When does pay TV beat Freeview?

sports tv

"IS IT really worth getting pay TV from BT, TalkTalk, Sky or Virgin Media, rather than sticking with Freeview?"

The advent of digital TV, and with it, Freeview has transformed the way we consume television in the UK.

No longer must we choose between a futuristic, shiny pay TV service and up to five channels with fuzzy reception.

Freeview has introduced every household to the wonders of multi channel entertainment, catch up and interactive services.

Quick Look: Menu

But pay TV services from BT, Sky, TalkTalk, and Virgin Media have been evolving too.

In this guide we've highlighted some of the ways in which, despite Freeview, pay TV has not only joined the ball game, but taken the ball home and eaten it for tea.

When pay TV wins

Here are three main way Pay TV wins out. Primarily, we'll look at how it gives subscribers more choice: more channels, more movies and more sport.

1. Channel hopping: pay TV bounces all over Freeview

Depending on how good the aerial reception is, there are up to 80 TV channels, up to 12 HD channels and 29 radio stations on offer from Freeview.

This covers all the BBC and ITV channels, Channel 4, Channel 5, several 24-hour news channels and various other entertainment channels including the likes of Drama, Yesterday, and Dave.

Curiously, Dave is available on Freeview but isn't among the free to air channels found on Sky or Virgin Media. Viewers wanting to keep hold of it will need to find it in one of their TV packages and subscribe to that.

What is Freeview?
Freeview is the way to watch digital TV without a satellite or cable. New TVs come with it built in; older TVs can be upgraded by buying a small box that plugs in to the aerial and then the TV. Find out more.

Even the most basic Sky package, by comparison, offers around 280 TV channels and about 60 radio channels.

Including all the channels available by adding the various entertainment, sport, movie and HD packs, plus the regional versions of the national broadcasters' channels, and there are well over 500. There's even a Renault Channel.

Of these, 240 are categorised as free to air, which means that viewers without a Sky subscription can access them. However, the entertainment value of a lot of these channels is debatable, and as noted above, Dave and its spin offs aren't included.

There's more on what's available with Sky TV in our review, here.

Virgin Media also offer a chunky number of TV channels, some 230 with their XL TV package, with the extra sport, movie and HD bolt-ons taking the total possible up to more than 260.

Again, we've more detail on what's included with Virgin's TV packages in our main review, which you'll find here.

To see the chunkiest packages side by side, have a look at our family bundle comparison table.

Sport: it's a pay TV whitewash

There are certain big sporting events that will always be available on free TV, like the Olympics, the football and rugby World Cups, Wimbledon and the Grand National, among others.

These are the events referred to as "the crown jewels", those that by law must be shown in full and live on non-subscription national UK television channels.

Everything else is up for grabs, and the broadcasters with the deepest pockets are most likely to secure the rights to the coverage.

That's why Sky Sports have swept the board until fairly recently. Their ever evolving sports channels and HD sports pack are among the main drivers behind Sky's continued growth, in a way that Freeview providers just can't match.

More on sports
Sky Sport - where to get it
BT Sport - where to get it

BT Sport are fast becoming a serious contender, however. They're now the only place to see live coverage of the UEFA Champions and Europa League, and all the televised Aviva Premiership Rugby matches.

Virgin and TalkTalk don't offer any of their own sports coverage, but customers of both can add Sky Sports to their packages, and BT Sport is also available to people with Virgin Media and Sky.

Once upon a time Freeview users could access Sky Sports 1, Sky Sports 2 and ESPN through Top Up TV, a Freeview add-on subscription service - but they stopped trading at the end of 2013.

Freeview viewers who have BT broadband can at least access BT Sport online or via an app - but it'll cost them £6 and it's not the same as watching on the TV.

Movies: it's curtains for Freeview

What is Freesat?
Freesat is a free to air satellite TV service offering up to 180 TV, radio and interactive channels. It offers an increased number of channels and HD content over Freeview as well as enhanced interactive services. It is possible to connect a former Sky dish to a Freesat set top box in order to receive Freesat services. Find out more.

