Anyone familiar with flying long-haul will have, over time, established methods of enduring, perhaps even enjoying, the multiple hours spent locked in a cabin at 36,000ft. One look around the cabin on any long-haul segment reveals the role of in-flight entertainment (IFE), and blockbuster content more specifically, continues to have as a coping mechanism, with pretty much everyone watching something on their seatback screen. Arguably, it’s right up there in importance alongside a well-stocked galley.
Airlines use content as another way to distinguish themselves from competitors, retain passenger loyalty, and reach their customers throughout the flight; a lot of time and effort goes into putting a diverse and relevant selection of content on board for the passenger to be entertained, kill time, and stay sane during monotonous hours-long flights. Given how quickly content can be updated on our apps and streaming platforms at home, one might assume that refreshing in-flight content has evolved in parallel to become a streamlined process.
However, it’s not. The typical content cycle still takes 90 days, from content selection to onboarding to the aircraft. For those unfamiliar, the section below outlines some of the major milestones involved in this process (more detail on the full content update cycle and how it is evolving will be provided in our upcoming report ‘The Future of In-Flight Entertainment Content 2023’).
The Typical Content Cycle
- Studios have a master file of each movie which is passed onto designated labs that process it for non-theatrical release.
- Then the CSP encodes, edits, and adds metadata, branding and subtitles to the file.
- The IFE system vendor then integrates media files onto the hardware.
- Lastly, movies are manually uploaded to each individual aircraft.
In fact, it is typical for media files to be delivered via sneakernet between all vendors across the supply chain, which only adds to bottlenecks such as:
Bottleneck 1: CSP to IFE system vendor
CSP content processing is not automated or standardised, so CSPs take varying lengths of time to produce slightly different versions of the same movie. For instance, metadata is hand-typed so details for the same movie, such as the order of the cast list, may differ between CSP copies. As a result, up to 60 versions of the same movie are delivered to a single IFE system vendor.
Bottleneck 2: Integration by the IFE system vendor
Bottleneck 2 occurs because the IFE system vendor re-checks and integrates such large volumes of content. It usually takes a month to complete media integration, which is a third of the cycle and the same amount of time it takes for all CSP content-processing.
This traditional cycle is just as old-fashioned as it seems – there has barely been a change since the 90s! Its time-consuming and manual nature means that content updates are expensive for airlines and there is a lack of timely access to engagement data. Airlines go through up to four additional media selections before they see the engagement data for the first time, so are limited in making quick data-driven decisions and thus maximising passenger engagement.
Whose fault is it anyway?
The answer is no one. All vendors across the supply chain work hard to quickly and securely put media onto aircraft within the constraints of the current system. It’s also not an easy fix – if the cycle is to change, all vendors need to be coordinated in their efforts to speed things up. Studios or CSPs can do their parts faster, but without IFE system vendors also being more efficient, media files will likely just sit on the testing rack for even longer than they do now.
Some stages of the cycle will always be slow – for example, it is important that early window content is secure, which has been a concern with cloud-based processing and uploading. Extra caution will always need to be taken to make sure that content is secure when it’s passed between vendors.
Airlines will also have different requirements for things like subtitle languages and branding, and different IFE systems will require media to be in specific formats, so although some processes can be standardised, there will always be several different copies of the same movie going through the cycle.
That isn’t to say there are many ways that the cycle could be more efficient. In fact, vendors are working together already to disrupt the status quo. Files are starting to be stored in the cloud where studios, CSPs and airlines all access central master copies which are, in some instances, processed automatically with the help of artificial intelligence. Turnaround can shrink from 30 days to 24 hours in some cases, which also means that content updates are less expensive for airlines.
Files can also be delivered to other vendors remotely and at the push of a button when using the cloud, cutting out time waiting for a physical USB to arrive in the post. Similarly, with higher rates of on-the-ground aircraft connectivity, media can be remotely updated which is a lot faster than walking around the tarmac.
Most companies that we’ve spoken to have expressed an interest in speeding up the content cycle – some are even changing their business models now. For example, Touch Inflight Solutions, in conjunction with partner company Above, put HBO’s And Just Like That onboard LATAM flights the day after the show’s TV premiere by using cloud technology for processing and file transfer – technology which is now a part of normal operations. West Entertainment also recently partnered with entertainment software company, CineSend, to automate the encoding and delivery of media files. IFE system vendors are making moves well – Panasonic’s ZeroTouch platform facilitates remote content refreshes on aircraft reducing the upload time from weeks to a mere couple of days.
As vendors continue to adopt more efficient practices, getting onboard with a new and improved content cycle will soon be necessary for survival. Although these changes will take some getting used to, faster and more efficient practices will be beneficial for content owners, content processors, airlines, and passengers alike.
Watch this space for our next article on the changing role of CSPs.