Sharmila Aroskar is spearheading Pluto TV’s international product and leading an all-female team that is working to build a tailored TV experience for each new market and user.
Pluto TV has been making progress as it expands around the globe, and during Aroskar’s tenure the Paramount Global-owned free ad-supported streaming TV (FAST) service has expanded to now 37 markets and 45 platforms globally. And while there’s certainly learnings from every launch, new markets mean thinking about the product differently as consumer viewing habits and regulations can be distinct and vary in each.
“Every time we launch a product [there] is something new that we have to take into consideration,” Aroskar told Fierce Video, adding “it’s almost kind of a new product.”
Having originally studied architecture, building things is one element that drew Aroskar to product – a space she’s worked in for over 15 years now. In the digital arena that itself is changing quickly alongside shifts in user behavior, she’s able to “actually execute on those evolving technologies.”
Before joining Pluto TV as VP of International Product in June 2021, Aroskar was VP of Global Product and Technology, heading up the Innovation Lab at 20th Century Fox, and prior to that she was VP of Product at MotorTrend (now part of Warner Bros. Discovery), where she led the launch of a subscription on-demand product. Through that experience she gained visibility into how user behavior patterns were changing, at the time moving from traditional linear TV consumption to more on-demand programming.
Pluto TV is one of several players competing in the FAST space, in the U.S. alongside the likes of Fox’s Tubi, The Roku Channel, Amazon’s Freevee and free streaming services from smart TV OEMs like Samsung TV Plus, Vizio’s WatchFree+, LG Channels, among others. In the fourth quarter, expansion into Canada helped drive Pluto TV to add 6.5 million monthly active users in period, bringing its MAU tally to 78.5 million.
And with each new Pluto TV market, the team is gaining new insights. One of the challenges launching international product, according to Aroskar, is a lack of detailed consumer intelligence information in each location. But now with a fairly established footprint in Europe, Latin America and the U.K., along with a launch in the Nordics with partner Viaplay last year and Canada in December with Corus, the team is teed up to work with its business insights unit to drive more product decisions based on market intelligence.
For example, Aroskar explained how in the Nordics, they’ve found users are more interested in on-demand content, whereas in the U.K. much of the older demographic accesses content via set-top boxes versus smart TVs. Now that Pluto’s present in those markets, it’s able to “really dive into” the user patterns and sentiments around different content platforms and “optimize our product in those markets,” Aroskar said, noting that will be a main focus for the team this year. They’ve already started to do some AB tests in Sweden on certain platforms, with the ultimate goal of tailoring the experience to each market.
“We are not just one size fits all,” Aroskar said.
The same goes for the team she’s fostered.
Having a product team of all women wasn’t a purposeful move on Aroskar’s part.
“I did not go out to build an all-female product team to be clear, I was just looking to hire the best candidate for each role, and here we are,” she said.
To that end Aroskar recruited Senior Product Manager Yuliya Galushka, Product Manager Cristina Arribas, and Associate Product Manager Gabrielle Dyer.
The four-person product team comes from different career backgrounds, but all have worked in traditionally male-dominated spheres. Arribas, who spent almost five years at Telemundo’s Enterprises’ Sports and Digital team, noted that when she was at NBC Sports and it was a great experience, she was one of only four or five women total.
Dyer, meanwhile, who started programming at the young age of 12 and pursued computer science, said she was very used to being the only woman, including in her most recent role as a product manager at fintech startup Alice, where she was the only female on the team.
Galushka, originally from Belarus, started her career in QA and has worked in tech for 10 years. She said if not all, close to 100% of her previous positions have been with male dominated teams. For Galushka, who earlier in her career was a teacher and an accountant before getting into tech including roles at Amazon and Red Bull TV, said what attracted her to Pluto TV is “where all your work can actually translate towards the dollar signs.”
Being on an all-female product team is a first for all of them. When Dyer joined the team, they knew it was time for a Slack channel, which she aptly titled “Miss Worldwide” – something Galushka said made her feel empowered, and which the team still uses today.
“It’s very surprising, I feel very comfortable here, including seeing females, not only in our team but other teams as well,” Galushka said.
Aroskar echoed the sentiment of a company-wide approach to inclusion. She believes a focus on good ideas rather than other factors, be it gender, race or title, is a company culture that stems from the top at Pluto and parent Paramount Global.
“I think that there is a great deal of empowerment at every step in the organization, so that filters down,” she said, pointing to her immediate report Paramount Chief Product Officer Rob Gelick. “If you have a good idea, everyone has a voice at the table.”
Asked if there is a different approach when it comes to being a team of all females, Aroskar cited a collaborative environment and understanding for the need to balance work and home life with a “divide and conquer” attitude.
In prior experiences on male-dominated teams she acknowledged being in situations where a female colleague needed to take time off, such as for a sick child, and was met with incredulity. And she admitted there always being a sense of guilt about having to take time to take care of personal things.
However, she thinks that in the last five or six years attitudes have been changing, including on the personal level of men and women sharing more personal responsibilities at home.
