The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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Switching Channels
November 1, 1988 -- There's good news and bad news about the latest wrinkle in in-flight entertainment: television.

The good news is that several airlines are testing individual seatback TV sets that offer passengers six channels of news, movies, sports and arts-and-entertainment programming.

The bad news: in-flight TV channels are already showing repeats of cop shows and sitcoms, and commercials might not be far behind.

Over the summer, Northwest Airlines launched Airvision by installing 116 flat-screen color televisions on a 747 that usually flies nonstop between Detroit and Tokyo. The video is displayed on 3-inch liquid-crystal monitors built into each seatback, and the audio is piped through headphones.

In much the same way couch potatoes manipulate their earthbound TVs, passengers can adjust volume, fiddle with the picture quality and flip the dial to choose among the simultaneous broadcasts. In coach, the charge is $6.

Airvision's offering in the four-month Northwest test was a pastiche of familiar television fare: warmed-over highlights of sporting events such as the 1987 World Series; reruns of network shows like Growing Pains, Moonlighting and Night Court; repeats of news shows like 20/20; PBS-type arts programming; several first-run movies, and even a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

The early results of the test were so encouraging--almost 85 percent of business class passengers and 97 percent of coach flyers used Airvision for at least one hour--that other airlines quickly launched their own in-flight TV service. Selected British Airways flights began experimenting with Airvision in September and first class cabins of some Qantas flights were scheduled to be equipped with televisions last month.

No word yet on in-flight TV repairmen or late-night-flight talk shows, however.

This column originally appeared in Travel & Leisure magazine.

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