ANYONE WHO HAS EVER BEEN BORED SILLY ON A long flight has probably at some point checked out the in-flight audio channels, which usually offer a selection of music and spoken word presentations. In addition to providing a relief from talking to the obnoxiously hirsute fellow next to you wearing the tank top, flip-flops and five-day beard, these channels also present an opportunity for studio owners looking to expand/diversify their business.
Arthur Coldwells agrees. Coldwells is the managing director at Malibu Post & Production, the audio/video arm of CurtCo Freedom Group, in Southern California. Until CurtCo exited the business about a year ago, it was the largest producer of in-flight entertainment programming, along with AEI and Pace Communications, which also publishes several in-flight magazines. Before it was wound up, Coldwells was involved in much of CurtCo's InFlight Division activities and offers some insights into the market as a possible business venture.
The way the business works in general is that companies like CurtCo purchase airtime (in every sense of the word) from AEI, which is the largest player in the in-flight market. On the largest air carriers, like American, United and Delta, an hour can cost between $10,000 and $15,000. That airtime is then resold to businesses as corporate communications and marketing opportunities, the most widely used application, on a per-minute basis. Obviously, the per-minute pricing is designed to cover the wholesale block time purchase, plus production and post-production costs, and provide a profit. For instance, a corporate executive might ramble on for five to seven minutes about employee motivation or Total Quality Management. Another popular in-flight theme is the vanity sale, says Coldwells, in which company founders beat their chests about building mighty industries in their spare bedrooms, a variation on the old Ted Knight "It all started in a small 5,000-watt radio station in Encino, California..." routine.
But, as Coldwells recalls, vanity productions have become increasingly hard sells because of the cost, which, after production costs were factored in, could run as much as $5,000 for four or five minutes. Another factor is AEI's insistence that block time buyers must also buy airtime on smaller airlines as well as on the major carriers. It's not easy to convince an executive that a message will reach receptive ears when it's playing on a vacation carrier like ValuJet or Southwest, or on foreign carriers like Aeroflot. Even having its own post-production facilities in-house, as CurtCo did, didn't sufficiently offset those thin margins.
The difficulties of this business sector are clear. But several of the sales and production people who once did this work for large companies have since gone freelance, and many are working from home-based studios. Coldwells sees this as a perfect marriage between entrepreneurship and the powerful digital audio equipment best suited to the intense spoken-word editing in this market. "It's really a very good business opportunity for a small project studio and people who are adept at voice editing and don't mind how tedious it can get," he says. "And you'll always hear something that'll make you laugh."
One last thing, cautions Coldwells, you have to be very careful about what your airline passenger listeners will hear. "No comments about crashes, late arrivals or lost baggage-they're very sensitive about that sort of thing," he notes. Certainly nothing about death, which once posed an interesting challenge for Coldwells, who had to edit an hour-long interview with an executive for a company specializing in cryogenics, the process of freezing the dead in hopes of later resuscitation. The resulting four-minute piece did not once mention words like "dead" or "death" or "died" or even "passed away." "I think the closest we were able to get to the point of the message was the word 'inanimate,'" recalls Coldwells. Shades of Monty Python's "ex-parrot" gag.