Much like sport, the selection of movie channels on offer from the pay TV providers dwarfs that available to Freeview viewers.

Sky alone have 11 movie channels, plus an on demand movie library containing more than 1,000 titles - and they're now all available in HD as well as SD.

The new name for Sky Movies
...Sky Cinema - where to get it

The other three pay TV providers all rely on being able to offer subscriptions to the Sky Cinema channels, as well as their own on demand services.

On the other hand, Netflix, Now TV, Amazon Video, and Blinkbox also offer on demand services, some of which are available via smart TVs or Freeview set top boxes, and which can work out significantly cheaper than subscribing to a pay TV provider for their movie channels.

2. Record, pause, rewind, interact: set top boxes

Sky can be given the credit for introducing a new verb - "Skyplusit" - into the English language, and with the introduction of Sky Q they appear to be hoping to do it again.

But they're not the only ones offering fancy boxes - at least two of the other big pay TV providers can offer top end technology as well.

Set top boxes that can record, pause and rewind live TV are the norm these days, their popularity boosted by handy functions such as being able to skip the ad breaks, the ability to record an entire series with the press of a button and, in the case of Virgin Media Tivo (more here), record other TV shows it thinks we'll enjoy based on our previous likes and dislikes.

Set top boxes
What to look for when buying one
The boxes on offer with pay TV

But as most Freeview TVs don't allow for recording, many viewers might want to splash out on a twin tuner Freeview set top box as well, and there's nothing to stop them getting one with lots of recording space.

Demanding services

Virgin Media and Sky both offer huge libraries of entertainment and movies on demand via their set top boxes. It's a bit like having a DVD box set store in your living room.

Virgin also offer Netflix through their set top boxes - as do BT and TalkTalk - allowing even those with cheaper subscriptions to access a wide range of on demand content.

All four big pay TV providers also offer access to the most popular catch up TV services like BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4, and My 5.

The gradual proliferation of smart TVs and set top boxes, able to access the internet through a wireless or Ethernet connection, means that Freeview can at least rival some of the services available to pay TV subscribers.

The exact services depend on which brand or model of Freeview kit we have, but access to BBC iPlayer and YouTube are the least Freeviewers can expect.

3. Adding broadband and calls

Finally, one big area that the pay TV providers have heavily exploited in the last few years is the rise in popularity of TV, broadband and phone bundle deals.

Find out more
BT, Sky, Virgin Media comparison
BT review
Sky review
Virgin Media review

The deregulation of the UK broadband market has meant that there are now literally hundreds of different packages on offer from many different suppliers.

But go for a service from one of the big four - and some of the bigger small providers, like Plusnet and EE - and it's entirely possible to get another service or two thrown in at a discount, or even free.

These bundles are very profitable for the providers, so they're willing to lower prices considerably for those willing to sign up to more than one.

Sky, for example, provide a cheap, light use broadband service to customers subscribing to their Sky Talk and Sky TV services - but they also offer other, more attractive deals like these:

What's on offer? When you join online for:
sky Reward Choice: Free 32" Samsung TV, Samsung Galaxy E Tab or £100 Tesco, M&S or Amazon voucher
Hurry! Offer ends 3 November 2016
Any Sky TV bundle
sky Sky Unlimited Broadband free for 12 months (then £10/mth) + £50 M&S voucher
Hurry! Offer ends in 5 days!
27 October 2016
Sky Unlimited broadband
(without Sky TV)
sky Sky Unlimited Broadband £5 for 12 months (usually £10/mth)Sky Unlimited Broadband
(as a new or existing Sky TV customer)
sky Sky Fibre free for 12 months (then £10/mth)Sky Fibre (25GB usage)
(without Sky TV)

Not to be outdone, Virgin Media's Big Bundles are their best value packages - and then they offer deals such as the following:

What's on offer? When you join online for:
virgin media Money off TV, broadband and phone for up to 12 months + free set up worth £49.95One of Virgin Media's Big Bundles
virgin media Save over £180 on broadband and phone + free set up Virgin Media broadband
(with a Virgin phone line)
virgin media Exclusive offer: 50Mb broadband + phone £5 a month for the first 6 months (then £17.50)This exclusive 50Mb broadband and weekend calls deal only

Because both BT and TalkTalk TV are internet-based, anyone thinking of getting either has to take their phone and broadband services as well - but that doesn't mean they don't also offer some good deals.

