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From: Jon Koplik4/25/2023 11:24:32 PM
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WSJ -- Free streaming services Pluto TV, Tubi, Xumo Play and others show classic TV shows .........

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April 23, 2023

Americans Get Nostalgic for the Cable TV Experience

Free streaming services Pluto TV, Tubi, Xumo Play and others show classic TV shows with ads, easing decisions for those overwhelmed with options


Clockwise from top left: ‘Laverne & Shirley,’ ‘The Addams Family,’ ‘Three’s Company’ and ‘Gunsmoke.’ Photo Illustration: IStock, Everett Collection (4)

By Sarah Krouse and Jessica Toonkel

Andrew Rivera and his girlfriend were aimlessly scrolling through Hulu and Netflix on a recent Sunday night, overwhelmed by the variety of TV shows and movies they could watch.


Channel-surf’s up

After several minutes of decision paralysis, they gave up and opened another app: Pluto TV, a free streaming service whose interface mimics cable TV’s. They flipped through a few channels and quickly settled on an already-started episode of the British version of “Antiques Roadshow,” and eventually watched multiple episodes in a row.

Americans have never had more entertainment options, given the ease of playing seemingly any show or movie on demand. That abundance -- and the indecision it causes -- is prompting some of them to rediscover the joys of channel surfing.

Mr. Rivera, who had previously downloaded Pluto TV but hadn’t spent a lot of time watching it, found the experience oddly refreshing. The ad-supported streaming platform offers more than 350 niche channels that air movies of a specific genre, or old episodes of a single TV show playing on a loop. For most channels, viewers watch what is already playing -- they can’t choose episodes, rewind or skip ahead.



‘Gunsmoke,’ starring James Arness, right, played from 1955-75. Photo: Everett Collection

It “kind of captures that experience of browsing cable TV late at night,” said Mr. Rivera, a 31-year-old creative producer in Queens, N.Y. “There’s something about that that’s comforting to me.”

Beyond Pluto TV, which is owned by Paramount Global, other free, ad-supported streaming alternatives include Fox Corp.’s Tubi and Comcast Corp.’s Xumo Play. The apps also have an option to watch some programs on-demand, also for free.

These platforms and others, including free offerings from Roku Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., host over 1,600 different niche streaming channels in the U.S. alone, according to Variety Intelligence Platform.

Nothing is too niche. Beyond “Antiques Roadshow U.K.,” there are round-the-clock feeds of “Baywatch,” “Three’s Company” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Streaming channels are entirely dedicated to painting instructor Bob Ross, cornhole competitions and stand-up comedy.


Bob Ross hosted ’The Joy of Painting’ from 1983-94. Photo: Netflix/Everett Collection

Danny Fisher, CEO of FilmRise, a company that creates thematic channels that span true crime, unsolved mysteries and British TV, describes them as the equivalent of comfort food. “It doesn’t matter that you start at the beginning; it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen the same thing a hundred times before,” he said.

Bruce Roberts III, a 32-year-old camera assistant based in New Orleans, grew up watching the detective show “Columbo” on TV with his grandfather. He frequently goes back to that show on Tubi when he can’t decide what else to watch.

“With streaming, I can watch anything, but I often don’t know what to watch,” he said. “It’s like when you are hungry, but you don’t know what you are hungry for.”


Peter Falk, left, shown with guest star Oskar Werner, starred in ‘Columbo’ in episodes and specials from 1968-2003. Photo: Everett Collection

The growing success of free platforms playing decades-old programming on a loop is a challenge to the original-content spending spree by the streaming industry’s biggest players, taking viewing time away from their services.

Tubi accounted for 1% of the total time Americans spent watching TV in March, according to Nielsen Holdings PLC, while Pluto TV stood at 0.8%. That compares with 1.2% for Warner Bros. Discovery Inc.’s HBO Max, which is being renamed Max next month, and 1.8% for Walt Disney Co.’s Disney+, which collectively spend billions of dollars a year creating original content. Netflix accounted for 7.3%, Nielsen said.

The free, often-themed channels -- known in the industry as “Fast” channels, for free ad-supported streaming TV -- give entertainment companies a chance to make money off their libraries of content, just like in the age of syndicated television. Pluto TV made $1.1 billion in revenue from advertising last year, up from $562 million in 2020. Pluto TV said on average, the programming has an ad break every eight minutes.



