How to compare BT, Sky and Virgin TV

sports 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.

TV ABC

There are three main differences between the UK's three big pay TV providers:

See? Easy as ABC.

Offers

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.

Sky

25% off TV for 12 months + £75 bill credit
ends 25 Jun 2015
Sign up online to a Sky TV bundle for this offer here
12 months half price Sky broadband + £100 M&S, Tesco or Mastercard reward or a Samsung Galaxy Tab 4
ends 30 Apr 2015
Sign up online to Sky unlimited broadband without Sky TV for this offer here
6 months half price Fibre Unlimited
ends 25 Jun 2015
Sign up online to Sky unlimited broadband without Sky TV for this offer here
12 months half price Sky broadband + £50 M&S voucher
ends 25 Jun 2015
Sign up online as a existing Sky TV customer for this offer here
6 months half price Fibre Unlimited
ends 25 Jun 2015
Sign up to Sky Fibre Unlimited as an existing Sky customer for this offer here
Introduce a Friend: £100 reward of your choice each, plus £300 bonus for joining 3 friends. Introduce a friend to Sky TV for this offer via this link here

Search for more package prices and find out more about Sky TV in our full review here.

Virgin Media

Hottest Ever Sale - save up £228 in the first 12 months + £100 M&S, Amazon, iTunes or John Lewis voucher
ends 28 Apr 2015
Sign up for one of Virgin Media's pre-made bundles here
Save up to £120 on Virgin broadband and phone + free installation 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 installation 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.

BT

£60 Sainsbury's Gift Card
ends 28 Apr 2015
Sign up online for BT Infinity broadband (with or without BT TV) to get this offer here
£40 Sainsbury's Gift Card
ends 28 Apr 2015
Sign up online for BT broadband (with or without BT TV) for this offer 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.

Availability

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:

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.

Phone number:
Postcode:
Enter your phone number and / or postcode above to check availability in your area.

Broadband

Anyone who wants to access either 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 won't go into broadband in this guide: please see our full broadband reviews for more detail: BT, Sky and Virgin.

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

Channels

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 BT Essential 50+ 4 £5
(+ BT Broadband)
Visit BT
bt BT Entertainment 70+ 4
(+13 more for £3 a month)
£7
(+ BT Infinity Broadband)
Visit BT
virgin media VM: TV M+ 130 11 £10 for 12 months, then £14.50
(+ Virgin phone)
Visit Virgin
virgin media VM: TV L 170 11 £19 for 12 months, then £23.50
(+ Virgin phone)
Visit Virgin
virgin media VM: TV XL 230 43 £28.50 for 12 months, then £33
(+ Virgin phone)
Visit Virgin
sky Sky: Original 275 (240 free to air) 11 £21.50 Visit Sky
sky Sky: Variety 320 (240 free to air) 11 £28 Visit Sky
sky Sky: Family 320 (240 free to air) 50 £33 Visit Sky

The number of Freeview channels available will depend on area but 50 is 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, ESPN, team channels, and movie channels are extra.

As mentioned above, to get Sky Sports or more than the on demand 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:

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 exclusive Premier League matches from Sky Sports - which is free for all BT broadband customers.

While it used to be available on TV for Infinity customers only, standard broadband customers may be able to get it now as well, 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.

Capacity Recordable TV Price
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 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 offers 3D TV with compatible TVs and has 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.

Channels

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
11 11 11 11 15 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 the new Youview box will cost £35.

BT Infinity customers can get an HD pack for £3 a month, which includes an additional nine HD channels - including 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's 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.

Sports channels

Getting the best deal on the sports channels is so important that we have a whole guide devoted to Sky Sports and another one on BT Sport.

Comments

1
1 March 2015
marc

I went with BT because it's half the price of Virgin and Sky. 40Mb fibre with unlimited usage, anytime calls and TV package. £36. Virgin for the same package was £68 and Sky was a couple of pound more but had moreTV channels. Oh and free BT Sports and mobile charges are lower with BT so a non-brainer really. BT's fibre is quick where I live and does not ever drop in speed like when I was with Virgin, also my upload speed is 3 times quicker than Virgin's upload speed.

2
19 October 2014
sealighter

I have Netflix on my TV.

3
18 June 2014
Daniel

Virgin Media have Netflix too which is great! Being able to cast Netflix and Youtube from the iPad to the TV is the best feature!

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