How to compare BT, Sky and Virgin TV
CAN'T decide between the big three home media providers?
Our guide to the deals from Sky, Virgin Media and BT can help you choose quickly, so you can get on with enjoying the service.
There are three main differences between the UK's three big pay TV providers:
- Availability: varies across the UK
- Broadband: BT require it; all three offer different services
- Channel choice: every company holds different rights
See? Easy as ABC.
Before we get into the detail of these three aspects, though, it's worth taking a look at the special offers the providers have at the moment.
Sky, Virgin and BT are all known for slashing prices for new customers, as well as offering money off vouchers, but deals change frequently.
|25% off TV for 12 months + £75 bill credit + 12 months free Sky Broadband or Sky Fibre
ends 24 Sep 2015
|Sign up online to a Sky TV bundle for this offer here|
|Sky Sports £10 per month for three months
ends 19 Jul 2015
|Sign up to Sky Sports as an existing Sky TV customer for this offer here|
|12 months free Sky broadband + £100 M&S voucher
ends 16 Jul 2015
|Sign up online to Sky unlimited broadband without Sky TV for this offer here|
|12 months free Sky Fibre||Sign up online to Sky Fibre without Sky TV for this offer here|
|12 months free Sky broadband||Sign up online as a existing Sky TV customer for this offer here|
|12 months free Sky Fibre
ends 25 Sep 2015
|Sign up to Sky Fibre as an existing Sky TV customer for this offer here|
|12 months half price Sky Fibre Unlimited||Sign up to Sky Fibre Unlimited with or without Sky TV for this offer here|
Search for more package prices and find out more about Sky TV in our full review here.
|Save up £258 in the first 12 months||Sign up for one of Virgin Media's pre-made bundles here|
|Save up to £150 on Virgin broadband and phone + free set up||Sign up for Virgin Media broadband with a Virgin phone line here|
|Exclusive offer: 50Mb broadband + phone £5 a month for the first 6 months (then £17.50)||Sign up for this exclusive 50Mb broadband and weekend calls deal here|
|Save up to £54 on Virgin TV||Sign up for Virgin Media TV with a Virgin phone line here|
|Free set up worth £49.95||Sign up for Virgin Media TV, broadband and phone for this offer here|
Search for more package prices and find out more about Virgin Media in our full review here.
|Free phone line installation worth £130||Free line installation or reconnection when you take a BT broadband package. Sign up for BT broadband and phone to get this offer here|
Search for more package prices and find out more about BT TV in our full review here.
The UK's three biggest pay TV providers offer their channels in three different ways: BT through what is essentially a snazzy Freeview box, Sky via satellite, and Virgin Media through their fibre optic network.
The first step to comparing them, then, is checking availability.
Sky's satellite covers 98% of the UK but can be tricky to sort out for those who live in flats, though communal or mini dishes are often available.
The vast majority should also have access to BT TV, which uses Youview through Freeview: take a look at the Freeview coverage checker to check.
Some BT TV services are only available to customers who also take BT Infinity broadband, such as:
- The Extra Entertainment and HD TV packs: 18 channels including Comedy Central, Gold and British Eurosport plus on demand content.
- Sky Sports 1 and 2
- The live Sky Movies channels
Check whether Infinity is available in your area using the tool below.
Virgin TV is, by comparison, more limited: just over 50% of households can access it. You can check whether you're in a fibre-enabled area using our Virgin Media postcode tool below.
It is coming to more homes over the next few years as we explain here, but anyone outside an urban area is most likely out of luck.
Enter your phone number and / or postcode above to check availability in your area.
Anyone who wants to access any of BT's TV services must take one of their broadband package.
It's not necessary to take broadband or home phone from Virgin Media or Sky to get their TV services, but both offer discounts to customers who are willing to bundle services - Sky even offer basic, data-limited, broadband free - so it's worth thinking about.
We've also compared the providers head to head on broadband, as well as further comparison on price and packages in our reviews on:
- How to choose between Virgin and Sky
- Who does fibre best? BT Infinity or Virgin Media
Finally, the pay TV providers like to throw around a lot of conflicting channel counts.
In fact, they compare something like this.
|Package||Basic channels||HD Channels||Price|
|BT TV Starter||70+||12||£4
(+ BT Broadband)
|BT TV Entertainment Starter||90+||12
(+13 more for £3 a month)
(+ BT Infinity)
|BT TV Entertainment Plus||95+||12
(+13 more for £3 a month)
(+ BT Infinity)
|VM: TV M+||130||11||£10 for 12 months, then £14.50
(+ Virgin phone)
|VM: TV L||170||11||£19 for 12 months, then £23.50
(+ Virgin phone)
|VM: TV XL||230||43||£28.50 for 12 months, then £33
(+ Virgin phone)
|Sky: Original||275 (240 free to air)||11||£21.50||Visit Sky|
|Sky: Variety||320 (240 free to air)||11||£28||Visit Sky|
|Sky: Family||320 (240 free to air)||50||£33||Visit Sky|
The number of Freeview channels available will depend on area but more than 70 is now standard.
With BT and, to a lesser extent, with Virgin Media's TV M+, the monthly subscription is really to get access to the hardware and on demand services.
People who aren't interested in either will find paying for a straight Freeview box much better value. There's more on choosing between pay TV and Freeview here.
Note that the basic channel counts above don't include HD or premium channels: the likes of Sky Sports, team channels, and movie channels are extra.
