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 and get on with enjoying your 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||Sign up online to a Sky TV bundle for this offer here|
|12 months half price Sky broadband + £50 M&S voucher||Sign up online to Sky unlimited broadband without Sky TV for this offer here|
|12 months half price Sky broadband or 6 months half price Sky Fibre||Sign up online as a existing Sky TV 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|
You can search for package prices and find out more about Sky TV in our full review here.
|Save up £168 in the first 12 months||Sign up for one of Virgin Media's pre-made bundles here|
|Save up to £66 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|
You can search for 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|
You can search for 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 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, Kids and HD TV packs: 18 channels including Comedy Central, Gold and British Eurosport plus on demand content.
- Sky Sports 1 and 2
- ESPN and BT Sports 1 and 2 in HD
You can check Infinity availability in 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.
Enter your phone number and / or postcode above to check availability in your area.
You must take a broadband package to access either of BT's TV services.
It's not necessary to take a broadband package or home phone line from Virgin Media or Sky to get their TV services, but both do offer big discounts to subscribers who are willing to bundle services - Sky even offer basic 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.
(+ BT Broadband)
(+£3 for 13)
(+ BT Infinity Broadband)
|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 50 is standard.
With BT and, to a lesser extent, with Virgin Media's TV M+, the monthly price you pay is really to get access to the hardware and on demand services.
If you're not interested in either, just paying for a Freeview box will be much better value (more on choosing between pay TV and Freeview here).
Note that the channel count above doesn'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 ESPN from BT, customers must take Infinity broadband, while Sky Movies isn't available at all on BT.
Sky Movies isn't available on BT.
Getting the best value for money
So it's not really as easy as ABC. Once you get into the details the providers are tricky to compare precisely side by side.
We think a better strategy is to home in on the stuff you really want and get the best value for money you can. 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.
If you have a TV deal already and are looking to move to cut costs it's definitely negotiation time.
It's worth having a vague idea what you want to pay and which services you definitely want to keep 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 will usually mean starting a new 12 month minimum contract period, so don't be afraid to say "I'll think about it and call you back" if you're feeling pressured.
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 you'll use everything you pay for.
Minimise the amount you're needlessly paying for by identifying the channels and services you do use:
- Unmissable channels: scroll through your current channels or look online and note down the ones 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 12 exclusive Premier League matches no longer available on Sky Sports - free for BT broadband customers.
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
£5/mth for TiVo service (free with a Big* pack)
|Virgin TiVo 1TB||1TB||500 hours SD||Free with Big Daddy deal, or £49.95 one off £5/mth for TiVo service (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 for you 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 do now offer an extra box service for £5 a month.
High definition (HD) channels
If you've seen TV in HD, you'll know it: it's around four times sharper than average TV and colours are brighter.
However, you'll need more than a hankering for high definition to actually see in HD: even if you've got a fancy HD TV you're not actually watching high definition without a subscription to either Sky, Virgin Media or Freeview HD.
We say this because, according to the BVA, in 2012 6.5 million people though that 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 one of its more expensive packages - and pay more - to get them.
|Freeview||VM: M+||VM: L||Sky: Or/Var||BT: Entertainment||VM: XL||Sky: Family|
Sky's Original and Variety packs include just the terrestrial channels in HD: 7 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.
HD versions of Sky Sports cost 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 offering films in HD on demand. Those with the old BT Vision+ box will find it doesn't support Freeview HD - and upgrading to the new Youview box will cost £35.
BT Infinity customers can get a HD pack for £3 a month, which includes an additional nine HD channels - plus BT Sport and ESPN in HD, if you pay for those channels.
To find out more about HD TV, see our full guide here.
Freeview HD is now being rolled out across the country. You can receive it through a normal aerial and although you need a set top box (about £100) you won't ever pay a subscription, so you'll save money over time.
More widely available is Freesat HD. This requires a bigger upfront cost, because you need a satellite dish as well as a set top box but, again, you won't ever pay a monthly subscription.
In comparison, Virgin Media HD is included free with all packages. You will need Virgin's TV XL pack to get more than is standard with Freeview, which costs the same as Sky's Family pack.
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