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Pluto TV: Viacom's Different Answer to Streaming

First, Some Context and History

All the major media conglomerates are beginning to reign in their content from Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, and are bringing them to their own streaming services for maximum profits. AT&T, who owns WarnerMedia, Comcast, who owns NBCUniversal, and Disney, who also own Marvel and 21st Century Fox, have all announced that they are developing their own streaming services to house all of their valuable content available for a monthly fee. Want to watch Friends? You'll have to subscribe to AT&T's thing. Want to watch The Office? You'll also have to subscribe to Comcast's thing. They'll both probably cost around $10 a month, and you're also going to want Disney+, the home to Marvel. All of these companies are taking a non-linear subscription approach to delivering content, something that we first fell in love with when Netflix introduced their instant streaming service back when they were better known for delivering DVDs through the mail. One major conglomerate has been left out of the mix: Viacom. The parent company to Viacom is National Amusements, a company that also owns the CBS Corporation. Because Viacom and CBS operate independently, of which negotiations are constantly rumored that they are in talks to join as one, CBS runs their All Access streaming platform with just CBS content, priced at $5.99 with commercials and $9.99 commercial-free. Viacom initially chose to keep their content off streaming platforms in order to please linear cable providers from dropping their channels. This, however, is not a future-proof solution. Viacom has grown to understand the importance of staying relevant through streaming, and now embraces social networking services where they post original content, and clips from current and classic content from their library. There's more money to be made in delivering the full content, as the other conglomerates have noticed, however, Viacom has chosen to acquire a streaming platform rather than develop their own. The one they chose, however, is very different from what the other companies either have or will develop.

Enter a New Kind of Streaming Platform

Meet Pluto TV, a linear streaming platform. Founded in 2013, the platform started out as a YouTube playlist aggregator run on a schedule. The playlists were disguised as channels, complete with channel numbers, and names, with commercials and bumpers in between content. Channels were separated by genres. There was a tech genre with content from various companies, like CNET, with videos randomized. Another example from their music genre was a Weird Al channel, where Al's music videos were on a repeat cycle. The unique part about Pluto TV was the fact that, at the time, the content could be easily found elsewhere, but what was so intriguing for a person like me who is very indecisive is the fact that the content is pre-programmed like regular TV, and it never ends, in addition to being free. As years went by and their funding improved, they moved away from YouTube and into their own hosted streams. This brought more content acquisitions, like Mystery Science Theater 3000, and content from companies like Shout Factory. More news, sports, movies, and TV shows were added over time, and it grew to reach over 15 million monthly users.

Viacom's Acquisition 

In January 2019, Viacom announced they had acquired Pluto TV, and in May, brought much of their content older than 18 months onto new channels named after their brands like Paramount, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, and so on. They aren't the same national feeds you can watch on cable, but they feature both content from their brands and acquired content. All of this brings further value to Pluto TV for people like myself who want to see more of the content I am familiar with on linear cable. The reason Netflix is as big as it has become is because of syndicated content like The Office and Friends, coincidentally, two shows that air on Viacom's cable channels like Comedy Central and the Paramount Network. People want to watch current content, and the Viacom content can bring in more viewers onto the platform.

Pluto TV's Positives and Negatives

One of the things I love about Pluto TV that no other streaming platform does is have a linear never-ending stream of scheduled content. Netflix, Hulu, and the rest of the streaming platforms are all on-demand only. Sure, they offer autoplay to whatever the platform believes would make sense to play next, or they autoplay the next episode. None of the platforms offer a smart playlist option, where users can either program a never-ending playlist of different shows and movies, or it develops playlists that never end like a TV channel. I'm not sure how many people are with me on this, but I like having something else choose something for me to watch. I don't always know what I want, and many times linear cable doesn't either, but I like having the option to just play a channel and the content shows up.

As far as the negatives go, there's a few.

  • The linear side of Pluto TV is very well done. The on-demand side, however, could use some work. There's no search function, and it doesn't work like cable, where individual channels get an on-demand feature. You either watch the show when it is scheduled, or you don't. There's a ton of movies from the Paramount library, as well as other distributors, in addition to some TV shows, but if Viacom wishes to position Pluto as their streaming platform to compete with the other conglomerates, this needs to change. Considering Viacom also jointly owns Philo with A&E Networks, AMC Networks, and Discovery, and is an over-the-top online cable provider which emphasizes on-demand content heavily over live TV, maybe they could combine these services, or perhaps develop a paid version of Pluto which is reworked to be a more traditional streaming platform. Any plans they may have in the future are irrelevant. What matters now is Pluto does not feel 100% ready for primetime in the on-demand side. 
  • The other negative is platform instability and interface design. The app on most platforms is heavy to load, and sometimes crashes when changing the channel, or loading a menu on my Roku Ultra. Also, I'm not a big fan of the overall layout of the app, which automatically opens to a guide of the live channels. The guide format works for actual cable boxes you get a company like Comcast or DirecTV, where their remote has a large amount of buttons. With a Roku, Fire TV, or Apple TV, you generally just get arrow keys, an enter button, a back button, and a menu button. As such, I really don't think companies like Pluto, along with Sling and others, have figured out an elegant way to interact with the screen with the limited amount of buttons. Cumbersome is a word I would use for Pluto, and other streaming platforms. The app also opens right away in a channel, meaning without selecting a channel, a show is already playing, which I would like the option to turn off as the app can be slow to respond, so if something inappropriate or loud is playing, you have no way of knowing beforehand what will play. As such, it would be nice if there were an option to turn off autoplay at startup. 
  • One last con: there's no schedule of the channels past around three or four hours, so how am I supposed to wrap my life around Pluto TV when I won't know what is on? There's a ton of great content on Pluto TV, but if I don't know it exists, I'll never find it. I'm sure this is done to prevent piracy, but it would still be nice to have some sort of schedule so I know what will be on.

Overall, I love the idea of Pluto TV, and I love that because it has the financial backing of a large conglomerate, it will continue to greatly evolve into something more competitive. Until that time comes, we have to keep in mind that because the app is free, we can excuse some usability issues as there's a lot of valuable content for the price. Because viewership is growing, I'm sure the app will get better over time, but for right now, be patient. For anyone looking to cut the cord and find a free alternative, an antenna plus Pluto TV is a great value option for consumers who prefer a linear TV platform, but are not looking to pay cable prices.

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