Illustrations: Angélica Geisse Image: American Airlines

Metadata drives everything. That’s a pretty broad statement, but inside the context of an in-flight entertainment system, it couldn’t be more true.

People love to point out a movie that’s in the wrong category. Take, for example, Whiplash, a drama about a jazz drummer and his tyrannical instructor, being mistaken for a musical, or Chi-Raq, a spin on the Greek play Lysistrata, which is a musical, that’s seen as a comedy by others. These incidents circulate online, making the airline on whose in-flight entertainment (IFE) system they were found the object of ridicule. Catching one of these slipups can, for the most part, be amusing to the passenger (and the Internet), but when you run into mistake after mistake, that just leads to poor user experience and frustration. (You thought you found Black Panther with Brazilian Portuguese subtitles, but alas it’s Spanish.)

Chalk it up to human error. Details such as the title, director, cast and synopsis of every piece of content in the IFE system, known as metadata, are manually typed into a spreadsheet and have to be verified on IMDb or some other source for accuracy (Mary Poppins Returns stars Emily Blunt, not Julie Andrews; O’Shea Jackson Sr. should be listed as Ice Cube). For a workflow that repeats every 90 days or so, with some airlines uploading 300 titles per cycle, there’s surprisingly little automation to the process. Quality metadata comes down to good old attention to detail to ensure Whiplash will be found under the drama category the next time.

“Metadata is the first thing the passenger sees; it’s in the screen right in front of them.” – Catherine Bourke, Inflight Dublin

“Say we’ve accidentally input incorrect information – that adds a level of confusion and affects how a passenger enjoys the in-flight entertainment and their flight as well,” says Catherine Bourke, metadata team lead at Inflight Dublin. “Metadata is the first thing the passenger sees; it’s in the screen right in front of them. So, it’s like a representation of the airline itself. If there’s poor metadata on it, it can really reflect poorly on the airline.”

ROOM FOR ERROR

There are three types of metadata: 1) editorial metadata, encompassing everything that meets the eye on screen, including visuals and descriptors for every TV show, album, meditation program, and item on the food and beverage menu and duty-free catalog; 2) technical metadata, which includes the logistical information essential to content management, such as runtime, aspect ratio and how long a piece of content is licensed to play by an airline, known as the exhibition period; and 3) service metadata, relatively new to IFE, referring to the algorithms that assemble content into playlists, bundles or recommendations.

One of the biggest challenges is the time it takes for content service providers (CSPs) to gather the metadata and prepare it to meet the requirements specified by different hardware suppliers, known as integrators. These companies use metadata to program the software that populates the graphical user interface (GUI) with text and images, and functionality.

Meanwhile, the lead time to deliver an airline’s content set is already short for integrators, says Jennifer Hanke, senior media services project manager at Zodiac Inflight Innovations (Safran). “More often, I see airlines requesting the delivery of content even sooner to load their fleet before the exhibition date,” she says.

The pressure is on CSPs and integrators to find ways to speed up the process, but the process is more or less at an impasse. “There are very few shortcuts – not many and not anything significant,” says Sue Pinfold, executive vice-president of IFE at Spafax. “Automation requires a certain amount of standardization, and while some elements are generic, the airlines’ increasing requirement for customized data means there is a limit to what can be automated to get away from the highly manual process.”

Bourke says her team has found incremental ways to work more efficiently, such as assigning one person to one airline’s metadata, collating like information that can be copied and pasted, and trying to work some magic with Excel formulas. “We’ve automated as much as we can, but everything is reliant on integrator specifications,” she says.

Hanke understands the challenge for CSPs: “The process is so manual and tedious. I think there could be a tool for CSPs to gather metadata and make the process more automated. If there were one portal where the information could be easily exported, it would help reduce lead time and errors,” she explains, adding that faulty or incorrect metadata can sometimes add days to delivery times.

APPLYING METHOD TO A MAD INDUSTRY

Standardization alone cannot smooth the existing process of gathering metadata because no set protocol can account for all variables. Take a box-office hit like Crazy Rich Asians, which was screening on board many airlines this summer. A separate metadata set had to be created for every hardware system it was displayed on. And an airline could have multiple hardware systems across its fleet. Add to that different subtitle languages, soundtracks and edits for different airlines.

Where standardization could have an impact is in accelerating parts of the workflow for shorter content delivery time to airlines. “It would help if we could extract information from a database, which is so much easier than having to manually look for it or write a short little program,” says Stanley Ng, general manager at Stellar Entertainment.

“There are well-defined specifications that simplify the process and remove the complexity.” – Chris Esposito, Global Eagle

Ng says standardization is much more established for music and other audio programs, which follow the Digital Data Exchange supply chain standard. On the video side, there’s the Entertainment Identifier Registry (EIDR). Proponents of this system include Hollywood studios, Google, Netflix, Viacom, Global Eagle, Turner, and the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. “They’re attempting some form of standardization, but it’s not at the stage where it’s being adopted across the board,” Ng says.

Coming from a broadcast television background, Chris Esposito, senior vice-president of Content and Entertainment Solutions at Global Eagle, has seen how standards have improved metadata for industries outside of aviation. “They’ve adopted standard sets of metadata, standard taxonomies, where a distributor can create one superset of metadata and distribute that across linear TV, cable, direct-to-home satellite and OTT [over-the-top] platforms. There are well-defined specifications that simplify the process and remove the complexity,” he says. >

Global Eagle started implementing some of the standards, testing a more digitized workflow with one of its airline clients this past January. “When you have a digital supply chain, you need a unique identifier to move media around and track that metadata during editing, transcoding and delivery,” Esposito explains, adding that a unique identifier is also required to drive the recommendation engines that offer personalized content suggestions.

“We’re adopting the broadcast way of working by acquiring extension information via API [application programming interface] transactions that take the version and the history and audit control away from e-mail and PDFs and spreadsheets, and allows computer software to exchange information,” he says. Global Eagle is also working on aggregating all the metadata into one place. “So you get all your sources in one user interface, whereas in the past, all the metadata is siphoned off and we have to copy and paste the process every time there’s a change.”

And if there’s a financial case that needs to be made for standardizing metadata, it’s that as IFE content catalogs get deeper, airlines and media planners will want metrics on what passengers are watching to see if they’re spending in the right places. “If these systems are able to collect usage information based on metadata, that helps the media planners plan the programming slate for the subsequent cycles,” Ng explains.

BEHIND THE SCREENS

Given that movies are the stars of the in-flight entertainment experience, little attention is paid to the chore of keeping a well-oiled metadata machine. When it comes to making decisons about an IFE system’s aesthetic and features, “That’s a discussion between the airline and the hardware provider at the moment,” Spafax’s Pinfold says. “It rarely involves the service provider at that stage, even though it would yield far better results to have everyone involved from the start, so the long-term impact of design decisions can be discussed.”

Just as a seating manufacturer could provide a better product to an airline by considering the integration of a seatback screen or power supply – and better service to an airline, by considering how each of those systems needs to be maintained or repaired to ensure their longevity – the same goes for understanding how the metadata process contributes to in-flight entertainment delivery.

“One of my colleagues said metadata drives everything. It cannot be understated, because it does drive everything,” Ng says. “If you don’t have the right metadata, you’re not doing justice to whatever programming you have on board, and that has great impact on customer experience.”

“Input Text and Images” was originally published in the 9.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.

Caroline is managing editor at APEX Media.