For as long as inflight entertainment screens have been in airliners, blockbuster movies have been the star of the show. But just as critically acclaimed television dramas are now attracting big audiences on the ground – think Mad Men, Newsroom and Game of Thrones – TV is enjoying a new wave of popularity in-flight. Is the medium threatening to usurp the dominance of movies?
“Research shows us that viewing TV on airplanes has increased in popularity in the last five years. At this stage, feature films are still dominant, however television is definitely in demand onboard and we’re forecasting continual growth,” says Kate O’Conner, Sydney regional manager at content servicer provider Stellar Entertainment.
TELEVISION’S RISE TO STARDOM
Charting TV’s recent trajectory O’Connor says, “US dramas have always been watched but right now, they are arguably at the height of their success. In the last 10 years, US dramas have really begun to shine – from The Sopranos to The West Wing, Six Feet Under and The Wire, [and] then more recently – Boardwalk Empire, Homeland, Damages, Breaking Bad and Mad Men. TV dramas have evolved into smart and slick productions with witty dialogue, faultless characterisation and bucket loads of originality. US TV shows in general, both comedy and drama, have developed into stylish big-budget productions with outstanding writing, innovative story-telling and talented casts. TV can no longer be considered a second rate art form.”
Certainly, in years gone by the choice of TV shows available for viewing on-board the average flight was often limited to popular comedy series’ and kids’ shows. “In terms of TV genres, for years comedy was always at the top but it’s now outranked by drama,” notes Virgin Atlantic senior manager of onboard media Cathy Walters.
THE CHICKEN OR THE EGG
Whilst few would refute that TV is enjoying a ‘golden’ spell, can anyone put a finger on what exactly caused it?
“I’m not sure what came first; either the gravitation caused by high calibre talent in the form of writers, directors and actors towards television as a medium, or that developments in technology in the form of TiVo, Sky Plus, and on-demand services has caused viewing figures for TV shows to rocket and therefore the producers see the pay-off in hiring quality talent for the small screen. Whichever it is, the trend is still on the rise and it shows that there is a big demand for more sophisticated and cerebral content,” says Virgin’s Walters.
Dr Will Brooker is a director of research in film and television at Kingston University, and editor of Cinema Journal. He explains that, “On a fundamental level, it’s the long-term immersion and the involvement that US drama now offers [that’s responsible for the surge in interest]. Long-running shows are able to achieve the complexity and richness of a Dickens novel, with each episode combining and building into a grand story arc, and several sub-plots intersecting, weaving in and out of the larger drama.”
He continues, “In short, I think US television drama is so successful right now because producers and audiences alike are realising the unique potential of television to tell sophisticated stories over a long period of time, through multiple one-hour episodes, and are really taking the medium seriously. It offers a longer-term, more committed experience: less immediate but also more resonant. We live with the characters of a show like The Wire, Lost or Breaking Bad, for years of our lives over several seasons. The experience may be less visually gripping, but it’s ultimately more emotionally involving.”
Whilst Brooker’s comments explain the appeal of TV, how does academia reconcile its growing popularity against film? “I think there’s an increasing distinction between the ways that feature films and TV shows entertain us and tell us stories,” says Brooker. “Movies are increasingly being pitched around the specific experience of going out to the cinema as an event, and the spectacle of IMAX and 3D that domestic viewing generally can’t provide. A blockbuster like Avengers in 3D, or Dark Knight Rises, with its high IMAX content, continues to draw the crowds because they offer something that’s difficult to achieve at home; more of a thrill-ride experience, a theme park excitement.”
Stellar’s O’Connor relates a similar viewpoint, noting, “There are lots of passengers that would prefer to watch a feature film on their large 50-inch LCD TV, or in 3D at the movies. Many films have that cinematic quality that just begs to be seen on a large screen, whereas TV viewing is much more flexible.”
Despite an obvious trend towards more extravagant large screen experiences, there are plenty of recent popular releases that go against that particular grain. “Titles such as Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, Looper, and The Artist have been really successful at the box office, showing that there is definitely an appetite for other types of movies too,” says Virgin’s Walters.
Flying for some can be a stressful experience and some passengers enjoy the comfort of watching characters they recognise and can associate with. “If they get the chance to watch an episode of their favourite series on board, it’s like catching up with an old friend!” says Walters.
Brooker agrees. “I think flights are odd places to watch anything. I’d argue that we are more vulnerable and emotional when we’re up in the air, and more likely to be moved and engaged by drama. So the rules are changed and sometimes our responses are unpredictable. I feel we’re made somewhat childlike and helpless when we’re on a long-haul flight, and we want things that are soft, easy, immediate and entertaining; nothing too demanding or challenging,” he says.
But Neal Rothman, VP of Fox Inflight, has another explanation. “I think consumers who subscribe to streaming services are used to binging on episodes from a particular series and season, particularly given the ongoing plot of many of these series. So they continue this behaviour in-flight,” says Rothman.
This is a view echoed by Stellar’s O’Connor. “People’s television watching habits have changed. They are used to watching things on demand without advertisements. People don’t necessarily sit down in front of the TV at 7pm and watch ‘Modern Family’, they download the series from iTunes or buy the DVD. Television has developed into a new era of convenience watching.”
