Pluto TV gives FAST programming a human touch

Artificial intelligence may a topic de jour these days, but Paramount Global’s Pluto TV is injecting a human approach to make programming on the free ad-supported streaming TV (FAST) service feel like it’s curated by a close friend.

In October Pluto TV started a category reorganization with an eye on easier navigation, coinciding with the launch of a brand campaign that promotes the human element. It’s dedicated a 50-person team tasked with programming and caring for channels on the FAST service.

Pluto TV SVP of Programming Scott Reich chatted with StreamTV Insider and discussed its approach to create free streaming TV that feels personalized and is more easily accessible using a mix of behavioral data and the team’s personal passions. 

The brand campaign

The brand campaign, Programmed By Humans, highlights Pluto TV channel programmers’ role for newly introduced content categories – something it holds up as a differentiator in the quickly crowded FAST space, and an element Reich said Pluto viewers could already feel but may not have been aware of.

“It’s definitely something we have heard from the audience time and time again, that Pluto TV feels different,” he said, while acknowledging that viewers didn’t realize that behind the scenes there’s 50 programmers making decisions.

The brand campaign is a way of making a public statement, according to Reich, in that the service feels different because of its human approach and highlighting its people that not only have deep knowledge in the categories and channels they look after “but they are fans themselves.”

“That’s why Pluto TV has always felt more like watching television with a very close friend that kind of knows what you’re going to want to watch next. And that’s very different from just an AI approach,” he said.

Pluto aims to go beyond just the last viewing session data input to also consider how it wants to make the audience feel, what their mood might be and what content they might want to view next. This not only helps the service differentiate but also drive metrics like increased engagement, with the aim of getting people to watch as long as possible and come back often, according to Reich.

“We just had back-to-back Q2, Q3 record-breaking quarters from a viewership perspective,” he said. Last year Pluto TV was also the first FAST service to surpass the 1% threshold for TV viewing in the U.S. to land on Nielsen’s The Gauge, alongside competitors The Roku Channel and Fox’s Tubi. In Q2 2023 parent Paramount Global reported a 35% jump in global viewing hours for its flagship Paramount+ SVOD and Pluto TV compared to a year prior. Paramount reports Q3 earnings on Thursday.

As Pluto programs, it not only to plans ahead for what viewers might want to tune into, but also playing to its strength is the ability to react quickly to events and happenings in the world with real-time reprogramming. That could be seen when actor Suzanne Somers passed away in October. According to Reich, within 30 minutes Pluto reprogrammed its Three’s Company binge channel, put it on the service’s feature spot and had all of Somers’ episodes running back-to-back.  

“There’s something that we can tap into and move very quickly when we know it’s going to be a hot topic with fans,” he noted.

Behavior informs categories

That’s not to say it isn’t leaning on data, as viewing behavior and historical data clearly play a role in Pluto’s approach.

With an eye on easier navigation, Pluto has started to revamp categories – launching Drama, Sci-Fi and True Crime as its initial three. More are in development and the trio represents the start of a broader reorganization planned between now and early 2024.

In deciding how to categorize, Reich pointed to audience behavior mapping that gave more insight into how viewers actually watch and navigate the service.  A lot of times in qualitative research, what audiences say versus what they do can be two different things, he noted, so Pluto is “always balancing” and looking day-to-day at actual downstream behaviors such as from what channel they watch and where are they go next.

Leveraging historical data, Pluto looks at potential new series coming or categories that it wants to go after or get into.

“You move in the human curation and the human expertise to try and predict the future and then you optimize,” he said, adding Pluto aims to do so continuously and improve through the lens of the audience.

“That’s another part of why Pluto TV is this amazing, living, breathing place,” he commented.

Take Pluto’s new True Crime category for example.  Reich described how its old category was just Crime, where the FAST surfaced a mix of scripted procedurals alongside true crime series, with the thinking that those two types of content would pair well for a viewer.

However, after analyzing behavior habits, the company found that viewers of your “CSIs” and “Blue Bloods” weren’t going to true crime series or shows such as “Dateline” next, but instead across into the entertainment category where other non-crime scripted dramas live.  

That signaled it might be time for a separate category.

