Free streaming sites Roku, Pluto TV are becoming more popular as home viewing surges

An attendee walks by the Pluto TV booth during CES 2019 in Las Vegas. More people are watching the free streaming services Pluto TV and Roku as they stay home.
(Getty Images)

Video streaming apps Roku and Pluto TV are becoming more popular among consumers looking to entertain themselves amid concerns about the rapid growth of the coronavirus.

Pluto TV, a free, ad-supported streaming service based in Los Angeles, and Roku Inc., which operates an app that connects consumers to various streaming services and also offers free licensed shows and movies, landed in the top 10 most used video streaming apps for Android phones in the U.S. for the first week of March compared to a month ago, according to San Francisco-based analytics firm App Annie.

Pluto TV was ranked ninth, while Los Gatos-based Roku was eighth in the first week of March, App Annie said. That’s a considerable improvement from a month earlier, when Pluto TV was 12th and Roku was 11th, the analytics firm said. The rankings were based on the amount of time Android phone users spent on the apps.

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March 19, 2020

While App Annie’s data only takes into account mobile phone usage, the company believes that the timing in the shift of the video streaming app rankings reflects the overall upswing in home entertainment caused by the coronavirus. The pandemic has closed stores, restaurants, bars and movie theaters while sending many workers home, leaving consumers extra time to consume entertainment on their phones.


“The timing aligns with more work from home and social distancing policies taking effect in the US,” said Amir Ghodrati, a director of market insights for App Annie.”The large increase in time spent in these apps suggests that users are expanding their repertoire of content outside of the top ranking apps like Netflix and Hulu.”

Falling out of the top 10 in the app rankings were YouTube TV and ESPN, as live events, including concerts and games, were shelved due to concerns about the coronavirus. YouTube TV ranked 14th and ESPN ranked 11th in the first week of March, down from rankings of 8th and 10th a month earlier, according to App Annie.

“As Americans work from home mandates and social distancing policies take effect, they are turning to their mobile devices to pass the time by streaming new series and shows,” wrote Lexi Sydow, a senior market insights manager at App Annie in a blog post.

Pluto TV, which is owned by Viacom/CBS, saw U.S. users spending 2.7 million hours on its Android phone app on the first week of March, a 75% increase compared to the previous week, according to App Annie. The first week of March was the highest week ever for the Android app , the analytics firm said.

Pluto TV said since the announcement of the pandemic in the U.S., the company saw a double-digit growth in the amount of time people spent watching streaming service in places including connected TVs and mobile devices.

After the country announced a travel ban, Pluto TV said it saw a 74% increase in viewership in its news category, with daily usage up more than 50% on average. There was also a 10% spike in viewership across its entertainment and movie channels and for kids programming, the company said.

Roku and Pluto TV’s movement in rankings show there could be an opening for other types of streamers to become more popular as people search for ways to be entertained.

“This is an indication that consumers are looking outside their normal ‘go-to’ streaming apps — expanding the catalog of content they have available to them,” Sydow added.


But it could be hard to break into the very top rankings for video streaming apps. The top seven video streaming apps in the U.S., which include YouTube, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, remained unchanged.

Other streaming services are also reporting a boost in popularity. BritBox, which streams crime dramas like “Death in Paradise” and “Vera,” said it has seen a double-digit increase in viewers and viewership hours in March, with last Sunday the all-time high for the year. The company recently said it reached 1 million subscribers in North America.

The amount of time people spent using Twitch, a live video game streaming platform, increased 10%, or by 9 million hours, last Saturday, Sunday and Monday, compared to the same time frame a week earlier, according to StreamElements, which provides tools and services for livestreamers and its analytics partner

Meanwhile, YouTube Gaming saw time spent by consumers on its platform rise 15% or by 5.6 million hours on March 14-16, compared to the same time span a week earlier, the firms said.

Celebrities have also shifted their presentations to streaming, with singer John Legend recently performing a concert from his home.

“With more stay-at-home mandates being issued around the world and the entertainment industry finding new ways to migrate their offerings to livestreaming platforms, we expect to see these numbers rise,” StreamElements Chief Executive Doron Nir said in a statement.


Meanwhile, companies are trying to capitalize on adding more viewers. AMC Networks’ streaming services Acorn TV, Shudder and Sundance Now offer free 30-day trials, while some studios are releasing films earlier on streaming services and shortening the time that the movies are shown exclusively in the theater.

“Staying at home doesn’t have to be boring,” Shudder tweeted on Monday in a pitch for its service.

Analysts expected that streaming services would be one of the businesses that could potentially benefit from the coronavirus.

“Quarantine and bingeing are actually a match made in some macabre sort of heaven,” said Robert Thompson, a director for the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University earlier this month.