Illustration: Marcelo Cáceres

APEX Insight: Will airlines follow the plotline laid out by Netflix, HBO and other content purveyors and transform into producers? Some already have. 

It may be fitting that a series about the cutthroat underbelly of American politics was the first chess piece played by Netflix in a move to stay competitive amidst a growing market of subscription-service rivals. When House of Cards premiered in February 2013, the show, and its icy protagonists Frank and Claire Underwood, quickly became a runaway hit, and marked a turning point for Netflix.

On December 18, 2015, Netflix released Making a Murderer. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings admitted that he did not foresee the documentary’s viral success, and had hoped that it would at least win some awards, because he didn’t think it would be popular. But the controversial series, which follows convicted murderer Steven Avery’s journey through the American justice system, turned out to be the latest in a slew of Netflix’s original programming to captivate binge-watchers and judging panels alike. In early 2016, Making a Murderer was seventh in the list of top 10 non-branded search terms on Netflix.com (a total of four were titles of Netflix original series), and the real-life thriller won four Emmys this past September, including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series.

“Nothing is better than Netflix wanting your film.” — Daniel Cuellar, United Airlines

Orange Is the New Black, Narcos and Stranger Things join the ranks on a long list of Netflix Originals, an Internet era similar to the success HBO found with programs like Sex and the City and The Sopranos. HBO’s Internet offshoot HBO Go carries the trend forward with originals added to the lineup often – most recently Westworld, a sci-fi Western intended to rival and eventually replace Game of Thrones as its big-ticket item. Other streaming services have seen similar results with their original or exclusive content: Amazon Prime’s award-winning series Transparent and Mr. Robot are just two examples of many.

The race to hyper-exclusivity among streaming media providers is not unlike the one faced by the airline industry. When the baseline product is the same, competitive differentiation – be it free snacks, added legroom or exclusive content – can be enough to sway customers away from competitors. And, with a long history as suppliers of fresh entertainment offerings, the notion that airlines may follow a similar plotline and evolve from content purveyors to content producers is not that hard to imagine. In fact, some already have.

Destination Twists
United Airlines partnered with Tribeca Digital Studios to produce Destination: Team USA, a documentary featuring five Olympic hopefuls that began airing in flight during the months leading up to the Rio Olympics.

According to Daniel Cuellar, United’s senior manager of Onboard Product Development, the film was one of the airline’s top 10 entertainment selections watched during July and August of this year. “It was a creative way to talk about our partnerships with both [the US Olympic team and the Tribeca Film Festival], bring the sponsorships on board and create a piece of entertainment that our customers would love to watch.”

In another twist, Destination: Team USA also became available on Netflix in August 2016. “Once we had the chance to debut the film on board exclusively for a time, the larger distribution opportunity was too great to pass up,” Cuellar says. “Nothing is better than Netflix wanting your film.”

Strangers and Fiction
In a bizarre turn of events, Canadian Jordan Axani made headlines in 2014 after he traveled around the world with a stranger bearing the same name as his recent ex-girlfriend when he was unable to rebook two non-transferable airline tickets. Director Brendan Bradley is currently cooking up an on-screen version of the story, entitled Non-Transferable, with Turkish Airlines as the primary sponsor. The film, set mainly in Turkey and starring popular YouTube vloggers, is part of Turkish Airlines’ larger marketing strategy targeting millennial travelers.

“The high cost of video production means that this kind of investment is rare, though perhaps growing.” — Henry Gummer, Spafax

Entertainment value is just one of the reasons airlines produce original content. Airlines create their own video content “to market destinations, to promote safety on board or to help passengers navigate the next step of their journey,” says Henry Gummer, Spafax’s vice-president of Entertainment. “Some will go further and create content that serves their wider marketing objectives, but the high cost of video production means that this kind of investment is rare, though perhaps growing.”

Production may come at a high cost, but new media provides more venues for brand engagement, too. Apps, websites, partner sites and lounges offer more channels for airlines to distribute content cost-effectively, on platforms that have a demonstrable return on investment. And, with airlines paying closer attention to the analytics behind the viewing habits of their passengers, developing original content for their audience may be more of an educated guess than a risk. Netflix credits a deep understanding of viewer preferences for the success it found with House of Cards.

Safety First, Flicks Next 
The airline industry has seen a trend toward heavy investment in safety videos over recent years. Virgin America’s “#VXsafetydance” or Air New Zealand’s Hobbit-inspired “Most Epic Safety Video Ever Made,” each racked up well over 10 million views on YouTube and benefited from the halo effect of media amplification. “In-flight safety videos and original content pieces are both tantalizing opportunities to communicate brand personality and [get attention] in a crowded and noisy world,” says Joel Joslin, technical, research and development manager at Stellar Entertainment.

Virgin Produced, the film, television and entertainment division of the Virgin Group, has generated a plethora of original programming available to passengers flying with Virgin America, including the “#VXsafetydance” video, city guides and celebrity interviews. It’s also responsible for Hollywood blockbusters like Limitless and Bad Moms.

This past June, Virgin Produced made a deal with SeriesFest, a festival showcasing international television and content, to air exclusive pilots on board select Virgin flights. Air Canada’s enRoute Film Festival fulfills a similar goal, giving Air Canada’s passengers exclusive access to short films submitted by up-and-coming Canadian cinematic talent.

Whether viewers are cozy on the couch or in an airline seat, cravings for variety seem insatiable. How airlines continue to address passengers’ expectations for increasingly innovative content remains to be seen, but opportunity abounds. “We’re toying around with a few things right now,” says United’s Cuellar. “Stay tuned.”

“Airlines as Producers” was originally published in the 6.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.