What is Pluto TV?

With so many streaming services to choose from, keeping track of which TV shows, movies, and channels are available where can be overwhelming, if not impossible. And even if popular services like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon pique your interest, they can also leave a massive dent in your wallet, especially if you plan to subscribe to more than one.

Pluto TV isn’t Netflix or Hulu, however.

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The freemium service combines live TV with on-demand content that might interest many subscribers. Being the source of all the content for Vizio’s WatchFree service, it also offers an enticing collection of more than 250 channels and thousands of free movies and shows for the low, low price of absolutely nothing (aside from a few ads). Best of all, the service has only gotten better since it started rubbing elbows with major network broadcasters. Let’s dive deeper.

What is Pluto TV?

Owned by Viacom as of last year, and unrelated to the little tiny planet that could, Pluto TV is a live-TV streaming service, not entirely unlike Sling TV and competitors such as DirecTV Now and Hulu+ Live TV. But unlike those services, which offer streaming access to channels you’d find on cable TV, Pluto TV offers free content mainly curated from what’s already available online. In this way, it’s similar to Rabbit TV, though without the associated cost. Pluto TV launched in 2013 and picked up steam fairly quickly. The service has more than 28 million active users as of November, making it the largest free TV streaming service in the U.S. That number can only grow as Pluto nears a launch in Latin America, the first beneficiaries being Brazil by year’s end.

With Pluto TV, you’ll find content from channels you recognize, as well as some you’ve likely never heard of. Even those who already subscribe to a live TV streaming service may find it useful thanks to its curated layout, though this will depend on your personal preferences.

In March, Pluto shook things up with a user interface overhaul that streamlined the entire process for content discovery and playback. The chief theme in navigation is linearity. The service makes it possible to jump into any of its main live TV categories — sports, movies, news, entertainment, etc. — with just one or two clicks. This philosophy extends to the video-on-demand UI, which offers more playful categories like “rom coms” while retaining the traditional TV guide’s spirit. In October, Pluto TV added four new channels, including CMT Equal Play, The Bob Ross Channel, The Design Network, and a channel dedicated to one of Netflix’s most popular shows, Narcos.

A picture of Pluto TV's new user interface as of March 2020.

Additionally, you’ll now be able to specify your favorite channels, saving you from having to weed through its 250-plus channel list. You can also save individual shows, clips, and movies from more than 100,000 hours of unique programming to a watch list. Once you finally decide what you’re watching, you can also access a preview panel that shows more information, such as the cast list, directors, and trailers.

How is Pluto TV different than Vizio’s WatchFree?

Basically, WatchFree is Pluto TV — it’s just included on Vizio TVs out of the box, and it works slightly differently than the app does on other devices. WatchFree shows up as an input on Vizio TVs, similar to how your cable box, a streaming device like a Roku or Apple TV, or a game console would. All of the programming you’ll find on WatchFree is the same as on Pluto since it’s the melting pot of content that drives it. Aside from the name and a few Vizio-specific differences in the interface, most of what you read here also applies to WatchFree.

Which channels are available?

You’d expect to chew through the content library of a free service quickly. Still, there’s a lot to explore on Pluto, especially with more than 175 content partners on board providing entertainment across 250-plus channels. Looking through the Pluto TV guide, channels are separated into groups by similarity. You’ll find some relatively standard categories like news, sports, movies, entertainment, and comedy. Others are more internet-friendly, like the Chill Out, Life + Style, and Geek + Gaming sections.

For the most part, you’re not going to find standard TV channels, though some are represented via their web counterparts, especially news outlets. Those include familiar names like Bloomberg, Cheddar, CNBC, MSNBC, CBSN, and many others. As of 2019, this also includes CNN, though not the full, live CNN you get on cable. Instead, the CNN channel features a curated playlist of short-form digital content from CNN’s anchors and reporters. Featured clips are oriented toward lifestyle and culture, climate change, the environment, and original CNN investigations and interviews. A similar channel for NBC called NBC News Now arrived in February. Other recent additions to Pluto include CMT, Kevin Hart’s Laugh out Loud, and Red Bull TV, plus a handful of new themed channels in Celebrity, Reality, and Lives, the perfect cocktail for pop culture and reality TV enthusiasts.

Sports coverage is less conventional — you’re not going to find the likes of ESPN here. Instead, you’ll find choices like Fight, World Poker Tour, Impact Wrestling, a dedicated Sports News network, Glory Kickboxing, and the Big Sky Network. DAZN recently signed a deal to provide an original weekly series on Pluto TV, and there’s potential for that partnership to expand down the line. Pluto has recently added an official PGA Tour channel with 24/7 coverage of one of golf’s biggest tournaments.

There are reruns of reality and documentary shows alongside episodes of Dennis the Menace, Thunderbirds, and other older TV shows in the Entertainment section. Among those various channels, you’ll also find Wipeout, a network that only shows reruns of the popular game show and various iterations from different countries, as well as Nosey, which shows reruns of The Jerry Springer Show and The Maury Show, among others. Meanwhile, the Curiosity section features Science TV, Docu TV, Xive TV, and even a NASA livestream. New additions include Pluto TV Sitcoms, which offers a selection of older comedies like 3rd Rock from the Sun and The Lucy Show, and a Spanish-language channel called Pluto TV Cine.

