Timing Is Everything! What show business teaches us about timing and why we need to rethink the way we’re doing things…now!

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Like any air show announcer, I stand at show center and watch the crowd for the entire day.  What follows are my thoughts based on observations from that perch and what I’ve learned and experienced during my 30 years working in the radio and television industries.

I consider what we do to be the most exciting show on earth and I don’t want to see us become the next Jay Leno (I’ll explain later) or ever be boring. I see the enthusiasm and inspiration that we generate, but I’ve also watched people fall asleep during shows that sometimes feature flight schedules as long as six hours.

Timing is everything. Our industry is healthy now, but is it sustainable? And are we meeting the expectations of our younger fans? I fear the answer is “no” to both questions.

Change is in the air!

I do a lot of air shows that present lineups like this:

  • Open with a parachute team (the SkyHawks in this case)
  • Move on to a military jet demonstration (the CF-18)
  • Follow it with an aerobatic monoplane, Matt Chapman
  • Then a military transport plane like the C-130
  • A sailplane (Manfred Radius)
  • Some warbirds (Corsair/B- 25/Mustang)
  • Another jet fighter (U.S. Air Force F-16)
  • Biplane aerobatics (Sean D. Tucker)
  • And, finally, a military jet team (the Snowbirds)

I think you’d agree that it’s a strong and balanced show, but consider this: that was the lineup for the very first show I did as an announcer! – Expo Air, the Montreal International Air Show, in1989. Yes, we’ve been doing the same thing for a long time. And, aside from the F-22 and F-35, with the same aircraft.

Sure, we’re still attracting some big crowds and a very enviable demographic with lineups like that, but the upward trend in our 60+ age group is troublesome for the near future. We must bring younger fans through the gate to sustain our successes; that does not mean that we should abandon the existing fan base or fundamentally change the nature of our events. But the expectations of younger ticket buyers are quite different. They are passionate, they’re engaged, they’re educated…and they have the attention span of Daffy Duck!

Times are changing!

According to research, the average “selective sustained or focused attention span” (someone doing a task) has dropped from 12 minutes to a short five minutes and the “transient” attention span is a mere eight seconds! Most healthy teenagers and young adults are able to muster sustained attention of no more than 20 minutes. They must force themselves to repeatedly re-focus so that they can “pay attention” long enough to get through a feature-length film. And, if we are honest with ourselves, it is not just the attention span of children, teenagers and young adults that is shrinking. Facebook, smart phones, YouTube, tablets, Instagram, Fitbits, smart watches and a thousand other new distractions are making all of us less focused and attentive. 

That diminished attention span is affecting everything, including us. The time we spend on the web is considered a root cause of our declining attention spans. Research tells us that 17% of those who visit your webpage will view it for less than four seconds; only 4% willspend more than ten minutes. And it better not be wordy because the average visitor will read no more than 111 words.

The most viewed video on my YouTube channel got 120,586 views which I thought was great until I looked at the data and saw that only 6,887 (5.7%) actually watched the nine minute and 23 second video to the end. The average view duration was 3:14, meaning few actually stuck with the video summary of my CF-18 ride long enough to know if I used the “bag,” saw my impressive “unrestricted vertical climb,” or even survived. I suppose I shouldn’t feel too bad, though, because the average YouTube viewing time overall is two minutes and 30 seconds.

The evening news is also moving faster with average story packages on national newscasts now at about 142 seconds and interviews at 108 seconds. Local news story packages are just as affected, running about one minute and 15 seconds in length while live reports are down to about 44 seconds. Consider how that is affecting the coverage of your air show and why it’s very important to have a focused media plan.

Even some of our culture’s most deeply ingrained institutions are feeling the impact of this tectonic shift in the public’s attention span. The Tonight Show’s Jay Leno was reluctant to give up his ten minute opening monologue and is no longer part of the new, fast-paced, late night TV lineup. As a track announcer at Formula 1 and NASCAR races, I’ve seen some change. Formula 1 cut their qualifying session to an hour that includes three rounds, providing their huge world-wide television viewers and ticket buyers with a more exciting experience. NASCAR, on the other hand, continues to offer all-day qualifying sessions with predictable results, both in the increasingly empty stands and with less lucrative broadcasting deals.