As mentioned above, to get Sky Sports or the live Sky Movies channels from BT, customers must take Infinity broadband.
Sky Movies isn't available on BT.
Getting the best value for money
So it's not really as easy as ABC. Once we get into the details the providers are tricky to compare like for like.
We think a better strategy is to home in on which services are most important, then aim for the best value for money. Here's how.
Have TV already? It's negotiation time
Few businesses put as much time and effort into retaining their existing customers as the pay TV providers.
For customers with an existing TV deal looking to cut costs, it's definitely negotiation time.
It's worth having a good idea of a total ideal cost, and which services are non-negotiable, before calling (see next section), but remember there's a limit to how much the cancellation teams can offer, and that calling isn't committing to anything.
Getting a new price usually means starting a new minimum contract period of at least 12 months, so don't be afraid to say "I'll think about it and call you back".
See our full guide for more on negotiating price cuts and special offers from Virgin Media, Sky and BT.
Pay for what you use
Because of the way the providers package everything into deals and bundles, it's highly unlikely any subscriber will use everything they pay for.
Minimise how much you're needlessly paying for by identifying which channels and services you do use:
- Unmissable channels: scroll through the TV guide or look online, and note down which you really can't do without.
- On demand: using services like Netflix or Amazon Instant could be more cost effective than paying for a premium movie channel or to access on-demand content.
- Hardware space: set top boxes that can store hundreds of hours of content are great, but they're not necessary for everyone.
Compare using 'extras'
Finally, we think it's worthwhile to compare by the must have "extras".
The three pay TV providers diverge in this respect: only Virgin have the Tivo service, for example, while Sky retain the rights to most HD channels.
BT have also made headway in this area with the launch of BT Sport - nabbing numerous Premier League matches from Sky Sports, and exclusive rights to all UEFA League games - which is free for all BT TV customers.
While it used to be available on TV for Infinity customers only, standard broadband customers should be able to get it now as well - free of charge - depending on where in the country they are.
We look at who's got the best deals on these and other extras in the last section below.
The best hardware, HD and other options
Hardware for TV
All the big three offer free standard boxes which can record TV and access catch up and on demand services.
|Virgin TiVo 500GB||500GB||250 hours SD||Free with new any contract, then £5/mth for Tivo service (or free with a Big* pack)|
|Virgin Tivo 1TB||1TB||500 hours SD||Free with Big Daddy deal, or £49.95 one off, then £5/mth for Tivo service (or free with a Big* pack)|
|Sky+ box||~300GB||185 hours SD||Free|
|Sky+ HD 2TB||2TB||1180 hours SD||£149 for existing HD package or new customers; £49 for new Family Pack, or existing non-HD package customers|
|BT Youview box||N/a||N/a||Free with TV|
|BT YouView+ box||500GB||300 hours SD||Free with TV|
*Big deals are the pre made Virgin Media deals: Big Easy; Big Kahuna etc.
Virgin's £5 a month Tivo subscription includes apps for Facebook, Twitter, eBay and iPlayer. Another great feature is that Tivo will suggest shows to watch or rate, then make better suggestions in the future based on those ratings.
Sky offer on demand 3D content with compatible TVs and have a useful multi-room option - although BT and Virgin also offer extra box services. See our guide here.
High definition (HD) channels
There's no mistaking HD: it's around four times sharper than average TV and colours are brighter.
However, even people with a fancy HD TV aren't actually watching high definition unless they also have a subscription to either Sky, Virgin Media or Freeview HD.
We say this because, according to the British Video Association, in 2012 6.5 million people said they thought they were watching HD TV when, in fact, it was merely standard definition because they were missing vital equipment.
Sky are way ahead of other providers in terms of HD channels, although customers have to take the most expensive package - and then, in the case of Sky Sports or Movies, pay more on top of that - to get them.
|Freeview||VM: M+||VM: L||Sky: Or/Var||BT: Entertainment||VM: XL||Sky: Family|
|12||11||11||11||Up to 25||43||50|
Sky's Original and Variety packs include just the terrestrial channels in HD: seven BBC channels, ITV1 HD, Channel 4 HD, along with RT HD and NHK World HD.
To get all the Sky HD channels, customers need to take the Family pack. This gives them access to channels such as Sky 1, Sky Atlantic, and Living in HD, as well as Fox, Syfy, Discovery, E4 HD and Universal.
To get Sky Sports or Sky Movies in HD costs extra - at the time of this update, £5.25 a month.
BT also offer the normal Freeview HD channels to Youview customers, as well as films on demand in HD. Anyone who still has the old BT Vision+ box - being aggressively phased out now - will find it doesn't support Freeview HD. Upgrading to a Youview box will cost £35.
BT Infinity customers can get an HD pack for £3 a month, which includes an additional 13 HD channels, as well as BT Sport and ESPN in HD.
To find out more about HD TV, see our full guide here.
Freeview HD is now being rolled out across the country. It's received through a normal aerial, and although it requires a set top box (about £100), there are no monthly payments to be made after that - so it'll save money over time.
More widely available is Freesat HD. This requires a bigger upfront cost, because it requires a satellite dish as well as a set top box but, again, there will never be a monthly subscription to think about.
In comparison, Virgin Media HD is included free with all packages. Customers need Virgin's TV XL pack - which costs the same as Sky's Family pack - to get more than is standard with Freeview.
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