A Look at the Top 2019 Onboard Entertainment

Inflight Entertainment, United

I love that airlines are starting to release more information about the most watched onboard entertainment each year. Mostly, I’m happy because it’s proof they actually pay attention. That gives me hope that they will do a better and better job of tailoring the options to be ones that people want to watch. We’re a long way from the random single episode of Will & Grace that we had to endure on those overhead screens… or are we?

I turned to United first since they give the most detail on this. United only gives information on the most-watched content on seatback screens which is a bummer since streaming is an increasingly big deal. The airline breaks it down into three categories. Here they are from most-watched on down:

MoviesTV ShowsLiveTV Channels
Bohemian RhapsodyBig Bang TheoryESPN
A Star is BornFriendsCNN Headline News
Crazy Rich AsiansGame of ThronesCNBC
Green BookModern FamilyCNN
12 StrongThe OfficeESPNEWS
Aladdin (2019)Big Little LiesHGTV
Instant FamilyBob’s Burgers
John Wick: Chapter 3- ParabellumHow I Met Your Mother
The AftermathThe Simpsons
Rankings via United

Much of this makes sense, especially on the TV side. People are looking to either catch up on episodes of shows they watch, re-watch episodes they love, or get into new shows they’ve heard a lot about. Considering that, these shows all fall into line, and it provides a blueprint for what’s important to have on offer. (More full seasons, please.)

For LiveTV, that’s also about what I’d expect. Sports is king, then news, and of course, gotta have some HGTV. None of that is surprising, but take a look at those movies.

A Star is Born? Good movie, but it’s really, really heavy and emotional. To me, that’s not the kind of movie you want to watch on an airplane. Apparently a whole lot of other people disagree, and it’s not just on United. According to TPG, this was number 1 on JetBlue and Southwest, number 2 on Alaska, and number 3 on American.

I’m not surprised to see movies like Bohemian Rhapsody, Crazy Rich Asians, and Green Book up there. Those are movies that got a lot of buzz (even if not all positive), and it made them well-known even by those who hadn’t cared to see them initially. That to me is the kind of movie that’s good to catch up on while at altitude. Aladdin was good for kids (and frightening for parents who had to watch a blue Will Smith), and then movies like 12 Strong and John Wick fit the bill for action. Instant Family works for that comedy(ish) fix, but I remain surprised that there isn’t more appetite for comedy. That’s always my go-to on the airplane.

There is one really strange outlier: The Aftermath. I have never even heard of it, and I’m not alone. I see that it made less than $10 million in the global box office. It was largely panned by critics, and only about half the people who rated it on Flixster liked it. It’s a post-World War II romance/drama piece. I really can’t figure out how this did so well, but maybe United promoted it heavily on the home screen or something like that. I asked but wasn’t able to get any more detail.

The other airlines that TPG interviewed gave largely similar types of movies and television shows… except for American.

Look at those TV shows. The number one is the NBC special? This is the same stuff that used to be shown on those overhead screens. Apparently we haven’t gotten beyond that. And Austin City Limits? I’m sure it’s good but live music seems fairly niche. I find this really surprising that people couldn’t find more appealing options.

Then again, maybe American just hasn’t been offering anything good. I asked the airline for more detail on this, but I didn’t get a response during the holidays. So, we’ll just have to wonder what exactly is wrong with the people watching TV on American.

Update: I received more detail from American. This explains a lot about the NBC thing:

The NBC relationship is heavily promoted onboard and on the home screen (including by NBC stars in vignettes ads). But we also had content available first on American before viewers could even see it on NBC, including the pilot episode of NBC’s Perfect Harmony (featuring Anna Camp from Pitch Perfect and Bradley Whitford – better known as Josh Lyman from West Wing). 

But American also gave me its full list, and guess what… The Aftermath is #5! What the heck is it about this movie?!

