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Who Decides What’s on Your In-Flight TV?

In-flight entertainment is a lifesaver on long flights. It can turn the hours you spend crammed in your seat into an opportunity to cross blockbuster films and award-winning TV shows off your to-watch list. You may even rely on it to maintain your sanity as you try to avoid rubbing elbows with your seatmate or hearing your neighbors mouth breathe in their sleep.

But who decides which shows and movies make it onto the seatback screen in front of you? I asked the airline with the best-ranked in-flight entertainment for 11 years running, Emirates, how it’s done.

The Netflix of the Skies

Airlines are a lot like Netflix in that they acquire movies, TV shows, and other programs by buying the rights to them from Hollywood and beyond. Emirates employs a special team of licensers for this sole purpose. But it’s a bit more complicated than the standard licensing process.

“The team here running Emirates ICE are effectively a TV station or a Netflix-type service, acquiring movies, TV, music, and games content from all over the world,” Patrick Brannelly, Divisional Vice President of Emirates’ IFE & Connectivity, told me via email. “Once we license anything it takes about six to eight weeks to get the content onboard with all the supporting information and text.”

Emirates’ in-flight entertainment, called ICE, provides more than 2,500 entertainment options that include more than 500 movie titles in addition to TV, radio, and sports channels, as well as the aircraft’s birds-eye view outer cameras. Entertainment often needs to be bought in up to 30 languages, Brannelly says. There’s no difference between the offerings on first- or business-class TVs compared to economy, except of course the TV screen size.

Movie titles are typically available for acquisition by airlines about 10-12 weeks after they leave theaters. So if you missed your chance to see all the blockbuster movies you wanted to in the past couple of months, you might be in luck on your next flight.

Television shows, however, are a little bit more difficult to pin down.

It Takes a Village

“The Hollywood studios have perhaps one of the best distribution systems in the world, so it’s relatively easy to know what’s available and when, and then license it. TV is more complicated because there’s so much more. We’re more often buying from huge catalogues and those deals are more complex.”

New movie requests from passengers, complaints about fuzzy or failing outer aircraft cameras, new TV content ideas, and the transfer of new titles and text onto aircraft through a fiber optic connection (with as little as 90-minutes ground time) all fall under Brannelly’s team’s responsibility.

So next time you switch on your in-flight entertainment, know that it took an army of people to get it there.

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