For the last few years, people have been predicting the death of airline-provided inflight entertainment systems. With more and more people bringing their own devices and wifi becoming an onboard standard, the arguments for ditching the airline-provided systems grew stronger. That being said, there were still some benefits that couldn’t be provided by passenger-provided devices. At the APEX show last week, BAE Systems announced it had become the first to knock down one of those benefits (though it does now seem to be waffling). BAE Systems is, if the claim proves to be true, bringing “early window” content to passenger-provided devices for the first time.
Hollywood and the airline industry have a long, strange history, and you wouldn’t believe how many people on both the studio side and the airline industry side work to maintain the relationships. From the airline side, there has long been an interest in providing passengers with entertainment, of course. After all, it’s the surest way to keep them happy and numb on a long flight. (Just ask Emirates why it has so many movies onboard….)
From the studio side, providing content to airlines is a great way to build an audience. It’s really effective for a TV show in that if people see one episode, they might want to keep watching more on the ground. But for movies, it’s that way as well. And in my entirely unscientific opinion, movies seem a lot better in the air than they do on the ground. There’s something about not having a better alternative while you’re up there that makes the movie seem that much better. (The effect is strong. I inexplicably enjoyed Grown Ups 2 on a flight once.)
But the studios also want to be very careful about what movies they allow to be shown and when. If a movie is opening in theaters, they don’t want to let people watch it in the air for fear of losing movie ticket revenue. But they also see value in providing films at altitude that you can’t get on DVD/digital just yet. It’s another way to keep building an audience when people normally wouldn’t be talking about the movie at all.
So it is that studios allow for what’s called “early window” content. (Hotels pay-per-view systems have this as well.) This month on Delta (and most airlines), for example, you can watch Jurassic World, among other things. Jurassic World was released into the theaters on June 12 of this year. It won’t be on DVD until October 20, and Redbox/Netflix will come a month later. Some movies that were released in July (like Ant-Man) will be onboard this month as well, giving an even earlier screening to travelers in the air. For travelers it’s a great way to see a movie if they missed it in the theater but can’t get it at home.
This arrangement has worked well for studios and airlines… then wifi came along. Once the idea of offering movies via streaming became reality, studios got nervous. They didn’t want people to be able to download movies and have them for personal use off the airplane, for free. There have been plenty of efforts to create secure solutions, but the studios haven’t felt comfortable enough to allow “early window” movies to be shown when streaming over wifi is involved. That’s why you’ll only see Jurassic World on Delta if you have a seatback screen. If you’re using Delta Studio, the system that you can use to stream to your own device, you won’t have that option.
The first step in solving this problem came back in 2012 when Lufthansa Systems got approval for early window content in its BoardConnect system. This system was designed to use wifi to stream content to both passenger-provided and airline-provided systems. But the approval for “early window” only applied to seatback units or tablets provided by the airline that would be collected at the end. The studios still weren’t comfortable allowing people to stream early window content to their own devices, fearing piracy.
This was the status quo until just last week when BAE Systems announced what Runway Girl Network coined “unthinkable.” The company said it had gained approval from two of the big Hollywood studios to stream early window content to passenger-provided devices. Despite many attempts to find holes in this announcement, Runway Girl Network (most definitely the authority on this stuff) was a believer… until Thursday. That’s when BAE backed off and said now only one of the studios was going to allow streaming on personal devices. Runway Girl Network is now rightfully skeptical after having been mislead, but if even one of the big studios does this, it will be a landmark event.
When it does happen (someday), it won’t be long before what can be shown on an airline screen will mirror what you can get on your tablet or phone. When that happens, one more reason for keeping seatback systems on airplanes will have disappeared.