That type of hyper-focused network is par for the course with Pluto TV, which also features Anime All Day and Stand Up, a channel dedicated to stand-up comedy. Similar channels include Slow TV, which shows relaxing imagery, Pluto TV Travel, and Cats 24/7, which is pretty self-explanatory. Check back during notable seasons like Christmas, and you’re likely to see new temporary channels or a festive explosion of holiday-themed content to enjoy, which is all the more reason to keep checking back for what’s new.

Several internet radio stations are also available via Dash Radio, which is available as a stand-alone service. Modern genres like hip-hop, electronic music, and pop are the most prevalent, though stations are also available that offer classic rock, soul, and jazz.

Lately, Pluto has also aspired to ramp up its international presence. In the first year of its U.K. operations, the service is adding two British-specific channels to its lineup, including a permanent 24/7 Made in Britain lineup that airs British-centric films and shows. The other is Brit-pocalypse, a temporary themed channel that highlights apocalypse and destruction films in British settings. In August, Pluto TV launched its Latin America free streaming service in 17 countries, with plans to expand to Brazil before year’s end.

In the same month, Pluto TV added more content from CBS as well as a dozen new channels, including Dabl, Johnny Carson TV, Demand Africa, Three’s Company, The Rifleman, Loupe, Classic TV Comedy, Classic TV Drama, Western TV, Pluto TV Fantastic, Pluto TV Love Stories, and Pluto TV Suspense. In addition, it recently pared down the interface to 15 distinct categories, including:

  • Movies
  • Entertainment
  • Featured
  • News + Opinion
  • Reality
  • Crime
  • Comedy
  • Classic TV
  • Home + DIY
  • Explore
  • Sports
  • Gaming + Anime
  • Music
  • Latino
  • Kids

What devices can I use to watch?

Roku Ultra 2019

Chances are near 100% that you own at least one device capable of streaming Pluto TV. The service can be streamed via a web browser and offers desktop apps for both Windows and MacOS. However, they can only be used in the U.S. Mobile apps are also available for iOS and Android devices, with separate U.S. and international versions, which offer different channels due to streaming rights issues.

If you’d rather watch on your TV, several devices including Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, Android TV devices, and the PlayStation 4 offer Pluto TV apps. Smart TVs from Samsung, Sony, and Vizio are also supported, with the company’s website saying that more are on the way. Not all Pluto TV channels are available on all platforms, however.

All of the apps we’ve tested display the same interface, with no significant differences between platforms, save one that we’ll get into below.

What about on-demand content?

Pluto TV’s on-demand offering has some TV shows, most notably from TLC and Discovery Channel, but the vast majority of what you’re going to find are movies.

The available content changes frequently, with the service promising new movies every week. The rotating selection makes it hard to predict what’s available, and it’s not on par with services like Netflix or Amazon Prime by any stretch. The company has been hauling in bigger names lately, including a distribution deal with Sony that saw Starship Troopers come to Pluto TV. Recently, we’ve seen blockbusters like The Terminator, as well as a deep collection of Bond films, including From Russia With Love and GoldenEye. Overall, Pluto doesn’t match Netflix’s vast expanse of cinematographic excellence. Still, there are enough notable titles to catch your attention, and you may find a hidden gem among the fringe offerings.

On-demand content may not be available on every platform, or at least not all of it may not be available. In our testing, both shows and movies were available on-demand via most of the platforms we tested, including Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, iOS, and Roku. That list once excluded the PlayStation 4, but recent updates have brought the gaming platform into the fold.

Will Pluto TV stick around?

At least at the time of this writing, it doesn’t seem like Pluto TV will be going anywhere. Unlike previous projects that aimed to provide shows you would otherwise need an antenna for, like Aereo, Pluto TV isn’t stepping on any toes that could irk either government agencies or pay TV companies.

Free though it may be, Pluto TV sells advertising on every channel, judging from our experience. It seems like advertisers are buying. With Viacom’s team significantly boosting the platform’s marketing efforts, we expect even greater interest among advertisers.

Pluto TV’s deal with Vizio to power the WatchFree service is now looking like the first of many, as Viacom starts to pitch Pluto TV’s free offerings as an ideal way for cable and satellite companies to recapture some of the audience they’re losing from the cord-cutting trend.

There’s also some fear that Viacom’s recent merger with CBS may impact the future of Pluto TV, particularly regarding customer-facing monetization. While we’re sure to see some changes, Viacom CEO Bob Bakish confirmed last year that Pluto TV would remain a free service, per Cordcutters News. He even dropped a bit of corporate strategy, noting that it would use Pluto TV to upsell premium options such as CBS All Access.

In the early going, it appears Viacom is throwing its weight behind Pluto TV as promised. The company spent $30 million in the first quarter of 2020 to promote the new user interface, and it seems to be picking up more prominent advertisers across all its channels. Those wondering about potential monetization shouldn’t sweat just yet, but it’s worth noting Viacom hasn’t exactly ruled against such a future, whether near or far off.

Is Pluto TV right for you? The easiest way to find out is to download one of the apps on your platform of choice or head to the company’s website and watch for a while. It won’t cost you anything but your time, and given the breadth of programming, chances are fairly good that you’ll find something you like. Just keep in mind you won’t be seeing any of the latest content found on other networks.

If it turns out you’re looking for a more traditional TV experience over the internet, check out our comparison of the most popular live TV services. If you need something to watch Pluto TV on, our list of the best streaming devices is a great starting point.

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