Here's what's available from BT, for example:

What's on offer? When you join online for:
bt Online Exclusive: Unlimited broadband just £5.99 for 12 months (usually £18/mth) + £75 BT Reward card
Hurry! Offer ends in 5 days!
27 October 2016
BT Unlimited broadband up to 17Mb
bt Online Exclusive: Infinity 1 up to 52Mb (25GB usage) + Entertainment Starter just £11 for 12 months (usually £13/mth) + £125 BT Reward card
Hurry! Offer ends in 5 days!
27 October 2016
BT Infinity 1 up to 52Mb fibre broadband (25GB usage) + Entertainment Starter
bt Online Exclusive: Unlimited Infinity 1 + Entertainment Plus TV just £20.99 for 12 months (usually £32/mth) + £125 BT Reward card
Hurry! Offer ends in 5 days!
27 October 2016
BT Unlimited Infinity 1 up to 52Mb fibre broadband (25GB usage) + TV Entertainment Plus
bt £125 BT Reward card
Hurry! Offer ends in 5 days!
27 October 2016
Any BT Infinity Broadband, with or without BT TV.
bt £75 BT Reward card
Hurry! Offer ends in 5 days!
27 October 2016
Any BT Broadband , with or without BT TV.
bt Free phone line installation or reconnection worth £130With any BT Broadband package

And this is what TalkTalk are offering as incentive right now:

There's usually a bundle of some sort to suit most budgets or requirements - those after the best all-in packages should compare family bundles here, while those with tighter budgets can compare the cheapest here.

When Freeview wins: price

That brings us on to our final point. It's easy to knock Freeview when comparing it with the pay TV services, but let's not forget one big advantage: It's free.

Pay TV viewers must buy a subscription, they're locked into a contract of at least a year in length, and they often pay for channels that they don't even want.

In contrast, Freeview users just need to pay their TV licence and make the one-off payment for the box. After that, they can watch as much or as little TV as they want, all for no extra cost.


29 December 2014
Rhiannon Grainger

I had Sky+ HD until about a week ago, and honestly, moving to Freesat (satellite dish-compatible Freeview, basically) was one of the best decisions I've ever made. Having fewer channels than Sky may sound like a bad thing, but I never watch the vast majority of Sky channels, and even with Freesat I'm fairly spoiled for choice. I subscribed to Netflix at the same time, and between that and Freesat I'm pretty much set, and at a much cheaper price than Sky had ever offered.

21 December 2014
Kart Durai

I did have Sky with Sky plus. Not worth it. Yes it had live TV rewind but I do like freeview because beside the TV licence it's free.

18 December 2014

How does freeview compare with basic package channels from Sky/Virgin/BT?

10 September 2014

If you have to install an aerial or a satellite dish then the return on investment takes a couple of years vs Virgin or BT.

9 October 2013

Good info, bit more needed for me though, such as, how much do Virgin and Sky and the others charge us in the subscription for Freeview?

Please read our full disclaimer for important information that relates to the service we provide and your use of this site.

We aim to provide free reviews and comparisons of consumer products and to keep our editorial content as objective as possible. To keep the site free, we are paid by some providers when new customers take products after they've clicked on our links. We don't allow our editorial content to be affected by those links, however we may not include all of the products available in the market. Finally, we do not submit or process any applications for any products or services and we cannot guarantee that any product or service listed on this website will be available to you. Credit providers make the final decision on whether an application for credit will be accepted.

If you would like to get in touch with us you can contact us here.