Will Southwest Take Off On A&E?

Cabler launches docu-soap, 'Airline'

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%%STORYIMAGE_RIGHT%% As the nation has become more skittish about air travel due to the renewed Al Qaeda threats, A&E launched a reality series two nights ago called "Airline," an unfettered look—according to the producers—at the daily lives of Southwest Airlines' employees and passengers.

The 18 half-hour episode series, airing Monday nights, is based on a successful, long-running U.K. show that examines the daily drama of flying with EasyJet, which like Southwest, is a pioneer of no-frills, low-cost air travel. And while many brands over the past couple of years have been willing to make financial investments in entertainment content, the Dallas-based Southwest, known for its quirky advertising and maverick business style of Chairman Herb Kelleher, is taking a different approach to stand out from the spots-in-pods clutter of network television.

The airline is offering total access but no monetary funding to the A&E project—it is not buying any commercial time on the show either—, which was brought to the cable network by the New York arm of the UK's Granada Productions. While this formula requires no upfront financial risk for the airline, certainly having little to no say on how the narrative is edited and shaped is fraught with peril. If the airline and its employees are shown in a negative light, it could obviously mean harm to the airline's brand equity and, in turn, its bottom line.

"I was a little nervous to tell you the truth but I watched some of the [U.K.program] and talked to some people from [EasyJet] and A&E, and I got pretty comfortable," said Colleen Barrett, Southwest president-chief operating officer.

"I have great trust in our folks and am very proud of their customer-service delivery." Barrett said that Kelleher embraced the project as a great opportunity for "free advertising."


One of the executive producers on the project, Charles Tremayne, senior-VP of Granada USA, credits Southwest's leap of faith, one that the major carriers weren't willing to make. "We had to make sure we show warts and all. Colleen, right from the start, said she'd be embarrassed if it were a whitewash."

Southwest has been granted a 24-hour period in which it can request any clarification by way of voiceover for any element in a show that could potentially cause confusion with the public. "Right now, in this state of heightened security, we wouldn't want to do something deceitful in terms of laws and going through security checkpoints. It's more that than the image of the brand. We can't go in and say that something doesn't show our employees in the best light, therefore we don't want you to show it," said Barrett.

Nancy Dubuc, A&E's VP-documentary programming development, based in New York, said Tremayne came to the network without an airline attached. Gotham-based Civic Entertainment brokered the initial meetings between the network and Southwest. "In written form, it's an idea where you go 'huh?'. But when you watch the pilot, it is very compelling television," said Dubuc.

"One of key reasons we're quite happy to be with Southwest is that most of the majors are quite corporate and bogged down with bureaucracy," said Tremayne. "Southwest, even though it's a big company, has been organized like a family company."

Certainly the company has distinguished itself among its competitors with its humorous, irreverent TV ad campaign from GSD&M, which pays off embarrassing slice-of-life vignettes with the tagline "You are now free to move about the country." According to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, Southwest spent nearly $70 million in advertising from January to September of 2003.


Tremayne is hoping the concept draws American audiences like it's drawn the Brits. "It's a universal story that resonates in all our lives. Everyone on a plane has a story to tell, like the person who's going for the job that may change his life. And then you have those tense moments of conflict, which good drama depends on."

"Whenever you can find universal connection, that's a hopeful and promising thing," said Dubuc, who greenlighted the project. The show was shot at two airports, Los Angeles International and Chicago Midway. Dubuc identifies three types of narratives on the show: stories that happen spontaneously, employee back stories, and passenger stories the Granada crew is aware of before they arrive at the airport.

For example, one vignette shows how a Southwest customer service representative at LAX convinces a malodorous passenger to freshen up and change his clothes without trying to hurt his feelings. Another situation is more heated when a drunken musician verbally abuses a counter person for not allowing him to get on a flight.

"I have high hopes for this show; it's a buzz show and is going to need time to build," said Dubuc. The debut hour on Monday night garnered a 0.6 average audience rating against adults18-49, which doubles the 0.3 rating the network averaged against the same target in primetime overall during fourth quarter of 2003. Of course, that rating is nowhere near the numbers that basic cable breakout hits, Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and TLC's "Trading Spaces" register.

%%PULLQUOTE_LEFT%% A&E has invested significantly in a consumer ad campaign that includes national TV and print with the tagline "We all have our baggage."

"Well, you know, this is business for them. We only want to challenge the things that would be critical misstatements. Their advertising is their advertising. It's not joint advertising," responded Barrett to the tagline.

"Airline" marks A&E's first foray into what Tremayne said the Brits are calling "docu-soap." Dubuc insisted that her team is into the genre for the long haul and that they will try other ideas if "Airline" doesn't work.

If "Airline" becomes successful, what does the network honcho think about nurturing similar projects with other service-oriented companies?

"Southwest is a character unto itself; I care that the way they approach their branding is entertaining. If characters and stories are there, sure maybe we could do something similar with another industry," said Dubuc.

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