‘Baywatch’ starred Nicole Eggert, David Hasselhoff, Alexandra Paul, David Charvet and Pamela Anderson, and ran from 1989-2001. Photo: Everett Collection

Kaleigh Cosentino, a 25-year-old from Syracuse, N.Y., said she likes having Pluto TV on in the background when she’s about to fall asleep or when playing videogames on her computer. Unlike Netflix, which occasionally asks users if they are still watching after a period of inactivity, Pluto TV “just keeps going,” she said.

The simplicity of just choosing a themed channel to tune into is also appealing to Ms. Cosentino. “I don’t have to have the pressure of picking a specific show,” she said.

Thematic channels might not be flashy or expensive to make, but that doesn’t mean a lot of thought isn’t put into them. Fast channel operators are scouring their libraries and the market for programming that is familiar to consumers, executives said. Older shows that remind viewers of their childhoods are often the most popular.

Pluto TV has a team of 50 programmers who sift through viewership data and content libraries to figure out which channels to create and which to kill, said Scott Reich, Pluto’s senior vice president of programming. Many of these programmers are devout fans: Pluto hired stand-up comedians to oversee its comedy channels, and a former mixed martial arts fighter is in charge of all the fighting content, including channels featuring mixed martial arts, women’s wrestling and boxing.

Mr. Reich says Pluto’s most popular channels include “Three’s Company” and “Gunsmoke.”



‘Three’s Company’ starred Suzanne Somers, John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt, and ran from 1977-84. Photo: Everett Collection

Adam Lewinson, Tubi’s chief content officer, said one of the challenges with a channel focusing on a single show is that it needs to be possible for viewers to “jump in mid-series and quickly understand what’s going on.” For that reason, Tubi only offers a few show-specific channels, he said, though one of them -- “The Bob Ross Channel” -- performs very well.

Pluto typically needs to have around 200 hours of episodes to consider creating a channel for a single show, Mr. Reich said, though there are exceptions. “The Addams Family,” the 1960s sitcom about a ghoulish clan, has less than 40 hours, but it still works. The channel typically gets a boost when a new “Addams Family” movie comes out, or when Netflix’s “Wednesday” series made its debut last year, he said.

Local news and sports-related content are also popular, streaming-platform executives said. Xumo Play, the Comcast-owned service, said one of its biggest hits is the “ACL Cornhole TV” channel, which airs competitions and events by the American Cornhole League, and related programming. Stefan Van Engen, Xumo’s vice president of content programming and partnerships, said people who watch the cornhole channel daily tend to do so for over an hour.

Another appeal of these streaming channels is that they prioritize content without excessive violence or graphic material, because it’s easier to sell ads against less-risky fare.

“I have no tolerance for anything that’s going to stress me out,” said Marya Fonsh-Mielinski, a 46-year-old kindergarten teacher who lives in Ashby, Mass., and enjoys watching classic sitcoms such as “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Laverne & Shirley” on Pluto TV. “I don’t watch anything sad, stressful or scary.”

Troy Smith, a 65-year old owner of a consulting firm in Scottsdale, Ariz., said he turns to free ad-supported TV for classic Westerns, car-focused programming and the British version of “Antiques Roadshow” in his free time.



‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ starred Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, and ran from 1961-66. Photo: Zinn Arthur/TV Guide/Everett Collection

“They’re so nice to each other,” he said of people featured on the British Broadcasting Corp.-run antiques program.

Despite the draw of free platforms, many viewers say they still pay for some premium subscription services like Netflix, Hulu and HBO Max.

Mr. Rivera said watching Pluto TV in recent weeks won’t lead him to cancel his subscriptions to other services, but it has become a welcome option when he isn’t in the mood to watch what he called the latest, hottest shows, like “The Mandalorian,” a Star Wars spinoff available on Disney+, or the latest Marvel Studios production.

Sometimes, he said of watching such hit shows, “It feels like a homework assignment.”



An episode of the British version of ‘The Antiques Roadshow’ in 1998. Photo: Mirrorpix/Everett Collection

Write to Sarah Krouse at sarah.krouse@wsj.com and Jessica Toonkel at jessica.toonkel@wsj.com

Copyright © 2023 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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