MoviesTV Shows
AquamanAA NBC Special
Bohemian RhapsodyFriends (Season 1)
A Star is BornAustin City Limits
The MuleModern Family (Season 9)
The AftermathBig Bang Theory (Season 1)
Captain MarvelCalm Soothing Nature Scenes
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of GrindelwaldThe Good Place (Season 3)
Avengers: EndgameDisney Mickey Mouse (Season 4)
Aladdin (2019)Disney Tsum Tsum (Season 3)
Alita: Battle Angel30 Rock (Season 2)
Rankings via United

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18 comments on “A Look at the Top 2019 Onboard Entertainment

  1. I watched the first two episodes of Chernobyl on a 6am flight – put me in a very strange state of mind for the rest of the day…

  2. I’m surprised Fox is not on there, I mean you’ve got your mainstream liberal anti Trump political channels with CNN (twice) and CNBC which is splitting the liberal view in 3 channels already.

    I guess Fox, Fox Business and OAN could be doing the same to the pro Trump Viewers; then again on my last UAL flight after getting bored of the impeachment business of Fox I tuned to and left it on the Outdoor Channel.

    I wish they had an archive of that on longhaul, or some other educational matters.

      1. I recently flew trans-Pacific both ways with United. I thought the IFE selection was pretty good. However, I can’t understand why more shows don’t have English captions as an opiltion. I’m not hard of hearing, but I like captions, and planes are noisy anyway. How is it so hard to provide captions that presumably already exist for most content? Do you have any insight on that?

  3. Re your Austin City Limits comment: Have you ever bothered to watch one? From the city that hosts SXSW, it’s no mor of a niche show than any other offering. Were you expecting all boots and fiddles?

      1. Thinking about it for a moment, it’s the kind of show that might be good for people who want some music in the background while they work on their laptop or something, but for whatever reason don’t bother with the music offerings on the IFE. Maybe they want something to actually look at?

  4. As an American frequent flyer, let me tell you that nothing about their data is surprising. They have fewer planes with seat-back IFE and the ones on the device streaming have less variety than what seems to be available on competing airlines. It has more to do with what they offer rather than what customers would prefer to watch.

  5. haha thank you for saying that about “A Star is Born”. My tired, jet lagged ass cried for the entire 8 hour KLM flight to Amsterdam after watching this. My husband was mortified. In coach, no privacy!

    1. Is there something about being slightly drunk in a low pressure tin tube that makes the human animal more weepy? I tear up more on planes than at home or in the theatre.

  6. I don’t know how United’s system lists the offerings, but if The Aftermath is alphabetized under “A”, this could explain its disproportionate popularity. Some people may simply not bother to look past the first screen.

  7. CF,
    Maybe this isn’t considered IFE but why don’t airlines in North America mimic what Finnair does and show the takeoff and landing with a video feed in the front wheel well?

    1. I heartily second that motion, Bob….given that so many passengers don’t open the windows, it would be really nice to be able to see outside of the tube. I will never understand how people can just sit down in an airplane, ignore the movement which you can clearly feel, and be so engrossed in looking at a screen that you have no interest whatsoever in what is going on outside.

      MANY airlines have cameras on the front, side or tail of the aircraft. Emirates puts “virtual windows” on the interior suites on some of its aircraft.

      You always were a mover and shaker, Bob. Make it happen.

    2. Evil Bob – Beats me, but I imagine they just don’t want to pay for the camera. I agree with you; it’s great.

    3. While we’re on that topic, my IFE content pet peeve is the in-flight map that doesn’t show the actual route the plane has taken. If the plane is halfway to its destination, don’t just be lazy and show a great circle path from the originating airport to the plane’s current position, show the path the plane actually took, like one could see on the flight tracking / radar web sites, even if that means a slight delay.

      (I’ll forgive a great circle path for the path from the plane’s current position to the destination airport.)

  8. I’m a little surprised about the AA thing, too. It’s not like they offer nothing; even the streaming-only have Live TV. I’ve watched football a couple of times when flying home on a Sunday.

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