Pluto TV is the network for those who aren’t sure what they want to watch. On a given day you can watch a David Cronenberg movie, the entirety of MTV’s “The Hills,” or go back in time and watch the original run of “Unsolved Mysteries.” Since going live in 2013, Pluto TV has been the little engine that could. It contains the network model of scheduled programming and commercials, but couches it within the streaming world of uncensored offerings, channels dedicated to specific content, and on-demand titles. The best thing? It’s all free. Or, actually, that’s now the second-best element of Pluto TV.
The network contains channels aimed at all manner of television fan, but what is now in the spotlight in the wake of the CBS and Viacom merger is how Pluto TV caters to classic television fans. Last year it unveiled an “One Day At a Time” channel, airing all the episodes of the original 1975 Norman Lear series. Last month it announced that it would become the home to reruns of CBS’ “Happy Days,” “Mork & Mindy,” and “Laverne & Shirley.” The latter two are particularly interesting considering that, like the original “One Day,” neither is currently available to stream anywhere else on the internet.
This is all thanks to Pluto TV’s business relationship with their corporate owners, the recently merged CBS and Viacom. Scott Reich, Pluto TV’s Senior Vice President of Programming, told IndieWire the desire to test the waters and not focus on what’s currently popular or well-known is the content strategy of Viacom CEO Bob Bakish. “Part of that is going into the vaults and seeing what’s in there,” Reich said. He said when it comes to programming and what to highlight, it’s a complicated answer with numerous moving parts that isn’t just limited to audience behavior.
The service doesn’t look at their audience in terms of demographics. “We look more on behaviors,” Reich said. “What we see, across the platform, is the beauty of everything. People can cross decades of amazing television and it doesn’t really matter if it’s the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, or current day. If you’re starting on ‘The Love Boat’ or ‘Happy Days’ it’s easy to go in and catch things from the ’90s like ‘Moesha,’ or ‘Wings,’ or ‘The Nanny.'” In the case of Pluto’s new “Happy Days” channel it was an opportunity to highlight the shared universe created by Garry Marshall, who used the original 1974 series as a launchpad for both the 1976 sitcom “Laverne & Shirley” and 1978’s “Mork & Mindy.”
Reich is enthusiastic about ViacomCBS’s ongoing relationship and support of Pluto, and believes there can be co-existence between Pluto and CBS’ paid streaming service, CBS All Access. “It’s very much a work-in-progress because Bob [Bakish] has been very clear about this is not a single winner-take-all scenario or marketplace,” Reich said. And there have been opportunities for cross-promotion on the free service, with Pluto TV devoting a channel to Stephen King movies in anticipation of the All Access adaptation of “The Stand.”
Pluto also hires in conjunction with curation. Comedians are brought on to oversee the Comedy Channel; MMA experts control programming for Pluto’s MMA channel. “It’s great when you have people who have this amazing knowledge programming for the audience,” Reich said. This ability to reach out and connect (or change) the programming extends to Pluto’s thriving Facebook fan page and their social media presence, which actively works with podcasters and journalists to do synergistic events to promote the channel and its content.
For the future, Reich said talks are active about what CBS All Access’ upcoming rebranding to the subscription-based Paramount Plus — now scheduled to launch March 4 — might mean for them, but one thing he’s hopeful about is that the network will remain ad-supported and free for users. PlutoTV also remains devoted to being a service with a human face on it, one not driven by algorithms, but people. “This is a living, breathing place,” Reich said. “The beauty of our platform is we can make changes, we can try new things and if it doesn’t work we change it tomorrow.” He compares it to driving a speedboat as opposed to the traditional network being a cruise ship. “We can turn on a dime,” Reich said.
This brings it all back to “Laverne & Shirley,” the sitcom that is now available for people to watch on Pluto. In a time where everything feels like it’s locked up behind a corporate paywall, it’s a network like Pluto TV, that shares content with audiences directly, that feels like a strong hybrid model between the traditional and progressive. Rewatching their channels, feeling that nostalgia, reminds you of the power of network television — with the added element of having it at instantly your fingertips.