Inside the rise of Pluto TV: “This is not Viacom Direct”

Pluto TV was thusly named because of the AVOD platform’s perceived underdog status in a galaxy of SVODs. Now, with the multi-billion-dollar backing of ViacomCBS, its universe is fast expanding – but it vows not to become Viacom Now. 

When it launched in 2013, Pluto TV was doing virtually the opposite of most major content platforms looking to break through. The US-only AVOD service was free in a world of paid; linear in an age of on-demand; and advertising-focused in a time when the likes of Netflix was expected to annihilate the advertising business.

They were seemingly wrong three times out the gate, according to Tom Ryan, co-founder and CEO. But he stuck to his guns. Why? Because people like being programmed to, he tells TBI.

“What we thought was sorely missing in the OTT market was taking the best of what traditional TV had done in recent years and modernising it with a new offering that could really curate to customers’ interests,” explains the former EMI Music and Virgin Mobile exec, who founded the service with fellow entrepreneur Ilya Pozin.

The concept is straight-forward: available as an app or built-in platform among connected or smart televisions, Pluto TV provides a live experience with a 150-plus channel grid that is expertly curated. Crucially, it’s free, relying on an ad-supported model, with ad loads that are half those of linear TV.

Specialised channels include the likes of Pluto TV Weddings, Dogs 24/7, Pluto TV Food and Pluto TV Surf; programme-specific channels for Forensic Files, Midsomer Murders and Fear Factor, among others; as well as content partnerships with Gusto TV and Viacom-owned UK broadcaster Channel 5’s catch-up service My5, which, in turn, features three Pluto TV channels on its own platform.

The latter deal was borne out of Viacom’s headline-grabbing $340m acquisition of Pluto TV earlier this year.

Tom Ryan

Taking flight with Viacom

Making good on last year’s promise to seek out “alternative” direct-to-consumer offerings for the business, Viacom boss Bob Bakish wasted no time in swooping for Pluto TV in January, immediately proclaiming that the service would be a “true game changer”.

Indeed, backing from Viacom has seen Pluto TV grow from 12m active monthly users in January to 18m – a 50% jump that doesn’t even apply co-viewing multiples. “Once there is a [third-party] measurement system for us and the industry, that 18m number will be even higher,” says Ryan.

Viacom CFO Wade Davis revealed in August’s Q3 results that the business was plotting “a smooth, aggressive rollout” of Pluto TV throughout Latin America and in 19 territories around the world, including a major push in Europe.

“There is a big opportunity for us internationally,” Davis promised, with Bakish highlighting plans to target broadband-only customers along with TV operators, as well as bundled video customers.

Viacom’s ambitions for Pluto TV now appear even greater in scope following its long-awaited merger with CBS this summer – a deal that, with regulatory approval, is to close at the end of this calendar year and sees the businesses operating as ViacomCBS, claiming an international reach of more than 4.3bn TV subscribers.

While the merger had not completed during the time of this interview, TBI asked whether it’s safe to assume Pluto TV entered the deal with Viacom open to such an outcome, considering a reunification of Viacom and CBS has been touch and go since 2016.

“Sure, we obviously think about how we can grow Pluto TV,” Ryan admits.

Indeed, Bakish confirmed post-merger that CBS content such as CBS Sports HQ and ET Live will land on Pluto TV, and it’s likely there will be further synergies once the ink is dry.

Then, there’s the matter of CBS catch-up and streaming service CBS All Access, which has been well ahead of the broadcaster-driven SVOD curve, and presents further opportunities for integration.

Dora And The Lost City Of Gold

“This is not Viacom Direct”

But to what extent will Pluto TV simply become an AVOD outlet for Viacom and CBS? Ryan quickly flags that there are no quotas in place for content-sharing – certainly from Viacom.

“This is not Viacom Direct or Viacom Now – this is Pluto TV,” he says firmly.

“Viacom is a very important content partner across a variety of areas of our business including ad sales, distribution and international expansion, but by no means is Pluto TV becoming a streaming outlet for Viacom content.”

The platform, he reiterates, is first and foremost a broad-based aggregator that will continue to do business with a number of third-party content partners, such as CNN and the BBC – both of whom, it should be said, joined the service post-Viacom acquisition.

