What is Pluto TV?

Josh Levenson

With so many streaming services out there, keeping track of which TV shows, movies, or channels that you can access can be overwhelming, if not impossible. Even if services like Hulu or Netflix do pique your interest, they can also make a large dent in your wallet too. 

Although Pluto TV falls under the category of a streaming service, this free option combines live TV with on-demand content that might interest many subscribers.

Take Pluto TV, for example, which enters the decade with a funky new logo, a fresh user experience, and impressive growth (to the tune of 22 million users as of February 2020). It’s a free streaming TV service that has a few popular networks and specialized live and on-demand content from many more, and is the perfect way to battle the stuck-at-home blues while we all take shelter from coronavirus.

A screenshot of the Pluto TV web interface in February 2020.

Being the source of all the content for Vizio’s WatchFree service, which comes bundled on its 4K TVs, Pluto offers an enticing collection of more than 250 channels and thousands of free movies and TV shows for the low, low price of absolutely nothing (except your time watching ads), which 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 March 2019 and unrelated to the little tiny planet that could, Pluto TV is a live-TV streaming service, not entirely unlike Sling TV and such competitors as DirecTV Now, Hulu+ Live TV, or other similar services. 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 that service costs $24 per year. Pluto TV launched in 2014 and picked up steam fairly quickly. The service has more than 20 million active users as of November 2019, 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.

On Pluto TV, you’ll find content from channels you recognize, as well as some you’ve likely never heard of if you don’t watch a lot of online videos. Even those who already subscribe to a live TV streaming service may find it useful thanks to the curated layout, though this will depend on your personal preferences.

In March 2020, 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, with the service making it possible to jump into any of its main live TV categories — sports, movies, news, entertainment, comedy — with just one or two clicks. This philosophy extends to the video-on-demand UI, which offers up more playful categories like “rom coms”, all the while retaining the spirit of the traditional TV guide.

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

Additionally, you’ll now be able to specify your favorite channels to save you from weeding through its 250-plus channel list, and you can also save individual shows, clips, and movies to a watch list. Once you finally decide what you’re watching, Pluto now offers a preview panel to show more information like 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. On Vizio TVs, WatchFree shows up as an input, 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 exactly 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, but there’s a lot to explore on Pluto, especially with more than 175 content partners on board providing entertainment across 240-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 April 2019, it 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 2020. 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.

In the Entertainment section, there are reruns of reality and documentary shows alongside episodes of Dennis the Menace, Thunderbirds, and other older TV shows. 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 live stream. New additions include Pluto TV Sitcoms, offering 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 Stand Up — a channel dedicated only to stand-up comedy, Anime All Day, and a channel dedicated to “fails.” Other 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’ll likely 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, provided by Dash Radio, which is also available as a stand-alone service. Modern types of music 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 aspired to ramp up its international presence. In the first year of its U.K. operations, Pluto 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.

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, but also offers desktop apps for both Windows and Mac computers, though 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 issues with streaming rights.

If you’d rather watch on your TV, a number of devices including Roku (which recently struck a deal with Pluto to bring over more exclusive content), 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.

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 hit movies every week. The constantly rotating selection makes it hard to predict what’s available, and it’s not on par with services like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video 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 blockbuster titles 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, but 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 TV 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 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. Its parent, Viacom, has stated that Pluto TV is “a key driver of transforming our company for the future.” Unlike previous projects that aimed to provide shows you would otherwise need an antenna for, like Aereo, for example, 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, and 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. Just recently, Viacom reported 3,500 brands advertised on Pluto during September 2019, which was its greatest month of revenue ever and tripled ad viewing year-on-year.

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 recently confirmed that Pluto TV will 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 to have graced our nation’s finest networks, and you’ll avoid the feeling of disappointment when you fire it up and Homeland is nowhere to be seen.

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