Changing Gears, Moving Forward

The institutions that remain flexible, open to change and aware of the evolving entertainment expectations of the public are thriving. Someone who understands life in this faster-paced, digital age is Guy Laliberté, the co-founder of Cirque du Soleil , one of the biggest live entertainment groups in the world. Known for its intricate circus shows, the Cirque has performed for more than 160 million spectators across more than 400 cities on six continents and “owns” the Vegas strip. Laliberté started as a street performer breathing fire and later came up with the idea of creating themes in which several performers arrived on stage for short periods of time and help tell a story. And, because providing that kind of fast-paced, multi-dimensional entertainment product is necessarily more expensive, he also charges a premium price for the experience. I think it’s a successful model we can use. 

While the average Broadway play costs $92 to see and fans spend $113 on a ticket to an NFL game or $72 for admission to an amusement park, on average, North American air shows are charging just over $19 to see the most exciting show on earth. ICAS research indicates that we can and should charge more. In a 2014 survey of more than 2,000 spectators, only 2.6% of respondents said their ticket was “very expensive,” while over 21% said it was “inexpensive” and 14% thought it was “very inexpensive.”

Kevin Walsh of Wingman Events produces several shows including Thunder over Michigan which takes place in the heart of one of the most socio-economically challenged areas of North America. And yet, he joined me on stage during the State of the Industry address and said, “…the general admission price at the gate is $40.00 plus $20.00 to park and, it’s been going so well, we’re going to produce a second show this summer at the same venue.” I asked if this meant less people through the gate and he continued, “I don’t have a problem with that. I’d rather have 25,000 people enjoy the experience than 50,000 jammed in or waiting in traffic to get in.” He also likes to work within a theme and fears the complacency of having jet teams four years in a row. “I want the challenge of working without them. We all have to ask if we’re prepared for another sequestration. Build a show that stands on its own.”

Kevin uses mostly warbird themes like “Magnificent Mitchells” and others. Themes are a growing idea within the industry and they can work for us as well as they have for Cirque du Soleil. Putting together that “why we’re here” moment and building a creative element can be very rewarding. For example, this year Canadians will recognize the 75th Anniversary of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in which over 130,000 allied pilots were trained across Canada for World War II. The CF-18 will be painted as a tribute to those “Yellow Wings” and it offers many opportunities to air show event organizers in Canada. The U.S. Coast Guard celebrates their centennial and some of their helicopters are painted retro yellow for the occasion. In 2011, the U.S. Navy celebrated the Centennial of Naval Aviation and recognized the event by painting many contemporary Navy aircraft in vintage colors. One of the simplest and yet most powerful themes anywhere is paying tribute to our service men and women. Consider that, as of 2014, 21.2 million people in the U.S., 9% of the civilian population over the age of 18, are veterans.

Spectator Preferences Are More Important than Yours

Walsh also thinks the length of a show is important. “Our show is three and a half hours of flying time, max. Anything longer and you’re not only killing the crowd, but probably spending too much [money]. Leave them wanting more.” When I asked if jet team performances are too long, he agreed that they are, as did performer John Klatt, who also joined me on stage briefly during the “State of the Industry” presentation.

Klatt believes ‘less is more’ and added, “Not only are they (the jet teams) too long, but any performer on stage more than 8 to 10 minutes is probably too long.” All three of us agree that 20 minutes from startup to landing is right for jet teams. It would not only be in keeping with shorter attention spans, but also offer some considerable fuel and smoke oil costs over the course of a season. Remember, most healthy teenagers and young adults are only able to muster about 20 minutes of focused attention at a time. Just because you can offer an air show that is longer than three or three and a half hours doesn’t mean you should.

Consider this: For several years now, EAA’s AirVenture has asked its performers to reduce their performance time from 12-15 minutes to 8-10 minutes, both to fit more performances into a discreet period of time and to increase the entertainment value of the event. They always give the performer ample prior warning and never force pilots to shorten their performance if they don’t want to or are not prepared to, but the net impact is a tighter, shorter, more intense aerial entertainment event. It is not hard to see a time when, in addition to a low show and a high show, every performer prepares for flying a short show to accommodate this new direction for the air show business.

