“We’re in a fortunate spot,” said Tom Ryan, CEO of platform Pluto TV, where total viewing hours increased across the board last week.
But the ad-supported video-on-demand (AVOD) platform was already growing at a rapid clip before the coronavirus outbreak caused streaming consumption to surge.
Pluto ended 2018 with 12 million monthly active users (MAUs). A few months later, Viacom (now ViacomCBS) acquired Pluto for $340 million. By the close of 2019, MAUs had nearly doubled to 22.4 million and total viewing hours tripled.
“It’s evidence that there’s room for a free and ad-supported service in everyone’s streaming diet,” said Ryan, who continues to lead the business now that it’s a quasi-independent subsidiary of ViacomCBS.
AdExchanger caught up with Ryan.
AdExchanger: What’s your work-from-home setup?
TOM RYAN: I’m sitting on a chair in the bedroom with my laptop on my lap. Sometimes I sit outside. I’ve got three young kids – six, five and five, a boy and twin girls – running around the house. I think they’re drawing right now, so we can talk.
Are you noticing an uptick in viewing connected to the coronavirus outbreak?
This is not the type of growth catalyst we were looking for, but it is one, nonetheless. In the week since coronavirus was declared a pandemic, we’ve seen a double-digit percentage increase week over week in total viewing hours. There’s been a lift across the entire platform, but a particular spike in people watching news. Total viewing hours for news channels is up 74% and DAUs on news have increased 50%. People are obviously at home and have more time.
What other types of content are getting a boost?
We’ve seen an uptick in our binge-watching category, and with all of the school closures, kids programming has also experienced double-digit gains in viewership week over week.
Are you personally streaming more and what are you watching?
I am – although I must admit it’s from a pretty high baseline. I stream a ton. Some of my favorite channels are Forensic Files and Cold Case Files, and the James Bond movie channel is on constantly in my house. I’m proud that my 6-year-old son has become a Sean Connery Bond purist. I also watch a lot of news: CBS Live, CBS local for LA and New York and CNN.
Coronavirus aside, what is Pluto’s growth strategy?
Consumers are starting to create their own bundles. They’re not just getting TV from one monolithic provider. They’re willing to pay for a few services, but they can expand their bundle for free with us. This is the single biggest opportunity in streaming television from an audience perspective.
To lean into that growth, we launched an upgraded product that we’re rolling out to new devices; we’re continuing to expand into new countries, including Europe and Latin America; and we just rebranded and launched a major brand marketing campaign, including out-of-home, digital ads and even TV ads.
We’re not claiming that we’re going to have more revenue than Netflix anytime soon, but we see no reason that a very large portion of the population won’t be streaming with us.
Speaking of the new marketing campaign, you launched that at the beginning of March, right before the coronavirus crisis really started taking hold. Have you had to adapt your marketing strategy since then?
No major change. There is a big out-of-home component, but it’s just one piece of a multifaceted brand campaign that runs the gamut. We accept that some things might be viewed more and some might be viewed less.
What I’m really glad about is the rebrand and our new call to action: “Drop in, it’s free.” That evokes the idea of people escaping, and it makes sense for these challenging times we’re in. People are looking for an escape … although they’re also watching a ton of news, which maybe defeats the purpose of an escape.
What goes into the decision to launch a new channel on Pluto TV?
Our goal is to provide the best, fully-fledged one-stop-shop service for as many streaming households as possible. The further into that mission we get, the more we need to think about reaching certain core demographics. Our programming strategy is a combination of deliberate plans and opportunistic discussions in the market; a mix of push and pull.
Pluto TV Latino is a good example. The US Hispanic audience was a target demo for us prior to the acquisition, and Viacom has a lot of Spanish-language content. The acquisition by Viacom gave us the opportunity to attract more partners – like AMC, which gives us “The Walking Dead” en Español – so in turn we could build the first dedicated ad-supported free offering for this audience.
What are some of the most esoteric channels that see a lot of engagement on Pluto?
Mystery Science Theater 3000 performs really well, as does cult programming in general. And then there’s “slow TV,” which is a genre that shows mundane events in their entirety, like a train slowly moving through the Norwegian hinterlands. It’s not our highest-engagement channel, but we have fanatics who love it. The James Bond channel isn’t esoteric, but it’s blown away all the engagement records in the history of Pluto TV.
One thing I always challenge the team with here is to do as Portland tries to do: How can we keep Pluto TV weird? Our viewers appreciate that we’re not afraid to spin up a channel that’s quirky or downright strange alongside channels that feel very much like traditional TV. We need to keep doing that and stay close to our roots, even as we get bigger and become more of a mainstream TV service.
This interview has been edited and condensed.