I have been watching TV on demand for over 20 years. Well before I started streaming, I picked up the whole series The sopranos of the university library and my way through the seasons. When I graduated, I kept the habit and preferred to watch stuff from DVD box sets rather than just sit in front of the television. Even when I visit family now, I’m the annoying one who always has a show they want to watch on Netflix or HBO Max instead of 12 episodes straight. House hunters on HGTV. But lately I’ve been using Pluto TV and I find myself realizing how relaxing it is to just let go.
Pluto TV is part of a subcategory of streaming called Free Ad-Supported Television or FAST. There is some on-demand content and features, but FAST services are typically structured like TV channels. So on Pluto TV there are several channels dedicated to it Star Trek repetitions and one devoted to I love Lucy. The British Comedy channel is a hodgepodge of shows like Spy And task leader, and the Cult Films channel has a mix of good movies like tank girl and bad like Troll 2 And Mac and me. Most services even include local news – all for the price of your periodic advertising attention.
It’s the same bargain as TikTok and YouTube, but what I found really appealing about FAST TV isn’t its affordability or solid content offerings; it’s how liberating it feels to take some of the choice out of the situation. When I try to binge-watch a show, I always feel like I have to pay attention; there’s a little bit of stress to make sure I don’t miss anything. And it’s not just for new shows. I was looking back Yellow jackets for the new season, and it felt hard to divide my time between watching the show and doing chores or playing games on my Steam Deck. It felt wrong to deliberately choose to watch again and not really commit myself. Same thing with a recent rewatch of the 1993 show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
But on Pluto, I’ve seen three episodes that were totally out of order Star Trek: Voyager and felt no fear. I didn’t have to keep track of where I was in a rewatch or make sure I didn’t miss a scene or episode. There was less at stake and I was fine with leaving it on while vacuuming up more dog hair than I thought my dog could shed.
And unlike more social media-driven things like TikTok and YouTube — which also shove free content in your face for the low, low price of your occasional ad attention — I didn’t have to babysit Pluto. I didn’t have to choose the next thing or accidentally come up with an algorithm by making something autoplay. I didn’t have to click on my phone to see the next show. I could just tune in to my TV and go about my day.
This behavior is not unknown to everyone – my mom leaves HGTV on in every room of her house. But it’s increasingly strange behavior for many of us. If you’re like me, you’ve just gotten used to bingeing or watching Young Sheldon in bite-sized clips on TikTok alongside cake decorating videos. The main way to just look at things freely and forget about it, broadcast TV, is in decline, and the big hope, ATSC 3.0, doesn’t really offer much hope. Cable is quickly merging with streaming as streaming gets bigger every year. Viewing habits are changing as an entire generation grows up watching content on their phone or laptop instead of the television. FAST TV offers all those people, myself included, a way to get the affordability of broadcasting with the breadth of streaming.
But it also gives us something that broadcast TV has always done better: a curated, never-ending stream of content. I like all the choice I have now in the on-demand era, but the option to give it up every once in a while is nice too. Sometimes you just have to let the person programming the Fighting Flicks channel take the wheel.