Pluto TV Brings The Enjoyment Of Channel-Surfing To The Streaming Age

I recently bought an old-ish $40 PC from somebody on Facebook Marketplace. I cleaned it, made minor upgrades to it, and connected it to my television to basically use as a beefier (and admittedly less energy-efficient) Fire TV Stick. Since then, I’ve sought new ways to enjoy my newly computerized TV. In the process, I made a personal discovery.

Remember channel surfing, the act of flipping through dozens of cable channels you paid for but seldom watched and checking out whatever’s on? For cord-cutters like myself, Pluto TV brings that back. In fact, that’s basically their slogan: “Drop in. It’s free.”

For the unfamiliar, Pluto TV is a ViacomCBS-owned TV streaming platform that launched in 2013 and is distinctly different from services like Netflix and Hulu. There are two major factors that set it apart: (1) It emulates traditional cable TV in that shows are broadcast on a variety of live channels; (2) It’s free, with advertisements much like regular TV.

Pluto TV isn’t going to replace any of the streaming platforms you subscribe to. That’s not the goal. What it should do for you, though, is serve is a worthwhile complement to them.

Pluto TV

A common streaming TV quirk to which everybody can relate is the analysis-paralysis that comes with trying to pick what to watch. A report from 2019 said the average U.S. adult spends 7.4 minutes deciding what to watch on a streaming service. It also noted that 21 percent of users opt to not watch anything at all if they can’t make up their minds.

I don’t have data to back this up, but it seems like picking what to put on wasn’t as big a deal with cable. Back in those days, I’d throw on the TV, check my rotation of go-to channels, and just watch whatever was on. “Watching whatever is on” is a foreign concept to cord-cutters, though, because in order for something to be on, you have to put it on. It’s a low-stakes situation, but there’s definitely a pressure to choose the “right” thing to watch, which usually leads to frustration and an 80th The Office binge.

It’s in these situations, when you don’t know what you’re looking for, when Pluto TV comes in handy.

Recently, I’ve enjoyed sitting in front of the TV for a bit after dinner and checking out what’s playing on Pluto TV. The service boasts hundreds of themed channels, like one with classic Comedy Central content and another that just plays Deal Or No Deal reruns, all of which combine to offer over 100,000 hours of content.

On one weekday evening, for example, across all Pluto TV channels, I had the option of checking out reality/competition staples like Fear Factor, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and America’s Next Top Model; Nickelodeon classics SpongeBob SquarePants, Rugrats, Rocko’s Modern Life, All That, The Fairly OddParents, and Doug; music programming like Prince’s Sign O’ The Times concert film and a Britney Spears documentary; nature survival shows The Island With Bear Grylls and Survivorman; comedy favorites The Sarah Silverman Program, Crank Yankers, Reno 911!, Beavis And Butt-Head, and Everybody Hates Chris; anime hits Naruto and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure; and food shows Iron Chef America, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, America’s Test Kitchen, and Secret Eats With Adam Richman.

That’s not an awful slate of programming, especially for free! A lot of those shows are ones I used to watch during channel-surfing sessions, except now I’m not paying for them.

Pluto TV

So far, I’ve gravitated towards the IFC channel to re-watch Portlandia and the Comedy Bang! Bang! TV series. I’ve also gotten a kick out of Idiotest, a GSN game show which ran from 2014 to 2017 and tasked contestants with answering brain-teasers and trick questions. Part of the appeal is that it’s not a major network-type of game show (the indie to Family Feud‘s pop, if you will), and that’s evident in the contestants’ winnings; the victors of one episode I saw recently went home with $760, and that was for two people. I hope the network paid for their flights, because otherwise, they maybe broke even on the trip.

Discovering an old show by chance like that is a rarer thing these days. Now, new shows usually enter your radar via some sort of recommendation. That’s the beauty of channel surfing and the revival of it via Pluto TV: it offers one less decision to make and the opportunity to let fate guide your life for a few minutes, potentially to an entertaining place you didn’t see coming.

A lot of things about traditional cable suck, but channel surfing isn’t one of them. So thank you, Pluto TV, for letting me have that again.