If the cable box has one redeeming quality, it’s the ability to flip on the TV and start watching something. No disrespect to streaming apps like Netflix and Hulu, but sometimes finding the perfect video feels like too much effort.
That’s why as a cord cutter I’ve been enjoying Pluto.TV, a free service that tries to mimic the cable box experience, only with Internet channels instead of traditional ones. Pluto’s website and apps offer dozens of channels, ranging from mainstream news to stand-up comedy to extreme sports, all strung together from web sources such as YouTube and Vimeo. There’s even an entire channel dedicated to cat videos (and another one for dogs). It has a desktop website and dedicated apps for Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, iOS, Android, and PC, and it also supports Chromecast.
Pluto.TV has flown under the rader since launching last year, but it made the news by last week by striking a deal with Hulu. The arrangement brings shows such as Seinfeld and The Daily Show to Pluto’s website, on Hulu-specific channels such as “Late Night Catchup” and “Joss Whedon Shows.”
The Hulu deal is a big step for Pluto.TV, which otherwise can feel a bit like watching television in an alternate reality where you don’t recognize any of the shows. While Hulu’s presence comes with some strings attached, I’m hoping it’s just the beginning of more long-form content on Pluto, and that it brings more attention to a service that has largely gone unnoticed.
How Pluto.TV works
On a basic level, using Pluto.TV is as simple as launching the app or heading to the website. The last channel you visited starts playing automatically, with a channel guide you can scroll through on the bottom half of the screen. Pluto’s website and mobile apps let you bookmark channels, so you can view your favorites without sifting through the full guide.
The web and PC versions also include a save button, so you can go back and re-watch anything from Pluto.TV’s linear programming schedule. It’s basically just a bookmark, but in this context it’s sort of like a descendant of DVR.
Much of the content comes from YouTube—you can tell from the watermarks at the start of each video—with contributions from smaller sites like Vimeo and DailyMotion. In some cases, Pluto.TV also makes direct content deals with media properties, such as Maker Studios, Bloomberg TV, and Funny Or Die, Pluto CEO Tom Ryan recently told me. Hulu is just the latest (and the largest).
As for the programming lineups, Pluto.TV relies largely on in-house curators, though it also has some tools to help bring new videos to their attention. When I spoke to Ryan, he mentioned the importance of “strong human oversight and element of editorial expertise that goes into it,” and said that roughly a third of Pluto’s team is dedicated to putting channels together.
Pluto’s arrangement with Hulu does come with some compromises to this setup. The biggest restriction is that Hulu content only appears on the web and PC versions. Even if you have an $8-per-month premium Hulu subscription, there’s no way to watch Hulu’s Pluto channels on phones, tablets, and televisions.
Hulu also messes with Pluto.TV’s format and features in a couple of ways. Instead of round-the-clock linear programming, Hulu channels are basically just playlists that you can access at any time. This is preferable in a way, as you’re never stuck watching a show from the halfway point, but it also detracts from the feeling of craftsmanship that you get from Pluto’s other channels.
Even worse, you can’t tell which episodes are playing just by scrolling through the channel guide. Unlike every other channel, the episode lineups for Hulu channels are hidden until you click on them. Doing so stops whatever video you're playing and launches the Hulu video, usually starting with an advertisement. Again, this tarnishes the channel-surfing experience that Pluto.TV is trying to provide. (My mind returns to last week’s column on Hulu’s questionable motivations in the online video world.)
In fairness, I don’t know whether Hulu demanded these changes or if they're editorial decisions on Pluto.TV's part; either way, I’m hoping Pluto doesn’t shake up its format too much. The online video space is already stuffed with on-demand formats, and it almost seems like Hulu is pulling Pluto.TV back in that direction.
That’s not to say Pluto.TV shouldn’t pursue more premium, full-length video. But by easing up on the curation and linear programming, Pluto loses its best quality, which is the ability to surprise you with things you didn’t even know you wanted.