That being said, shortly after the acquisition, 14 Viacom-branded channels debuted on Pluto TV, and a further 13 channels from MTV and other networks are also set to be added. In addition, the platform is increasingly supporting the launches of new Viacom properties via curated channels.

“We did a channel with old seasons of The Hills in timing with the [reboot, The Hills: New Beginnings],” Ryan explains, adding that a Dora The Explorer channel also launched ahead of Paramount’s film Dora And The Lost City Of Gold this summer.

Curation, curation, curation

Such channels are Pluto TV’s calling card against competitors such as Tubi TV, Dish Networks’s Sling TV and Hulu’s Live TV service, according to the exec, pointing out the parallels to the cable TV model, which similarly relied on niche interests in its early years.

“The hard work is standing up these curated, branded channels that really stand for something in a particular content category,” says Ryan. “In many ways, we drew inspiration from the things cable TV had done right in terms of creating these interest-based channels that take the work out of entertainment for customers.”

In addition to an acquisitions team, which works against a defined programming strategy, dozens of content curators serve as experts in their respective channels. This team of “true experts”, says Ryan, is critical to the offering, which will become more personalised over time.

“One of the curators is a former mixed martial artist who got into the entertainment industry and he’s helped us curate channels around fight programming that have become extremely popular and really resonate with an audience that loves and understands programming about fight-based sports.”

With an almost ascetic focus on curation of existing content – a lot of which are catalogue titles, but include a growing segment of more current shows – what you won’t see on Pluto TV anytime soon, warns Ryan, is original programming, where a success or failure is wholly borne by the platform.

“We are a shared-success model and the focus is on generating revenue through advertising, which is growing very rapidly and our content partners are extremely happy with the progress and money they’re making from us – not to mention the data and promotion to our audience,” he says.

“Ultimately, new programmes and originals require significant investment where it’s not shared-success at all.”

Bajillion Dollar Propertie$

The platform had a brief dalliance with originals in picking up canned Seeso original Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, whose fourth season was without a home after the short-lived NBCUniversal-backed comedy streamer was shuttered in 2017. Pluto TV swooped for the unaired season – an “opportunistic” strategy that could be repeated.

But, ultimately, organising content into user-friendly formats is “fertile ground” for the business.

“There’s so much great content out there that can be curated to enhance the offering we already have that we don’t really see the funding of original content as a near-term opportunity or necessity,” he says plainly.

Enhancing distribution

The next major play for Pluto TV is distribution, particularly in Europe, where the business is overseen by MD Olivier Jollet. Pluto TV launched in the UK in October 2018 and in Germany a month later, both via Sky’s Now TV service.

“We launched with, admittedly, a pretty skinny channel offering in both markets because the focus, when we were an independent company, was to make sure we remained the leader in the US,” says Ryan.

“But we were pleased with the launches so the key focus now is adding channels and content to the product in the UK and German-speaking markets, and then adding to the distribution footprint.”

“There’s so much great content out there that can be curated to enhance the offering we already have that we don’t really see the funding of original content as a near-term necessity.”
-Tom Ryan

Pluto TV recently rolled out on Amazon Fire TV – one of its primary partners in the US – in both markets, and similar partnerships will originate out of Europe, which Ryan calls “a critical component of overall growth”. Also expected are further smart TV link-ups – such as the deals with Samsung’s TV Plus and Vizio’s WatchFree that see Pluto TV serving as the default built-in experience.

“That’s far superior to just being present in an app store on one of the platforms,” says Ryan.

Although penetrating markets such as India is unlikely, given Viacom18’s existing AVOD service Voot, Latin America is a target for 2020. For Ryan, the objective is making Pluto TV the global AVOD leader, not simply dominating the US.

And, indeed, Viacom – and now CBS – allows them to do so.

“This market is getting more and more competitive, but we have a unique product that is uniquely distributed and whose content offering is getting better and better – and we have a huge head start. Leveraging Viacom’s international footprint and assets throughout Europe and Latin America is going to be critical to accelerating that.”

What’s abundantly clear is that, in just a little over five years, Pluto TV has shed its underdog status.

“We saw Pluto TV as this celestial being out there in the galaxy – something that was really out there, coming up with a version of TV that was different to traditional TV,” says Ryan.

“Those contrarian beliefs have fortunately paid off.”

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