Collage by Nicolás Venturelli

APEX Insight: In flight, passengers tend to choose light-hearted comedies over other genres of entertainment, but with all that’s going on in the world, conventional humor can feel a little bland.

Every year, Qantas publishes the results of its most-watched movies and TV shows, and every year, new releases that thrill and make audiences laugh-cry top the list. In 2013, The Internship, a comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson as laid-off salesmen who join Google as interns,
was the number one film. In 2015, Despicable Me 2 was the most-watched family film despite having been released two years prior.

Passengers continue to look for a laugh in the TV category, in which Modern Family has been one of the most-watched programs on the airline’s in-flight entertainment (IFE) system, with 151,334 hours of the sitcom consumed in 2017.

“Light comedies are popular throughout the year … beyond that, films and TV shows range from serious to silly.” – Kristin Carlos, Qantas

“Light comedies are consistently popular throughout the year, although we make sure they’re of a high quality and have a reasonable degree of recognition by Australians,” says Kristin Carlos, head of Digital and Entertainment, Qantas. “Beyond that, the spectrum of popular films and TV shows on Qantas range from very serious to very silly in tone and complexity.”

To better understand what its passengers like to watch in flight, Qantas uses a TV-ratings-like system to gather insights about viewing habits beyond which titles get the most play. Last year the airline noted that following English-language films, Japanese, Mandarin and French films were the most sought after.

Having access to this data helps Qantas tailor its entertainment experience to its passengers, who spend about 80 percent of their time on the IFE system on long-haul flights. “It’s absolutely essential we provide content that they’re going to enjoy,” Carlos says. “The data suggests that our passengers prefer a diverse mix of genres.” And within the genre of light-hearted comedies, it’s family-friendly titles, such as The Boss Baby and Zootopia, that do well among its audiences. Those “were some of our most popular,” Carlos adds.

The Boss Baby, a DreamWorks Animation picture about a baby with an adult brain, voiced by Alec Baldwin, was Qantas’ most-watched movie in 2017. Critics expressed backhanded appreciation for the comedy. “The Boss Baby has a few good jokes, but these elements never transcend an odd premise that fails to deliver big laughs or emotional heft,” went one review from the website Empire, and “The Boss Baby will test your threshold for quirkiness,” went another review, from Times of India.

The movie might not have glowing reviews, but what it surely has is mass appeal – with fans including both kids and adults. After Qantas revealed its 2017 list, Carlos says that “there were a lot of people confessing via our social channels that they helped The Boss Baby reach number one!“ Perhaps one of the reasons for the movie’s success in flight is that it has the key indicators of a light-hearted comedy: a literal title that suggests an absurd plotline and an equally absurd character to match.

While kids are drawn to the animations in The Boss Baby and Zootopia, adults get to enjoy the films’ underlying themes, such as stereotypes and equality in the former and subversive PG-rated elements in the latter. And for what it’s worth, The Boss Baby is an Academy Award contender for Best Animated Feature Film – alongside The Breadwinner, Coco, Ferdinand and Loving Vincent.

Conscious Content
There are other factors that influence what we choose to watch, including what’s happening around us. A visual essay produced by The Pudding in partnership with Viacom, entitled “Analyzing Plot Trends for Every Top-Grossing Film From the Past 50 Years,” attempts to show how film plots mirror – or even shape – world events by analyzing keywords in descriptions of the top 200 box-office hits from 1966–2016 and grouping them into 16 cultural themes, ranging from terrorism to space. Questions that sparked the study included, “Has movie representation of Islam changed with war and politics in the Middle East?” and “Did the lunar landing in 1969 incite a wave of space-related films?”

However, there are shortcomings in the data, such as Finding Dory being tagged as a film about computers due to “computer animation” being used in descriptions about the movie. But some correlation can be drawn between the events of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the Rodney King case acquittal, Barack Obama becoming the president of the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement and the presence of movies with a “race/civil rights” theme released after those events.

“Entertainment has a tendancy to reflect what’s going on socially, culturally and politcally.” – Lauren Marriott, Viacom International Media Networks

“Entertainment has a tendency to reflect what’s going on socially, culturally and politically,” says Lauren Marriott, vice-president, International Programme Sales, Viacom International Media Networks (VIMN). And with the Trump administration dominating the news in 2017, politics proved to be a popular theme.

VIMN saw increased interest in titles such as The President Show, which features a fictional president bypassing the mainstream media and addressing America via a weekly show direct from the Oval Office, and The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, where the host regularly tackles American politics. And with headlines about political antics, the #MeToo movement, terrorism, racial tension and climate change dominating the news throughout 2017, there was a desire among passengers to see these themes mirrored in their entertainment, too.

Among Qantas’ most-watched list of 2017 – which includes movies such as Logan, Hidden Figures, Beauty and the Beast, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Lion, La La Land, Baywatch, Kong: Skull Island and Baby Driver – are movies that feature people of different ages, cultures and genders, Carlos notes. “The year 2017 was a year where diversity of leading cast members was distinctly noticeable among the most popular titles,” she says.

“The key to great in-flight programming is to provide a diverse slate of content.” – Jovita Toh, Encore Inflight

On the other hand, some viewers sought to immerse themselves in a different kind of reality. “Reality TV gave audiences some much-needed escapism from the political happenings in the world,” Marriott says, adding that the genre experienced a resurgence last year. But ultimately, “It is not possible to pinpoint any specific patterns in viewership,” says Jovita Toh, CEO of Encore Inflight. “The key to great in-flight programming is not to narrow down what is popular, but to provide a diverse slate of content.”

Encore Inflight saw a trend among airlines choosing foreign, arthouse and festival-type films. Its biggest title in 2017 was Luck-Key, a South Korean comedy about an assassin who suffers from amnesia. “Perhaps it was a tough year all around the world and a feel-good movie simply struck a chord,” Toh says, also mentioning that plotlines about underdogs winning were especially popular last year.

Diversity of Choice
With so many entertainment options available to passengers, and storage capacity no longer a major issue, airlines are looking to bring more media channels on board, from viral YouTube channels and Vice Media’s alternative brand of lifestyle content to educational videos on computer coding. Thanks to in-flight connectivity (IFC), passengers can also access their subscription media services while traveling. In addition to introducing Netflix, Spotify and Australian video streaming platform Foxtel on flights last year, Qantas has added Stan (another Australian video streaming platform) to its IFC mix, exponentially multiplying its entertainment options – even for passengers who aren’t subscribers of those platforms.

While Qantas licenses content from Asia, the Middle East and Europe, and even from Australia’s many regions and urban and rural communities, Carlos emphasizes that it’s diversity of choice that’s important. “Passengers are free to choose between platforms, and between their own devices and apps and airline-supplied technology. Diversity of choice also means a diversity of voices and stories.”

Fun Facts From Qantas’ Most-Watched List

  • Game of Thrones, Big Bang Theory and Peppa Pig are some of the most-watched TV shows on Qantas flights.
  • Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman” and “Side to Side” were the top songs on board Qantas in 2017.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel (2015), My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016) and Baby Driver (2017) were among Qantas’ most-watched movies in their respective years.
  • Qantas passengers consumed 151,334 hours of Modern Family
    in 2017.


“What We Watch,” was originally published in the 8.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.