sky’s-the-limit marketplace is to hang on to ancillary rights that commissioning editors or distributors aren’t specifically asking for. They might turn into a silver lining in the clouds above.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.