Let’s also remember that occasionally there are unique opportunities afforded by TV. “Sometimes there’s a chance to see something new, even before it’s aired on UK TV, such as Girls, the latest HBO hit series, which has been very successful,” says Virgin’s Walters. And she is keen to explain that doing so can mutually beneficial for both the airline and the studios. “Some distributors are concerned that showing content before it has a transmission date could be detrimental to overall sales, but the effect we see is that viewers become hooked and want to continue watching the series when they get home, perhaps even investing in the box set. Airline viewing should be seen by the studios as a promotional tool.”
Is the inherent multi-act structure of a typical episode of a TV drama also a better fit for the fractured experience of a flight? Intermittent naps, strolls to the bathroom, snacks and numerous short-term distractions arguably make TV a better fit for IFE.
Whereas films traditionally follow a three-act structure over at least one and a half hours, TV episodes are usually, for fiscal reasons, structured around advert intervals – typically six or seven in each hour, consequently providing more palatable and digestible chunks. Even so, passengers commonly ‘graze’ for some time on these bite-sized chunks.
“We think that flights are the perfect opportunity to watch either odd TV episodes or even binge on a series. We have lots of feedback that our customers really enjoyed the opportunity to watch four or five episodes of Game of Thrones, Parades End or The Killing,” says Virgin’s Walters.
This is certainly a common pattern both in the air and on terra firma. The phenomenon of catching up on multiple episodes of TV is known as ‘Binge Watching’, a term popularised by both Time and Slate online magazine.
To facilitate this increasingly popular indulgence, some of the bigger carriers have box sets for every season of TV programs, allowing passengers to start at the beginning and develop an investment in a show. “Having different box sets brings enormous variety to the travelling public,” says Stellar’s O’Connor.
“It’s a wonderful promotional opportunity for distributors. If a passenger likes a TV show, they’re going to go straight to Netflix or iTunes and download the next series and become regular viewers.” It turns out that O’Connor speaks from personal experience, “Many years ago, I watched my first ever episode of Outnumbered on a plane and I became hooked. I have bought the DVD for several people to get them hooked too.”
THE BIG DRAW
Feedback from the film studios indicates that TV still has some way to go before it can seriously challenge movie features. “New feature films are still the most popular category of product we represent,” says Ruth Walker, VP of Non-Theatrical at Walt Disney Studios.
Is it even conceivable that TV may eventually eclipse the popularity of movies for inflight content? For now the studios aren’t ready to place bets, “Both features and TV are very popular, depending on the airline, its IFE infrastructure and strategy,” says Fox Inflight’s Rothman. “The mix between features and TV might differ but both are very popular, particularly given our strength and volume in both areas.”
How the rise of TV’s popularity is perceived is also largely subjective. Fox’s Rothman explains, “I think TV is becoming increasingly popular but I wouldn’t classify it as a shift away from features. Instead the increased storage capacity on the servers aboard planes allows for a wider selection of programming that is increasingly including TV episodes.”
This is a stance shared by other studios, “We have not noticed any trend away from feature films towards TV. Instead, we have seen an incremental demand for TV content,” explains Disney’s Walker, “This could be due to newer IFE systems being able to carry more content, long haul carriers addressing a broader demographic, and more short haul and regional flights starting to offer IFE for the first time.”
However, whilst movies may remain the biggest draw, IFE managers report unforeseen benefits of TV content; namely the fact that TV seems to have staying power. “Shows such as Newsroom, Homeland and The Bridge have all performed really well. And unlike movies, they don’t seem to decrease in popularity over time. We’ve just finished showing the first four episodes of Game of Thrones, series two and it’s just as popular in month six as it was in its first month, unlike movies whose ‘hits’ tend to decrease after a few months,” says Virgin’s Walters.
ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT
Given all the lip service paid to TV drama we might presume that it would be the genre experiencing the fastest growth. However, that isn’t necessarily so according to Walters, show says, “It’s theatrically released documentaries as a genre where we have seen the biggest rise. Titles such as TT: Closer to the Edge, Hell and Back Again, Marley, The Imposter and Deathrow. And not just the series. One-offs such Mark Zuckerberg: Inside Facebook, The Diamond Queen and Horizon: Eat, Fast and Live Longer have been really popular.”
In the end, suggests Stellar’s O’Conner, television “has contributed extensively to the growth and variety of content onboard; and a wider choice of entertainment is definitely a win-win for passengers and airlines alike”.
Even studio representatives, who arguably have some vested interest in features continuing to dominate, concede the growing importance of TV shows, “They are increasingly popular and in demand. TV is a much bigger piece of the overall licensing equation than in the past,” says Fox’s Rothman.
Encapsulating much of the current zeitgeist associated with TV for IFE, Disney’s Ruth Walker says, “The common factor of these TV dramas is great storytelling: amazing writers who give the shows a broad, mass audience appeal plus great onscreen talent to bring incredible life to their characters. Ultimately, I think giving passengers the opportunity to relive, catch up on or even discover a new favourite television series is a great component of IFE programming. With episodic content, the passenger gets more flexibility on how to fit IFE into how they’re using their time on board.”