“What we did was okay, if that’s where they’re ending up, and this is where they’re starting, let’s make it a lot easier for them and create a Drama category where we put all the scripted elements together, which then leaves True Crime to be a much more specific category,” he said.

That helps drop viewers into content they’re really into right from the jump, rather than having to navigate through extra content they might not be looking for.

Category changes sometimes mean getting more specific, while other times a bit broader.

In another example, Pluto had a Reality category that Reich said started getting too big and began having a lot of game show titles. When Pluto TV added “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” to the mix, it realized it had “new amazing anchors” to break it out and do a Game Show category.

“That made a lot of sense to streamline things a little bit more,” he said.

Ultimately, changes come down to helping the user navigate and discover content in a quick and easy way.

That can be useful as consumers on average spend more than 10 minutes trying to find something to watch, per recent Nielsen Gracenote data, with one in five ditching a TV viewing session altogether in the face of choice fatigue amid a vast array of content options.

Pluto’s overarching categories represent broader navigational tools, while linear channels help viewers zero in on something specific and video on-demand (VOD) content allows them to “dive a lot deeper.”

Pluto isn’t in the business of building brands like MTV, CMT and BET from parent Paramount that live in its entertainment category, Reich noted.  “That’s not our role. Our role is to help you navigate and find something you want to watch as fast as possible.”

With a good sense of the behavior of its core existing audience, Pluto’s now working with marketing and performing audience segmentation to explore areas where it thinks it can expand content, and potentially move in on areas where some other players aren’t engaging with audiences. That process will inform some of the final decisions for new categories coming at the start of 2024, Reich said.

As to what new categories or content areas Pluto will lean into, Reich declined to comment on specifics, noting some of it is a little deal dependent getting towards the end of the year. Currently, he said Pluto is in the phase of finding the right name for categories, including audience research to ensure they know what it means.

Categories could also have implications for advertisers – the primary driver of Pluto TV’s revenue - as some services look for ways to allow brands to target contextually. Amazon Fire TV executives, for example, have previously said categories for its free streaming Fire TV Channels content helps advertisers target audience segments and qualify traffic, such as brands that want to advertise to those delving into travel content.  

While not Reich’s direct area he did acknowledge that advertisers “can target genres and different formats across all the platforms” through Paramount’s EyeQ digital ad platform.  

Mixing linear and VOD

Pluto doesn’t have a quota or set number of channels or categories it’s trying to achieve, as Reich said the audience will dictate the right amount. And even if there are enough channels to support a category that doesn’t mean Pluto will allow underperforming programming to take up space.

The programming exec noted that with reorganization, sometimes there will be a category that has enough channels but is stagnant or even declining, and not generating the type of audience Pluto wants.

“To optimize and not taking up space on the EPG [electronic programming guide] we might move a lot of the content over to VOD,” he said. Pluto might know viewers are still there, so wants to maintain the audience, but if it’s not “basically earning its keep on the linear side of things” the FAST will surface it in the VOD environment.

FASTs including Pluto TV offer a mix of free linear streaming channels and VOD content, with the former providing an easy lean-back experience and the latter allowing viewers to lean-in for specific episodes. And Pluto’s so-called “power users” like to jump between linear and VOD viewing, according to Reich.

“That is something we’re really aggressively looking at and making it’s easier and easier for the audience to go back and forth,” he said.

It’s where Pluto’s product and programming teams work together on new features, such as the recent debut of a new ‘Home’ page on the service that spotlights curated content and personalized recommendations. The new feature launched in a phased rollout on Roku in September, with Android TV and Fire TV devices slated for later this year.  

“That’s where we’re really starting to mix linear and VOD together on the platform,” he commented.

Other FAST executives, namely Samsung TV Plus’s Takashi Nanako, have also pointed to a blending of VOD and linear

In terms of results at Pluto TV, the new brand campaign and categories just launched in October, but Reich pointed anecdotally to very positive reception on social. Pluto’s still waiting on a full data recap “but so far everything seems to being in the right direction for us,” he said, as the audience doesn’t appear to be confused by channels and categories that moved around. And to keep things smooth for users, Pluto dual lists some key channels to ensure they stay in two places at once before gradually changing over completely.

With category changes underway, Pluto TV is on track to deliver “one plus one equals three,” Reich said.