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Pluto aims to bring TV to the Internet


Visit Pluto.tv on a computer or mobile device and you'll see an array of channels that range from essential to entertaining to bizarre. Surfing, skating, and kickboxing each have their own channel. So do Oprah Winfrey, GoPro (GPRO) and CNET. There's a channel devoted to kung-fu movies, and one for hockey fights, and one for pranks, and another for "AnimaLOLZ." There are music channels (each is just a looping feed of music videos from YouTube) devoted to artists like Drake, Kanye West and Rihanna.

These channels are on 24/7, totally free—no subscription or even log-in required. And Pluto launched on the new Apple TV this month. The service says it has 2 million monthly active users in total across all devices, though the name and product is still under the radar. Think of Pluto as "a really cool TV dial that goes wherever you are," says executive chairman Ken Parks, a former Spotify executive. "All you need is an Internet connection."

Television channels, distributed "over the top," for free, on any Internet-connected device— this might sound familiar. Aereo, an over-the-top service that had scored a big investment from IAC/InterActive (IAC), shut down in 2014 after the Supreme Court ruled it was illegally stealing content from television networks. (As Fortune noted, the decision seemed to suggest that, "you can steal something that is given away for free, so long as you use a computer rather than a metal rod.")

Parks says Pluto won't face those issues because it is fully licensed, through direct agreements with each of its content partners. "We obviously watched [Aereo] with some interest. Ours from day one has been a kosher service, we've been licensed."

Los Angeles-based Pluto first launched in March 2014, as a curator only of content available from open APIs, like Vimeo or YouTube. Now that it has shifted to a licensed model, it has more than 100 partners, including NASA TV, Sky News, Complex Media, and even NBC. It might seem strange that a network like NBC would hand content to Pluto, a platform whose entire purpose is to offer an alternative to traditional television, but Parks says, "We're very much partnering with the content community, not trying to disrupt them." (Then again, when pressed, he acknowledges that Pluto's main competitors are probably traditional TV networks, which, he jokes, "a lot of people have forgotten about, but which still does exist.")

Why would broadcasters want to partner with Pluto? For data, of course. Pluto says that from viewing patterns, it can provide audience insights and data to networks, to "make their marketing that much easier."

Like any startup executive would, Parks says no other company is doing exactly what Pluto does. But there are certainly startups doing something similar. Watchup, also available on Apple TV, offers users a queue of news clips that play one after the other, a "personalized newscast." That sounds a lot like how Parks describes Pluto: "a curated, lean-back, TV dial experience." Watchup is focused only on news, while Pluto is broader, but Parks says news videos are Pluto's most-viewed content so far. That's encouraging if Pluto is to become a must-visit platform. "We want people to check it every day," he says.

It's certainly up against an abundance of competition, including video content offered via streaming from entertainment properties like Netflix (NFLX) and Hulu (a Pluto partner), as well as from media outlets like Bloomberg and Yahoo (YHOO) (check out our Yahoo Finance videos on Apple TV). Parks acknowledges it's a crowded market. "Everybody is trying to figure out what's happening, right," he says, "but one thing's for sure -- viewers are no longer consuming this content in the way they used to. And the landscape 5 to 10 years from now will look nothing like it does today."

Pluto has a vast array of content that might entertain, and might inform, but the one thing it doesn't have yet is the one thing cord-cutters crave and still can't get for free: live sports. That's not to say Pluto doesn't have channels that offer video around live events: In addition to staple channels that won't go away, the platform adds pop-up channels around newsy events like election coverage.

Right now, there's a lot to see on Pluto, but not necessarily an urgent reason to use it every day. For Pluto to get out to an early lead in the new landscape of video consumption, it will have to just keep adding new partners and more indispensable channels. And that's just what Parks is busy doing.


Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. 

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