Future Tense

The Future of Digital Streaming Is Jerry Springer Marathons on Pluto TV

The words "Pluto TV" against a faded background of Jerry Springer
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Bob Carey/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images and Pluto TV.

The newest entry into the digital streaming wars, Quibi, couldn’t have debuted at a worse time. Already one of the more inane entertainment ideas in recent memory, Quibi’s supposed selling point is that it features a ton of A-listers starring in original programming, with the catch that every episode clocks in at under 10 minutes—“Quick Bites.”

Entertainment mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg’s $1.75 billion venture went live April 6. Less than a month later, an estimated one-fifth of the American workforce is currently unemployed and largely confined to home, hiding from a deadly pandemic that’s far from finished with us. In theory, social distancing consumers, especially those in a generation raised on the rapid-fire likes of YouTube, Snapchat, and Vine, should be primed for A Very Quibi Quarantine. Instead, the service saw about 300,000 downloads in its first day, with about 1.7 million subscribers by the end of the week—numbers that might sound impressive at first, until one realizes Disney+ raked in 10 million subscriptions in its initial 24 hours.

Companies like Disney, Netflix, and HBO will likely only further consolidate their holds on the market, forcing newer ventures like Quibi to continue trying to differentiate themselves in the digital streaming ecosystem. But meanwhile, a number of bare-bones, largely free services have long been available on most platforms. What’s more, these companies don’t require the exorbitant funding, production costs, and subscription models of their competitors. Instead, their catalogs invest in inexpensive, seemingly exhaustive familiarity. The future of digital streaming isn’t the House of Mouse continuing to swallow blockbuster franchise intellectual property or HBO churning out big-budget prestige series. It’s the app promising us Jerry Springer brawls, Golden Girls reruns, UFO schlock-documentaries, and Jersey Shore debauchery: Pluto TV.

Pluto TV is a free streaming outlet featuring dozens of channels airing largely syndicated shows pretty much 24/7, along with a bevy of middling on-demand films and TV series. Other channels are dedicated to individual IP, like Mystery Science Theater 3000, Cold Case Files, the James Bond franchise, and Dog the Bounty Hunter. (There are also a couple of history and nature documentary channels for those of you with more discerning cultural palates.) The trade-off is semiregular commercial breaks, usually no lengthier than anything you might experience on something like Hulu. It’s old-school basic cable brought into the digital era, and its business model will become the standard alternative to premium streaming access.

Free streaming platforms like Pluto TV remind us that digital entertainment, like everything else in this world, is a medium predicated on class. You may have long since given up purchasing physical media, figuring it a dead or, at least, dying industry, but lots of people still use these “basic,” cheaper streaming and rental businesses. Redbox still has 41,000 rental kiosks across North America as of last year, accounting for more than half the remaining DVD and Blu-Ray rental markets and generating $244 million in revenue on top of its relatively new streaming services. Crackle, Tubi, and Popcornflix are all free (or dirt cheap), Pluto TV–adjacent streaming services for television and movies. Vudu offers both free livestreaming and on-demand rental options, was purchased by Walmart for $100 million in 2010, and reportedly amassed 100 million downloads in the ensuing decade. Earlier this month, Fandango, itself owned by NBCUniversal, acquired the company for a currently undisclosed amount. Last year, Viacom acquired Pluto TV for $340 million at a time when the company boasted about 20 million monthly users. While nowhere near the numbers of premium services like Disney+ and Netflix (itself now pushing 170 million subscribers), platforms like Pluto TV are a solid and relatively stable source of revenue generation for entertainment corporations, and remain free for consumers.

Compare that with the rising costs of each premium subscription option. Digital streaming services’ original appeal lay in the notion of viewers getting the chance to pick and choose their content providers, trimming the fat from cable TV providers’ years of bloated, overpriced subscription packages. Now, thanks to an ironic combination of atomization (CBS All Access, Peacock) and amalgamation (Amazon, Netflix, etc.), we are facing that same financial strain for our media entertainment all over again. Like the ubiquitous Fox and ABC affiliates of the ’90s, Pluto TV is ostensibly just … there. The most bare-bones kind of television, ready for viewing, with no credit card or digital cable box or antenna required.

Pluto TV also takes away the anxiety of choice plaguing most of its competitors. Too often have I succumbed to the Death Scroll, that interminable amount of time spent deciding what, exactly, to watch—a process made exponentially more stressful by the number of people seated around the screen. On the one hand, the appeal of a decisionless downtime might sound unnerving, lazy, or even slightly soul-crushing (that’s probably because it, in actuality, is all the above). But that doesn’t change the simple fact that, at any given time, I can turn on Pluto TV to a random channel and be, at the very least, mildly entertained for an indefinite period of time. Over the course of two months’ worth of social distancing, I have now, somewhat ashamedly, seen almost every episode currently airing on the Cops rerun channel.

Hell, even the commercials featured on the channels are entertaining in a weird, nostalgic way. Ads peddling portable oxygen concentrators, discount auto insurance, and wholesale shopping websites feel ripped straight from basic cable commercial breaks of the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s an annoyance, but at least it’s a familiar one. With an excess of time to kill and uncertain income for the conceivable future, watching Pluto TV for free becomes, if somewhat perversely, an act of mental and financial self-care.

The history of American pop culture is its history of mass-market consumerism and assembly line entertainment, its ability to syndicate itself into oblivion. It’s also what will propel it forward, for better or worse. Subscriptions to HBO Max and algorithms based on your recent Tiger King binge aren’t the future of American home entertainment. A comically grim character on an HBO primetime prestige show once ruefully remarked that “time is a flat circle.” The same can be said for television. TV is a flat circle, and everything that airs will soon air again. The future of digital streaming isn’t app gimmickry and award-garnering celebrities—it’s modern mass consumption culture at its simplest form, the countless syndicated basic cable offerings and trash television that is cheap to produce, cheaper to air, and, like all great works of art, able to withstand the passage of time.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.