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Paramount+ Thinks Live Channels Can Make Your Streaming Life Easier

Illustration: Martin Gee

Hoping to strike a blow against decision fatigue and make content easier to find, Paramount+ today is rolling out a collection of 18 “live” channels programmed with movies and TV shows from its existing on-demand library. Similar to the signature feature of sibling streamer Pluto TV, the P+ linear feeds will allow subscribers to tune into curated programming already in progress rather than scroll through endless rows of titles looking for something to watch. “We think they’re going to make it easy for people to simply dive into content like they do on Pluto TV,” says Tom Ryan, ViacomCBS’s president and CEO of streaming.

Like Pluto, the P+ channels will be divided into those programmed according to broad themes (retro TV shows, reality competition series, kids’ programming) and others devoted to very specific fandoms (Star Trek, the Jersey Shore cinematic universe, PAW Patrol). While the streamer launched with a smattering of linearlike channels devoted to news, sports, and the broadcast feed of the CBS network, this new initiative marks the first time P+ will offer something similar with its entertainment content. And at least for now, the live channels will be presented without ads, even for customers with the ad-supported tier of P+.

Ryan telegraphed his intention to add linear entertainment channels to P+ at a ViacomCBS investor conference back in February. But rather than offer it at launch, execs decided it made sense to get P+ up and running before adding in a new, somewhat complicated functionality to the platform. And now that it’s a reality, Ryan makes it clear the live offering will expand in coming months. “We wanted to get a good diversified selection launched as soon as possible, but this is by no means where it ends,” he says. “We’re going to be looking at how consumers are engaging with these, and there will be more.”

Ahead of today’s launch, Ryan hopped on the phone with Vulture for an exclusive conversation about how the new offering will work, why it will be superior to the live channels on a rival streamer, and whether more changes are in the works to the overall Paramount+ user interface. (Spoiler alert: There are.)

So first of all, tell me why you’re doing this now and what you hope to accomplish with linear channels.

Tom Ryan: I’ve been in my role for just over a year right now. We’ve been creating a unified ViacomCBS streaming organization across free and pay, which includes Pluto TV and Paramount+. One of the key goals for us is how we can take the best learnings from our various services and apply them to our streaming strategy. And so, the idea for having lean-back, linear channels on Paramount+ is something that we identified very early on before we launched. We think they’re going to make it easy for people to simply dive into content like they do on Pluto TV. And they’re going to drive more engagement, and ultimately, as a result of that, reduce churn [and] drive longer lifetime value for customers.

Will the live experience on Paramount+ seem familiar to someone who’s a regular user of Pluto? 

They’re delivered within the Paramount+ [user experience], so there will be inherent differences in the feeling of the product. But the curated lean-back channels that we’re rolling out into P+ are inspired by what we did with Pluto TV over the years and should feel similar to the viewer.

Pluto lets users who drop into the middle of an episode or movie press a button or two and go back to the start. Will P+ offer something similar? 

Yes, we’re linking it to our on-demand offering. The beauty of these channels, as opposed to Pluto, is Pluto is largely still a third-party content service. We’ve got hundreds of content partners on Pluto, and we’ve got a lot of that content on demand — but not all of it. And so there’s not a one-to-one matching of content that’s on Pluto channels with content that’s in the on-demand section. On Paramount+, it’s matched on everything that we’re launching as channels here.

So you won’t have any channels featuring content not already in your library?

Never say never. We’re clearly looking at all options to serve our viewers. But these channels are curated from the content library that already exists on Paramount+.

Is there any chance this is a baby step toward one day combining Pluto and Paramount+ into one app, giving folks who want premium content the chance to upgrade and pay for it? Or are you committed to maintaining separate ecosystems? 

We don’t have any plans for that to announce at this time. I mean, this is genuinely a product enhancement for Paramount+ born of the insights and success that we saw by pioneering this product feature at Pluto.

