The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

The struggling A&E Network is turning to reality TV for a ratings boost. But, because that "A" in "A&E" stands for "arts", it's gotta be a high-classy sort of reality show. Classy reality TV? Is such a thing possible?

If all else fails, look toward the UK. Inspiration from Albion is usually a seal of approval for the high-brow television crowd. And so it is with "Airline", the new reality series based on Brit network ITV's reality show of the same name. "Airline" will take an "unfiltered" look at a Southwest Airlines crew out of Chicago's Midway Airport, with all the flight delays, unruly passengers and other air travel hijinks that make for great entertainment.

The story behind how the series came together is probably more interesting than the series will be. In particular, settling for Southwest instead of another carrier, and having any airline consent to potentially damaging coverage, is enlightening:

A&E wanted an airline with international routes, which Southwest lacks, but other carriers turned the network down. Colleen Barrett, president and chief operating officer of low-cost Southwest, said yes.

"What possessed me?" Barrett said when asked to explain her decision. "When I was first approached I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' "

Southwest's publicity people, however, were excited about the idea. Barrett agreed to look at tapes of the U.K. show — she pronounced it "OK" — and talked to officials at easyJet, the London-based budget carrier featured in the program.

"The easyJet people told me they felt (the show) literally put them on the map," Barrett said. "I started thinking ... it's basically 18 hours of free publicity. You can't buy that kind of PR."...

A&E and Dallas-based Southwest said the airline didn't pay or receive money for taking part in the show and had no control over content. Southwest, however, was allowed to request a voice-over narration to give "context" to explain treatment of specific customer complaints.

Barrett called the decision to cooperate "a gamble." She acknowledged wishing that the producers had not included a scene that highlighted the airline's policy of requiring very fat passengers to buy two seats.

So Southwest is crossing its fingers and hoping that the old adage of "bad publicity is better than no publicity" holds up.

Actually, I think it's a fairly safe bet for Southwest, because it's unlikely its reputation can shift much beyond what most people already think of it, good or bad. Southwest is a no-frills cheapie airline, so you either love it or hate it (personally I hate it). Barring something radical, nothing that shows up on this series is going to alter many people's perceptions in that area. By contrast, the added exposure can only serve as an extended commercial for Southwest, grabbing more mindshare among air travellers and potentially more customers.

This is exactly why the other airlines are now kicking themselves over not accepting their invitations:

[A&E VP of documentary programming Nancy] Dubuc said A&E is now hearing from airlines that turned down the chance to appear on the show — she wouldn't identify them. Neither the network nor Southwest would commit to a second season.