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Going Offby Christopher Elliott

The lowdown on high-altitude 'news'

July 12, 2000
Web posted at: 3:48 p.m. EST (1948 GMT)

(CNN) -- Ever wonder where the "news" programs on your airline flight come from?

Neither did I, until I got a note from a company that creates the talk shows you listen to on your in-flight entertainment system. It was an invitation to participate in a "special dedication to cutting-edge companies" formatted as a "60-minute news report."

"This consists of candid interviews and lively discussions with your CEO and other company leaders," the message continued. "The program brings to light your company's industry leadership, key technical innovations and plans for continued growth in your industry sector."

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My five-minute interview segment would run "for 60 days, 24 hours a day, every day, every hour on every flight" on a major United States carrier. As an added bonus, the segment would be broadcast on the in-flight entertainment system of a smaller, regional carrier.

The cost: $7,500 -- a "special introductory offer" -- as opposed to the regular rate of $10,500.

No standards

There's nothing illegal about selling air time on a flight, of course. Up at 36,000 feet, there's no Federal Communications Commission to regulate what passengers hear, so airlines can air whatever they want.

There are no industry-wide standards when it comes to in-flight audio programs, according to Diana Cronan, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, a Washington-based airline trade group. "It's up to the carriers to set their policies," she says.

Note, too, that bona fide news organizations, including CNN, also provide information up in the air, so you don't have to automatically suspect everythig that presents itself as news.

Still, there is something ethically troublesome with the way some of the information is presented. I can't remember ever seeing or hearing a disclaimer on a flight about the promotional nature of a show's content. And indeed, in following up with the advertising representative, I found that my impressions were more or less correct.

Because the pitch I received was legitimate (if terribly misguided), I've left out the name of the audio production venture. The company, though, is a significant player in the $100 million in-flight content industry.

"Infomercial style is simply not acceptable," the executive wrote back in response to a question about the legitimacy of this proposed talk show. (In case you're wondering, my e-mail signature clearly identified me as a journalist in all of these correspondences.)

She continued, "(The carrier's) guidelines are very strict and that is why (we) are their premier audio and video entertainment provider. Our content is delivered in a talk-radio format. It is a format that provides a unique opportunity for companies like yours to really 'talk to the consumers and businesses on a personal level.'"

If my "company" is so newsworthy, why do I need to shell out $7,500? Why is "infomercial style" -- which usually involves a big disclaimer at the beginning of the program -- "simply not acceptable" to airlines?

Most puzzling: Why send this information to a CNN Interactive travel columnist?

Flyer beware

"These aren't real talk shows," says Terry Wiseman, publisher of IFEXpress, a newsletter about in-flight entertainment. "If you're going to have a talk show on an airline, the first thing you'd do is bitch about the legroom, the meals, the service."

Instead, airlines have complex arrangements to acquire audio and video entertainment that go beyond soliciting paid-for, talk-format programming. One country-music artist recently shelled out $15,000 to have his new album featured on United Airlines' audio selection, says Wiseman.

"Airlines don't have to put a disclaimer about these arrangements anywhere," he says. "So they don't."

Bob Steele, who directs the Poynter Institute's ethics program, says passengers might want to consider the source of these shows. "Is it independent content that's professionally gathered?" he asks. "Or is it driven by the economic imperatives -- and could the content be framed, or even twisted, by commercial interests?

"In a sense," he says, "it's caveat emptor -- let the buyer beware."

Some passengers don't buy it. "I refuse to listen to the in-flight commentary," says John Unrath, a Los Angeles aerospace engineer who frequently flies to his employer's Massachusetts headquarters. "Just reading the topics, and who is doing the talking, tells me that I am not going to get an unbiased viewpoint."

Sheldon Jennings puts it even more bluntly. The in-flight talk shows "stink," says the Long Beach, California, Web developer. "The airlines should forget about the idea and concentrate on better service."

Jennings is right. The in-flight talk programming I've heard is generally as vapid as it is scripted. The chief executive officers and so-called "newsmakers" being interviewed usually blabber in monotone. I prefer listening to the real-time air traffic control channel.

If airlines abandoned their efforts to earn a couple of extra bucks from their in-flight entertainment, they might be able to turn their attention to the issues that really matter: cramped seats, surly service, and unpalatable food, to name just a few.

Until then, don't believe everything you hear on a plane.

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