You have some really iconic brands within Paramount+, such as CBS, TV Land, and MTV. Why aren’t some of these channels branded according to those networks, as you do with Pluto?  

At least for today, we want it to be very descriptive with the content. We found on Pluto that the descriptors are very powerful. So, while brands serve as a useful guidepost on both Pluto and Paramount+, we find on Pluto, for example, that many of our most popular channels are Pluto-branded channels without third-party brands. And when I say third-party, I’m including even ViacomCBS brands. So the key thing is to get consumers into content that they will like as quickly as possible. Sometimes brands can be an additional benefit toward that goal. But the key thing is really to make sure that descriptively they’re getting into the content as quickly as possible so that they can lean back and be entertained. And we think that this accomplishes that.

You are not the first SVOD streamer to lean into linear channels. Shudder has a couple of live channels. And Peacock made much ado about linear channels before launch, though many of them ended up not really being live or linear, but just a different way of presenting on-demand content. Does it make a difference whether these linear channel feeds offer actual scheduled programming?

We think that there is a power to tuning in live. On Pluto TV, even though we let people rewind to the beginning of the episode or the movie, when they come in halfway, there’s something about actually tuning into a live channel that is powerful for folks. They get drawn into content in the middle of a narrative, in the middle of an episode, in the middle of a movie. And we find that a very surprising number of people will watch the second half of a movie or TV episode rather than starting it from the beginning — even though they have that functionality right there at their fingertips. So we’re launching with this method. We do think that there could be opportunities for certain content to adopt a playlist approach, and we’re going to be testing things going forward. But right now we’re taking the Pluto approach, the success of which speaks for itself.

There will be no ads on these live channels. Will that always be the case? 

So the feature’s going to be launched ad-free at launch across all subscription tiers. But we’re going to monitor engagement and activity, and we may be introducing ads into the essential tier, which is an ad-supported tier, in the future. But there’s no immediate plan to do so.

Will subscribers who pay for your premium ad-free product eventually have ads on the live linear channels if you end up adding them?

If you’re a premium subscriber who’s paying for that tier, where it’s ad-free, you will have an ad-free live channel experience for these channels. With the live linear CBS feeds right now, there are some ads in there that can’t be removed, but otherwise it’s an ad-free experience across the entirety of the service and the same will be true for these channels for premium-tier subscribers, even if we do introduce ads on the essential tier in the future.

Will you do marathons and stunts on these P+ live channels in order to create “events” around certain programming? You do some of that already with Pluto, though it seems like you could be doing more.

We don’t have anything specific to announce, but the power of live goes beyond just pulling you into the middle of a show or watching the last 50 minutes of a movie. I mean, it’s everything that you can do with live content that drives scarcity, immediacy, FOMO. So I think that this is a first step on Paramount+ for us to do more with live as it pertains to entertainment, instead of just sports and news as we’ve already been doing since we launched. Live doesn’t end with the launch of a live channel. Live allows for all sorts of powerful moments. We would certainly be exploring what else we could do as we grow it.

Obviously, these live channels will help curate your ever-increasing content library. But I’m curious how satisfied you are with the overall state of your user interface and experience. Do you think you’ve got a lot of work to do?

I think that we’ve got a very solid offering today. Winning the Google Play Users’ Choice award, I think, is a sign that people are really gravitating toward the service that we’ve built. But we are just nine months into this, and we are really just getting started. So one of the main focus areas that we have on Paramount+ right now as a team, is how do we make our content better curated, more discoverable, to drive greater engagement and viewership in order to really allow people to fully understand the breadth and depth of the great content that we have on the service.

So people are discovering it, and we’re seeing lots of records being broken in terms of how people are engaging with Paramount+ with each passing month. But we are working really hard to take the product to the next level. And the key focus there is how do we make content more discoverable, make recommendations better, and really sort of deliver the most entertaining service possible.

Paramount+ Thinks Live Channels Can Ease Your Streaming Life