Pluto TV’s Matt McDaniel on curation in the streaming age
Streaming service Pluto TV is notable for the “TV” part of its name. Like most streamers, you can select on-demand viewing of a wide variety of movies and shows, up to and including the most recent season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but the TV aspect is what makes Pluto so much fun. At any given time, you can tune in to themed channels based on series like Blue Bloods, as well as curated ones based around genre like action or horror.
It’s old-school, but with new technology, because the ability of Pluto TV to be able to delve into their catalog and change programming on a dime means that you can be watching things that are thematically tied to recent and upcoming events. Thanks to the fact that the streamer was the only place to see the first three Scream films in one place ahead of the recent release of Scream VI, as well as that aforementioned recent season of MST3K, Pluto TV recently attracted quite a few genre fans.
We took the opportunity to speak with Pluto TV Senior Director of Programming, Matt McDaniel, about how all of this comes together ahead of “April Ghouls,” celebrating halfway to Halloween with “Supernatural, thrills, and chills themed programming stunts and horror film filled marathons across a number of linear channels.”
The Pitch: We’re talking because of MST3K season 13, but there’s always a reason to get on Pluto as of late. In your position, what does a channel curator do?
Matt McDaniel: I lead up my, my team, myself and my counterparts. Our entire programming team is pretty large and expansive. It’s basically five times the size of the team it was when I started, four and a half years ago. The way we break up our team is they’re grouped into divisions, just like the channels in our guide are.
When you look through the channel guide on our app, you’ll see all the channels are grouped into different categories, and so our team is grouped the same way. I’ve got a team of my movie experts working on the movie category and my comedy experts in the comedy category, and my classic experts in the classic category.
Each person, you know, is assigned to a team based on their interests and experience, and then what they do is, they review content catalogs to see what sort of titles are available from the different distributors, studios, and producers we work with, they make their selections, they build their channel grids–and they’re hand-curating what plays on what channel every single day.
Each channel, each episode is there because someone put it there by hand. It’s not algorithmic. It’s not AI. It’s nothing mechanical. It’s all human-driven based on what we see in our viewership data and also just what we know works over time. What we try to do is make sure that every channel has an identity as an editorial voice–and has a personality so that when you drop into a. channel and if you see something you like, you know the next thing you that comes on, you’re gonna like that too, because it’s all specifically programmed to be of a piece.
Everybody has that friend they go to when they want to know what to watch. Well, at Pluto TV, that’s our whole programming team. That’s about 40 people who are your friends who are there to tell you what you’re gonna like watching tonight.
It seems to have worked out. The new Scream movie came out a week ago and the Pluto horror channel was streaming the first three movies, which was a big deal on horror Twitter. When you’re programming, are you looking at what folks are watching and–not to talk about other streamers’ content, but with Poker Face, a lot of people are starting to get into like ’70s TV and crime shows from that era. Are those the sort of things to which you’re looking?
Yeah, for sure. We’re looking out at the landscape to sort of predict what people are gonna be after. Certainly, we knew the new Scream movie was coming in March and so, I went to the content team and said, “Is there any way we can get the Scream movies licensed?” They were able to put a deal together and get them and have them ready so that, come March, the Scream movies were there.
In March, we had this Rocky channel. We were able to put a deal together to create a channel just toward the six original Rocky movies and it tied in with the timing of Creed III. So whether you’re watching them to prepare for the new movie or you saw the new movie and now you’re in a Rocky mode and want to binge those originals, we have them ready.
So yeah, we’re certainly looking at the theatrical schedule, we’re looking at the TV schedule, and then we’re just looking at the calendar and trying to predict what people are gonna be looking at, thinking about. We’re doing a whole emphasis on women’s history because March is Women’s History Month and so on our history channel and on our documentary channel, we’re highlighting history, but also really looking at talented women. On International Women’s Day, we had nine movie channels taken over with all women directors. Every movie that we aired on that day on those channels were directed by women. It’s just a way of being part of the conversation.
Then conversely, we have the flexibility to be reactive and change our schedule quickly. After the Oscars on Sunday, we were able to change up our programming so that Monday night we were able to feature movies from the previous night’s winners. We had Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon with Michelle Yo. We had The Quiet American with Brendan Fraser. We had A Fish Called Wanda with Jamie Lee Curtis. We’re able to both predict where the conversation’s going but also react to what conversation is happening.
One of the special things about Pluto is that proactive and reactive thing, in conjunction with having this large team that allows you to curate. Given the sheer vast amount of things available from any company’s streaming catalog–you have a lot of material from Shout Factory, for instance–curation is really important. They have been around for so long, trying to figure out what the hidden gems from their catalog can be kind of difficult for folks who are just getting into, say, some of the cult movies that they’re known for like Scream Factory or whatever.
Yeah, for sure. Shout Factory is one of our great third-party partners that we work very closely with. As they’re acquiring new content, we’re reviewing their catalogs and finding the stuff we think will work and then, having it in our in our library to pull out as we need.
Recently, we did a whole week leading up to the Oscars, where every night we featured winners from different categories. When we did our best actor category, we had a bunch of titles from different studios. But I knew Shout also had On Golden Pond so it was able to pull that out from the archive and put it up. It’s also a title that might otherwise be overlooked but we’re able to not just feature it, but contextualize it.
What sort of work do you do to make sure things are presented in the proper context?
My team–we’re working constantly and scheduling, working on our calendars, several months out just to make sure that we’re coming up with different stunts. I remember we would do one movie stunt a month when we started. We had one channel, and that’s where we would have our stunts and we’d do that. Now we’ve got stunts on pretty much every channel every night. Our calendar has just gotten bigger and bigger because our library has gotten bigger and we’ve upped our game.
Our next stage is working with our marketing team, for sure, and our social team to try to get these messages out. Our team is just advocates for ourselves, as well. I certainly use Twitter and social to get messages out. The next phase for our team, is finding better tools to communicate to the audience so we’re not just presenting a couple movies in a row. We’re gonna have the ability to communicate.
Tonight is St. Patrick’s Day, obviously. So on our drama channel, we have a bunch of emotional, weepy Irish movies like Angela’s Ashes and on crime movies, we’ve got Irish gangsters. My favorite is on our action channel, we’re saluting St. Patrick Swayze. We’ve got a double feature of Red Dawn and Roadhouse. That’s probably what I’m gonna be watching personally.
Are holidays a really big thing for Pluto in general?
Yeah, for sure. We certainly like to cover all of the big holidays and we’ll have a whole lead up to it, depending on the holiday. We also find all of the little sort of weird holidays. We’ll do things like birthdays, we’ll do anniversaries and do whatever we can make it topical. Also, we can be reactive there as well, like when a an actor or director, if news breaks that someone passes away, we can generally rework our schedule for that.
The story I always tell is, when Betty White passed away, it was New Year’s Eve and I got my work laptop out on my parents’ kitchen table ’cause it was Christmas break. I popped it open, got into our schedule, and reworked our entire timelines so we could have a Hot in Cleveland marathon and a Mary Tyler Moore marathon. I was able to feature the channels, I got our social team online to tweet about it and put it on Facebook and not only did people watch, we got a lot of really great comments back over social of people just thanking us, thanking us for having that salute. They wanted to to remember her and we were able to provide that. It’s a way we can converse with the audience and sort of predict what it is they’re gonna be interested in.