The idea of showing movies on flights has a logical history. There were long, long flights. Showing movies to mollify (and make money from) bored passengers was a potentially enjoyable alternative for two hours or so.
Still, YouTube’s news this week that it will begin offering five of its Google-sponsored channels on Virgin America flights in America and Mexico, seems to be a little bit more newsworthy than when the networks began showing repeats of “Coach” and “Mad About You” so many years ago.
Google plunked down $100 million to jump start a suite of about 100 YouTube channels as it beckoned to be recognized as a legitimate source of programming like a broadcast or cable network. It’s not been a smashing success by some accounts—Google reportedly is lopping off support to half of those channels but there’s every indication YouTube still has skin in the game.
While YouTube might be proud (or just astonished) that there have been a record 500 million views of the user-generated “Charlie Bit Me…Again,” a video about a little boy whose even younger brother bites his finger, the video site needs to be in the business of making its own stuff. That’s especially true as the various sized screen choices out there mix into one and services like Hulu and Netflix get into the business of making original programs too.
The five YouTube channels it chose for Virgin—the dramatic series about “transhumanists”, “H+ The Digital Series,” Jon Avnet’s cool “WIGS Blue,” “Geek and Sundry’s Written by a Kid,” the amusingly educational “Crash Course” and the barely funny “Barely Political’s The Key of Awesome.” -–were picked as representative samplers of the entire tier. Virgin America will begin offering the channels by Dec. 15.
“We’re inspired by the quality of content our creator community is developing for YouTube, and we’re excited to get it in front of people in new ways. Partnering with Virgin America is one way we’re doing this. We feel the innovation and energy of both the YouTube and Virgin America brands align well,’ says Danielle Tiedt, YouTube’s chief marketing officer.
Back in 1961, we guess the chief marketing officer for TWA said something like that when it became the first airline to show an in-flight movie, the riveting, “By Love Possessed” starring Lana Turner and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.
That movie is 115 minutes long. If you watched every episode of each of the YouTube series that will be offered on Virgin America they’d add up to a movie- sized experience, or more. But YouTube programs are built to be viewed as short videos you can watch on the bus to work, not so much for the entire time you’re flying from New York to Los Angeles. And it’s pretty strange that YouTube is even bothering. Virgin offers Wi-Fi to passengers, so why wouldn’t a traveler just opt to do that, and choose the material they want to see?
For YouTube though, the fact that its little series are occupying the same back-of-the-seat sized video screen passengers could use to watch theatrical movies or more traditional television series creates the impression that little YouTube programs are on an equal footing with networks or theatrical big releases—and that’s exactly the message it wants to deliver.