How Do Airlines Decide Which Shows and Movies to Air?

For many travelers, one of the few thrills left of flying is scrolling through the in-flight entertainment options, safe in the knowledge that you have a few hours to watch some movies or TV shows.

How Do Airlines Decide Which Shows and Movies to Air?

As of August, Delta passengers can now watch a selection of Hulu Originals shows and movies onboard their flights.

Courtesy of Delta

“This film has been modified to fit your screen and edited for content.”

On a recent flight, this warning flashed across my seatback screen as I settled down to watch the movie First Man, a biopic about astronaut Neil Armstrong that includes several plane crashes. Other passengers watched Game of Thrones, with its hefty dose of violence and mature themes.

It got me thinking: Do airlines edit movie and TV content shown on board or withhold certain titles due to violence, sex scenes, or plane crashes? Can you watch Sully (which features a famous water landing) or Flight (about an alcoholic pilot who crash lands a plane)? Or, for that matter, the classic Snakes on a Plane, which featured Samuel L. Jackson fighting snakes, well, on a plane?

Despite the aforementioned warning note that you frequently see before a movie that is aired on a flight, movies and TV shows typically remain unedited by the airlines or their distribution partners. That means the steamy scenes, swearing, and violence intended by the content creator will usually stay in the picture. The movies and TV shows that do make it aloft are simply reformatted to fit the seatback screen, which can result in cropping out some details, and explains that bit about being “modified to fit your screen.”

Ratings—the Motion Picture Association of America’s system for determining what content is suitable for what audiences—do not appear to be a guiding factor for airline content; for example, Delta has a team that reviews and curates the content shown onboard, choosing shows and films it believes its various passenger audiences will appreciate.

“Any mature programming is preceded by a content warning, putting the choice of whether or not to proceed with viewing in the customers’ hands,” one Delta Air Lines spokesperson said.

The Atlanta-based carrier offers more than 3,000 TV shows and movies on more than 700 aircraft in its fleet with seatback in-flight entertainment. The airline already shows Game of Thrones, but does not screen Snakes on a Plane, Sully, or Flight, according to Delta. Delta inked a recent deal to offer Hulu Original content, including (the very dark TV show) The Handmaid’s Tale.

“We strive to offer a wide variety of offerings for our customers, so there’s something for everyone to enjoy,” said Ekrem Dimbiloglu, Delta’s director of onboard product and customer experience.

Virgin Atlantic has offered Sully to viewers up in the air. “Our onboard media team selects content which they believe will be exciting and entertaining and sometimes these selections may be controversial,” an airline spokesperson said in an email. “Our philosophy is to give passengers the choice of what to watch and we do not censor material. The safety of our customers is our top priority, and so it’s fitting that we’re able to celebrate the fantastic skills, training and dedication of airline pilots, by showing the film Sully onboard.”

Nicole Elgin has a live and let live approach. The Instagram travel influencer flies around 100,000 miles per year. “I wouldn’t choose to watch Flight while inflight myself,” she said. “But seeing a film like Sully, if anything, increases my confidence in my pilot if an inflight emergency occurs. I can see, though, why it might leave others unsettled. Movies like Flight, conversely, decrease my confidence in my pilot.”

Patrick Koenig is no stranger to bumpy flights. He travels to about 30 destinations per year documenting golf courses around the world. “The good news is that I am easily distracted by top-tier in-flight entertainment,” he said. “Since there were zero fatalities in the actual incident portrayed in Sully, you should fly with a high level of assurance that you will make it through both the flight and the movie alive.” The same goes for Snakes on a Plane. “The reality is that large hordes of monster snakes are not lurking in the cargo below, so I would press play on this ridiculous thriller.”

Elgin said that travel is a form of escapism that begins with the flight: “To be able to sit back and enjoy a movie or TV show on board is part of the whole journey. Airlines that feature popular yet controversial content are appealing to the wide majority of their adult passengers and facilitate an opportunity to escape from the monotony of flying, improving passenger experiences.”

So, how do airlines get access to the content they air, often even before the in-home release?

Some airlines like Delta work directly with the studios. It’s a differentiator for the airline; Dimbiloglu said they are “doubling down” on in-flight entertainment by adding more content on their fleet, including the latest content from Hulu, which you could only ordinarily view at home with a paid subscription.

Other airlines work with companies like Global Eagle Entertainment, a large distributor of in-flight content that sources films from all over the world. They work with more than 800 studios and other content creators worldwide.

“We have direct relations with the owner of the content,” said a spokesperson for the company. Among other things, Global Eagle handles the logistics of getting TV shows and movies to the actual aircraft. The content is typically loaded on a hard drive and swapped out monthly on the planes. Some airlines, like Southwest, load the viewing material directly onto aircraft through the cloud, a Global Eagle spokesperson explained. There’s no physical transfer; instead movies and TV shoes are downloaded directly from a cloud-based server onto each plane.

The result is that on a growing number of flights these days, you can pick any number of movies or shows at your leisure, often at no added cost. Those airlines making the investment in offering a wide variety of free in-flight entertainment are banking on it being a brand differentiator, as the investment is substantial. Installing in-flight entertainment systems costs around $10,000 alone for each economy seat, according to industry sources. Delta and JetBlue (which offers live streaming DirectTV as well) are making this investment; American Airlines has said it will offer seatback screens on its long-haul flights, noting that passengers can stream content directly to their own smartphone or tablet without the need for a seatback system on shorter flights.

Regardless of whether it’s on a seatback screen or available on your device, and whether it’s graphic, gory, or a simple, feel-good flick, there’s probably a TV show or movie you’ve wanted to watch available on your flight. So, now’s your chance to sit back, relax, and do just that.

>> Next: Airline Safety Videos That Are Actually Fun to Watch

Mike Arnot is a writer and the founder of Juliett Alpha, a New York–based communications firm for airlines and aviation companies.
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