The lowdown on high-altitude 'news'
(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."
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.
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?
"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.
CNN Weather Forecasts
City Profiles: In-depth guides to more than 50 cities
World Maps and Guides: Maps and related site links
Archive: More 'Going off'
Federal Communications Commission
Air Transport Association
Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.