The Most Popular Movies and TV Shows In the Air

I don’t remember this being a thing in the past, but airlines now seem to be releasing details on the most-watched entertainment options onboard from the previous year. Initially I was going to compare between airlines, but then I realized that was silly. After all, the airlines offer different movies/TV shows, so you can’t really compare. Instead, I’m just going to focus in on one airline.

United rolled out its list of most watched movies and TV shows as viewed on its international widebody aircraft last week. That means this doesn’t include streaming, and it doesn’t include those looping movies on the LiveTV systems. I’m sure including those would have altered the results. After all, people probably behave much differently on short flights than they do on the long flights that dominate the widebody schedule. So, to review:

Let’s start with movies. As those who read my trip reports know, I tend to look for the most awful comedies around. (Proof: I once watched two Zach Galifianakis movies on one flight, and one wasn’t The Hangover.) I want something mindless and not overly emotional, because the last thing anyone needs locked in a metal tube for hours on end is a flood of emotions. If you’ve ever made the mistake of watching Marley and Me on an airplane as I once did, then you know what I mean. Bad comedies not only seem better on an airplane, but they also tend to be in the 90-minute range, so they’re easy to squeeze into shorter flights or allow for more movies to be seen on longer ones. Apparently not many others share my preference.

Here are the top ten most-watched movies on United from 2018.

  1. “Black Panther”
  2. “12 Strong”
  3. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”
  4. “American Made”
  5. “The Greatest Showman”
  6. “Coco”
  7. “Murder on the Orient Express”
  8. “Downsizing”
  9. “Darkest Hour”
  10. “Book Club”

On that list, only Jumanji is the kind of movie I would gravitate toward (and I did on my flight home from Honolulu in June). Though even Jumanji wouldn’t be considered a bad comedy. So what did people lean toward?

For the same reason I like unemotional escapist comedies, a lot more people apparently prefer escapist action/adventure/war. That’s really not a surprise, and I doubt anyone is shocked to see Black Panther up top. A Tom Cruise-led American Made also fits the bill. But possibly the best example of this is 12 Strong.

If you don’t even know what 12 Strong is, you probably aren’t alone. It was released in the usually dead month of January and opened in second place to a $15 million box office take, but then it tanked quickly. It only made $45 million for its entire run in the domestic market. So how was it the second-most-watched movie on all of United’s widebody fleet? Well, it’s an action/war movie set in Afghanistan and it’s about horse soldiers. Animals + war? Sounds like a winner for an airplane.

After that, we get into kid land. I have no doubt that The Greatest Showman and Coco were driven by parents trying to keep their kids occupied.

A whodunit like Murder on the Orient Express is a good distraction as is a historical drama like Darkest Hour which also had strong Oscar buzz that probably pushed people to watch it since they wouldn’t have bothered on the ground. Book Club undoubtedly appealed to a certain demographic (older women). Then there’s Downsizing. I can’t explain that. It wasn’t funny and it was just generally awful. But hey, Matt Damon….

So what’s the takeaway? People do like mindless movies, but they seem to like more action/adventure than they do comedy, at least on United. Throw in some kid movies and you have a recipe for success.

The same, however, can’t be said on the TV side of things. Here’s United’s top ten most-watched TV shows.

  1. “Friends”
  2. “The Big Bang Theory”
  3. “Silicon Valley”
  4. “Game of Thrones”
  5. “How I Met Your Mother”
  6. “Big Little Lies”
  7. “Veep”
  8. “A.P. Bio”
  9. “Sex and the City”
  10. “30 Rock”

After all these years, Friends is still number one. Fellow comedies How I Met Your Mother, Sex and the City, and 30 Rock have also been off the air for ages. So why are people watching them?

I think it’s the nature of TV. Airlines rarely have complete libraries of TV shows available, and few want to dive into some in-depth serial halfway through when they don’t know what’s going on. Comedies that people know and love are both mindless and familiar. They are easy to watch and they help pass the time. Friends is the king of that, but still, it’s pretty remarkable to see its staying power.

Even beyond that, you see very few shows in the top ten that require any kind of back story. Anyone can watch an episode of The Big Bang Theory or A.P. Bio (how was that in the top ten?) and not need to know anything about the show to be able to watch it.

I do find it interesting, however, that the other four shows were all HBO shows, and those do require more knowledge of the story. I asked United if these were promoted in a different way, and I was told that HBO has its own channel in the entertainment system, so that could get people to gravitate toward it. I can imagine all those people who don’t subscribe to HBO would be interested in watching a couple of episodes from buzzy shows to see if they’re worthwhile.

So, the recipe for success seems to be more comedies on TV and more action/adventure on the big screen.

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