Another indication: The Red Bull Air Races – conceived and conducted to reach exactly the demographic that air shows need to attract – last three hours, at most. The events consist of a series of individual races along a closed race course and each race lasts a bit more than one minute. Following each round of competition, spectators are treated to individual air show-type demonstrations that last not more than five or six minutes. Fans can track aircraft speed, G levels and in-cockpit video on huge jumbotrons that transmit live and recorded images throughout the event.

“Connecting with [and maintaining the attention of] your audience should be a top priority,” says Walsh, who presents a creative way of doing that at Thunder over Michigan, “We hire a local TV guy known in the community to interview our pilots and any special guests on a stage set up in the center of our static display. More than just an autograph tent or a place to take selfies, it is a place where our fans get to know the people in the flying machines.”

Variety is also key. “Never underestimate the novelty act, they are worth every dollar,”Walsh added, and John Klatt couldn’t agree more. Variety is why he invested substantial bucks to bring a jet Waco back to air shows. He says, “The Screamin’ Sasquatch was expensive to create and run, but it works, and shows are getting a lot of bang for their buck.”

Unique Formations with Flare!

One of the more innovative shows I’ve worked at is the Sanicole International Airshow in Belgium. For many years, the show has presented special formations offering variety and creating a theme. Director Geoffrey Buekenberghs says, “Putting together a program is one thing, but — within the program — look for additional opportunities. Our show is known for special, unique formations. In the past, we had a commercial Boeing 737 fly with four Extra 300s and the RAF Vulcan escorted by four Belgian F-16s.”

At his 2015 show, Buekenberghs hosted two exceptional formations. The first one was the Swiss Air Force jet team, the Patrouille Suisse, flying in formation with the Breitling Super Constellation. They had already flown together in Switzerland in the past, but never during an air show, so, “I was very happy as an organizer to give them the opportunity,” said Buekenberghs.

The second formation took more than seven months to organize and included the lead jets of four European military teams – the Royal Air Force Red Arrows, the Italian Frecce Tricolori, the Patrouille de France and the Patrouille Suisse – flying together in formation with the Belgian Air Force F-16. “We started contacting the teams early and asking if they were eager to participate,” said Beukenberghs. “We knew some would be harder to convince, so we started with the people we knew who liked the idea and then suggested to the others that it would be great to have them in the formation to complete it.”

Last year, in North America, both Sean Tucker and Rob Holland flew with the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, as did The Canadian Forces Snowbirds jet team, but those flights were only for photo missions leading up to an air show. Can it be done on a show day? While we do have our Heritage and Legacy flights, we don’t see as many unusual and dissimilar formations here in the United States and Canada. I think Sanicole’s example proves that — with enough lead time, proper planning, communication and a positive attitude — we could also realize some dreams and present these types of unique formations here.

Adding flare, literally, is another idea that audiences appreciate as we saw with the Breitling Jet Team in North America last year and will again this year. With few exceptions, the European military teams use flares. They must, of course, be used safely, but extensive experience throughout Europe in the air show environment has demonstrated that they add entertainment appeal without introducing safety hazards. Keep in mind that our younger fans have lived with Vine, YouTube, Vimeo, Instagram and other social media and have seen a lot of what we do over and over again. The industry needs some safe, new tricks.

Conclusion

As often happens, ICAS headquarters receives a number of congratulatory and summary emails following each convention. I’m happy to report that my presentation on the last day of the event received some attention. But it was one comment in particular that caught my attention. “I sincerely hope that Ric’s presentation is the beginning of some creative development within the air show industry. It was a frank and honest assessment of the air show industry,” this ICAS member wrote. “We should all be working harder and more cooperatively to produce events that are as exciting, focused and entertaining as the highlight videos ICAS shows at the convention each year.”

And that, my air show friends and colleagues, is your challenge…OUR challenge: embracing change and redirecting this wonderful business of ours to meet the evolving entertainment expectations of our fans and customers. Timing IS everything. And now is the time to make the next great leap in the transformation of our industry.

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Ric Peterson
Ric Peterson is an an air show announcer and award-winning broadcast journalist based in Odessa, Ontario.