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ViacomCBS is on track to make $2.5 billion with digital video this year, and a growing part of that revenue stream is Pluto TV, the ad-supported video service the company acquired in early 2019. Pluto ended Q3 with close to 36 million monthly users and video ad dollars more than doubling year-over-year. "It's an amazing asset, and it's growing even faster than we had hoped," said ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish during the company's Q3 earnings call earlier this month.
A key part of Pluto's success has been its product design, which mimics the look and feel of cable TV, complete with linear channels and a traditional programming guide. To learn more about what makes Pluto tick, and what the service has in store for 2021, we recently caught up with Pluto TV CPO Shampa Banerjee.
Banerjee joined Pluto in early 2020 from Eros Now, an Indian streaming service that has amassed close to 200 million registered users to date. In our conversation, she talked about the Indian streaming market, her plans to attract new audiences to Pluto, and what it takes to build a global streaming service.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Before joining Pluto, you led product for Eros Now, which primarily targets the Indian market. That's also where Disney+ is seeing a lot of growth these days, to the point where one in four Disney+ subscribers is now in India. Why is streaming seeing such a boom in India right now?
Indians love movies. They love entertainment. That's not new. But when I started with Eros in 2014, it was kind of a different world. People would go to work, download their movies, come home and watch offline. We had to give people a download feature. Now, all that has almost gone away. One of the big things that happened: Carrier prices have become very cheap. Jio had a huge role to play in it by making bandwidth so cheap, and they have also upgraded the network. I think that's really part of the reason for the explosive growth.
India is very varied. Every region has its own language. India has 22 official languages. People either watch Hindi, English or they watch their regional languages. Typically, somebody from one state will watch either English or Hindi, and their entertainment in their language, but not something from another region. People watch English entertainment, they watch a lot of Hollywood movies. A lot of the content that you see here in the U.S. is already popular. So the appetite is there.
What lessons did you learn from working for Eros and on a product targeting the Indian market?
One of the things I learned is that in Southeast Asia, people don't want to pay. I grew us from nothing to 150 million subscribers, but they were all freemium. When I left, there were around 23 million paying subscribers around the world in 135 countries. The interesting part was, 80% of our user base came from India, but 80% of our paying user base came from outside of India, primarily from the U.S.
So we were actually looking at a model very similar to Pluto: having linear channels, and we were going to monetize it with advertisements. We were looking at that because [we thought]: These people, they'll never pay us, [but] they want to watch us. Let's monetize it. That's actually what attracted me to Pluto, because it felt like, boom, this is the growth area.
Now that you are in charge of product at Pluto, tell us about its secret sauce.
I think it's partly the familiarity of the interface. The second thing is, someone has done the programming for you. You know, people are lazy. They just want to veg out in front of the TV set. [They] don't know what to watch because there's so much out there to choose. That choice is made for you by Pluto; the linear channels have that choice made for you.
And then our shows, it's familiar content people have seen before. And despite everything, even with Netflix originals, "The Office" and "Friends" were the two most popular shows on Netflix. People want to watch shows that they're familiar with, especially now with COVID. I think it's a safety thing. It's something I know, something I'm in control of. We just got that right.
Does having that familiar, cable-like interface limit what you can do to innovate?
No. We have a certain audience that is attracted to our service. It's a fairly large audience. But there's a lot one can do to get a new audience that did not grow up watching linear TV. At times, I want to watch a linear channel, maybe because I'm lazy. But sometimes, I want to figure out what I want to watch, or [get] recommendations, based on my behavior, versus something that's editorially curated. I think there's a lot one can do, keeping the same format, keeping the same interface, or similar interface.
And then there's advertising. That's a big thing we're working on, the ad experience. You know, we have the data, we have the intelligence. What can we do to keep them watching? Because I watch ads, it can be extremely useful if the right ad is targeted to me.
Other than these product improvements, what else is Pluto focusing on next year?
International is a big focus for us. We'll be going to different countries. That itself has its own nuances, understanding what works. Every region has its own nuance.
We're always very U.S.-centric. We think everyone is like us, with 500 devices. It's not [like that]. [If you are] launching in Latin America, for instance, casting is very important. That's how the family watches. Everyone, mobile is what they have. They have one big screen. That's it. And it may not even be a smart TV. So they buy a casting stick, and that's what they're using. Behaviors outside of the U.S., they're quite different.
Any other trends you're seeing ahead for 2021?
I honestly think AVOD [advertising-based video on demand] is going to become much bigger in 2021. People do like to watch reruns. They do like to watch old shows.
Why do you think people are leaving cable? They're leaving cable because [they ask themselves], "Oh, my God, I'm paying all this money for what? To watch old shows. And if I can watch them for free, why should I be paying for it?"
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Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.