TV & Streaming

One great place for streamers to find new audiences: 35,000 feet up

Airlines are giving them a place to win over new viewers.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

Ekrem Dimbiloglu spends his days helping decide what people watch on one of the largest streaming services in the country. As many as 200 million people every year can watch new movies and shows on the platform he oversees, including new Hollywood releases, foreign-language titles, and classic TV shows.

But we’re not talking about Netflix, Disney+, or HBO Max. We’re talking about Delta Studio, the in-flight entertainment option for passengers on any of Delta Air Lines’s 730-plane fleet.

“We want the seatback screen that’s in front of you to be kind of like the television at your house,” Dimbiloglu, managing director of brand experience for Delta Studio and wi-fi, told Marketing Brew.

Airlines across the country are operating what are essentially their own streaming services, licensing shows, movies, and other forms of entertainment. It’s an arrangement that helps airline brands stand out among their competition while giving entertainment companies, including streaming services, a way to win over audiences.

After all, if audiences get hooked on a show mid-flight, they might just seek out the service and subscribe after landing.

“These partners that we work with are hoping to get more eyeballs on their content and to just reach people that maybe aren’t subscribing today,” Meghan Lemke, American Airlines’ manager of onboard products, told Marketing Brew.

“Our own little streaming platform”

Curating in-flight entertainment is complicated. At both airlines, content licensing is evaluated monthly using data from the airlines’ consumer-insights departments, company research about programming trends, and historical data about what fliers have watched in the past.

External third parties can also help make decisions about what content to curate. At Delta, United Talent Agency helps the airline identify and arrange licensing for upcoming titles that may be popular in the coming 12–18 months, Dimbiloglu said. To keep content fresh, licensing deals are often structured to last only around six to nine months, Lemke said.

The content-curation process requires mixing broad-appeal titles with niche content. Documentaries and foreign-language titles are often part of the programming mix to account for different tastes, as is content meant to appeal to younger or family-oriented viewers. Like at-home streaming services, there’s no right answer when it comes to curating a content library.

“It’s a careful balance,” Colleen Riffe, American Airlines’ senior manager of customer product, told Marketing Brew. “It’s not an exact formula.”

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It’s not lost on the airlines that they’re operating similarly to Netflix or Disney+. “We sometimes joke and talk about how we do have our own little streaming platform, essentially, on the aircraft,” Lemke said.

There’s one crucial difference, other than the fact that Delta and American Airlines don’t have to fret over subscriber figures: Programming isn’t streamed to customers over the internet, and is instead loaded onto the planes so that fliers can watch it over a local system. And since bandwidth might vary from aircraft to aircraft, some flights may have slightly more programming choices than others, Lemke said.

Those differences may be more pronounced depending on where you are flying. On specific flights to and from certain countries, content mixes may include more foreign titles appealing to fliers likely to be traveling on that route, Riffe said. 

Only the best

It’s only recently that original content from streaming services has begun to appear on flights. Delta inked a deal with Hulu to bring originals like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Mindy Project to seatback screens in 2019, and Hulu originals have been some of the highest-performing titles on the service, Dimbiloglu said. The airline also has deals with Showtime and HBO Max in place to bring certain episodes of originals onboard. (Programs from streamers play ad-free.)

American Airlines, which also has deals with Showtime and HBO Max, added Apple TV+ programming in 2020 and, in April, inked a deal with NBCUniversal streamer Peacock to bring originals aboard.

Like many other entertainment partnerships that help expose new customers to streaming services, the deal can serve as a win-win for airlines and streamers alike.

“It’s one of those things that is truly a benefit for both American [Airlines] and for our partners because we’re bringing something to the customer that we know that they want, and hopefully, that turns into a subscriber for these partners long-term,” Lemke said.

Selecting the right streaming service to partner with also says something about the airline, which heightens the stakes around those decisions.

“There’s just so many [streaming services] that have launched over the last five years that we want to focus on those that are considered premium, that we consider to have really great original content that they are investing in year over year,” Dimbiloglu said.

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