And on her team specifically, “there is a great deal of collaboration, there is no second guessing. People respect each other’s ability to be productive, and have integrity in the work that they do.” Meaning if someone needs to take time to handle a personal matter, another person on the team can step in. Still, she emphasized that it filters throughout the company, and extends to teams that are not only all female.
“There’s a greater sort of respect and appreciation for people’s ability to balance both work and home commitments” she said regarding changing attitudes.
Shared success, shared failure
Ultimately, Aroskar’s team operates as one cohesive unit, with shared success and shared failure.
“If we do a great job at something, we all bask in the glory,” Aroskar said. “And if we screw up something, there is not finger pointing, we just kind of figure out the forensics of what went wrong and then go from there.”
One of those instances, which she counts as both a success and failure, was the Canada launch with Corus, as the team dealt with last minute requirements while trying to launch on a strict timeline.
When there’s a major country launch the timeline is very firm, she noted, as there are simultaneous marketing and PR efforts associated with it. In the case of Canada, “unfortunately the requirements were not all defined at the onset, just because it was such a fast-paced project,” she said.
So the team had to deal with some complex needs that came in “fast and furious” – for example, Quebec has very different compliance requirements than the rest of the provinces in Canada.
“And it was very, very challenging to manage all of that and still launch on time,” she said. So the failure was not having the requirements at the onset, as the team had to do a lot of bootstrapping and figuring out workarounds. However, ultimately, the launch happened on schedule, with over 100 curated channels and 20,000 hours of content.
Another success was the Nordics launch on May 18. Aroskar noted that Pluto TV had close to 200 developers in Ukraine when development started in January, and when Russia invaded the country everyone needed to be relocated.
“That was a super stressful time for us because we had committed to a launch date,” she said. But she considers it a “massive win, in that we were able to secure the safety of all these employees” with engineers relocated to Poland and other safer locations, and still managed to deliver on the launch, missing the original target date by just one week.
In the Nordics, Pluto TV took a partner approach to enter the market. Pluto TV absorbed an existing Viaplay-owned free ad-supported service called Viafree, with the latter meant to be phased out about three months later.
“Because Pluto TV was so successful and our marketing efforts were so successful, they actually deprecated it earlier” after just one month, she noted. Then the team replicated that same model in Canada when they launched with partner Corus, again ingesting Corus content onto the Pluto TV product and then launched the service across the country.
That model is great, Aroskar noted, because it allows Pluto to go to market with a more robust content library, and also extend brand loyalty already held for Viafree or Corus to now Pluto TV.
“It becomes a better way to engage with the user, builds trust” and allows users to easily migrate to the new brand, she said.
And since Aroskar started heading up product, international has become less of an afterthought than before, according to Galushka.
“Previously international was just a follow-up … after the U.S. rolling out this feature or that feature,” she noted. Now that’s no longer the case, as they’re “collaboratively working with the U.S. teams, where the feature will be created at the very beginning” with international needs and requests considered from the get-go.
“A lot of the catch-up game added additional overhead that was originally not planned,” Galushka said.
Creating tailored experiences
On streaming platforms, particularly in the U.S., Pluto TV’s demographic typically skews younger and male, and those enjoying a “lean back and watch” experience. But teed up for this year, according to Aroskar, is a strong focus on creating more tailored experiences, including more personalization.
She said instead of presenting the same user interface to everyone, there are features and functionalities Pluto TV hopes to roll out in Q2 and Q3 for a more personalized homepage, helped by algorithms. It’s also pushing registration, which will help deliver more data on the user such as age, gender and so on, allowing for more effectively customized content.
This is especially important in the EU, she noted, and in certain markets such as Nordics and the U.K. where people have specific viewing patters, alongside GDPR requirements. Aroskar said it’s about ensuring the product is compliant but also that “the user experience is really rich and tailored for that users’ viewing patterns”.
The foundation for personalization elements was set last year, with 2023 poised for execution.
Having benefited from several mentors in her own career (who admittingly have “all been white men,” she said with a laugh), introducing the women on her team to other leaders, particularly female, is one thing Aroskar is working to do herself.
Dyer saw that firsthand recently through an introduction to Julia Veale, who heads up Showtime and met with the younger product team member to offer experience and guidance.
For Galushka, she’s a firm believer that women are people who can multitask – she said women can build product, bring up kids, work hard and look beautiful at the same time. Citing how a woman or man can create the warm and comfortable “honey I’m home” feeling when a person walks through the door and a place they keep coming back to, she said the team is trying to create a similar emotion when people launch the Pluto TV app, like what they see, and want to continue tuning in.
“That’s why people keep coming back home,” Galushka said. “I feel like us here [are] hopefully trying to make that happen.”
As for Aroskar, she said her wish for her 17-year-old daughter is that by the time she’s in her 20s and 30s that having an all-female product team is no longer surprising, but more commonplace.
“I hope that there are many all-female teams and it becomes more the norm and not the exception,” she said.