How to compare BT, Sky and Virgin Media for 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 available.
Sky, Virgin and BT are all known for slashing prices for new customers, and offering money off vouchers. Their really big deals change frequently, but we'll highlight them here as and when they appear.
At the moment, Sky are offering the following to new customers signing up to one of their TV deals via Choose:
Sky TV Latest Offers
Then there are the other special offers and deals, which look like this:
Search for more package prices and find out more about Sky TV in our full review here.
|What's on offer?||When you join online for:||Need to know:|
|TV, broadband and phone bundles from £32 a month||12-month contract. £20 activation fee.|
|Broadband and phone from £32 a month||12 month contract. £20 activation fee.|
Search for more package prices and find out more about Virgin Media in our full review 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: Sky TV comes via satellite, BT use broadband and what is essentially a snazzy Freeview box, and Virgin Media use their fibre optic network.
The first step to comparing them, then, is checking availability.
Sky's satellite covers 98% of the UK. It's previously been tricky to sort out for those who live in flats, though communal or mini dishes are often available and there's now a smoother ordering process in place.
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 Entertainment and HD TV packs
- BT Sport Ultra HD
- Sky Sports 1 and 2
- The live Sky Cinema channels
Infinity is available to more than 85% of homes in the UK, with about 40,000 more being added every week - check that availability using the postcode tool below.
Virgin TV is more limited: just over 50% of households can access it, mostly in and around the bigger cities. There are some small holes in this network though, so it's worth using the postcode checker below.
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 packages.
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 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.
Sky's packages now come with the Sky Q 1TB set top box as standard; customers can sign up for a deal featuring just one box for the same prices as above, or pay £12 more for a Sky Q Multiscreen subscription. There's more detail in our guide to the features included with Sky Q.
The number of Freeview channels available will depend on the area we live in, and having a good signal from the nearest transmitter - which a good aerial can help boost - but more than 70 is now standard.
With BT's Starter packages, the monthly subscription mostly covers gaining access to the hardware and on demand services.
Virgin Media also offer an entry level TV deal that doesn't give much more than Freeview - their Player TV package - but we haven't listed it above as it's only available with both phone and broadband. There's more about it in our full review of Virgin Media TV.
People who aren't interested in either bundling services or the fancier hardware 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 the premium channels such as Sky Sports, team channels, and movie channels.
As mentioned above, to get Sky Sports or the live Sky Cinema channels from BT, customers must take Infinity broadband.
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 - or in the case of Sky, upgrade equipment - it's definitely negotiation time.
It's worth knowing roughly how much the services we want cost, and a total ideal amount we'd like to pay, as well as which services are non-negotiable, before calling (see the 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 deal 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 the extra costs and wasted services by thinking about these factors:
- Unmissable channels: scroll through the TV guide or look online, and note down any must haves.
- On demand: using services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, or Now TV could be more cost effective than paying for a premium movie channel or to access provider-specific 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 worth comparing the providers by the must have "extras".
The three pay TV providers diverge in this respect: only Virgin have the Tivo service, for example, while Sky now offer the most HD and Ultra HD content.
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|
|Virgin Tivo 1TB||1TB||500 hours SD||Free with VIP bundle, or £49.95 one off|
|Virgin TV V6||1TB||500 hours SD||From £49.95 to £99.95|
|Sky Q 1TB||1TB (700GB for customer use)||500 hours SD /
150 hours HD
|Sky Q 2TB||2TB (1.7GB for customer use)||1,000 hours SD /
350 hours HD
|From £60 to £199|
|BT Youview box||N/a||N/a||Free with TV|
|BT YouView+ box||500GB||300 hours SD||Free with TV|
|BT YouView+ 1TB box||1TB||Up to 600 SD /
up to 60 UHD
|Free with TV|
Virgin's Tivo box 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.
The older Tivo boxes each have three tuners, the new V6 has six; viewers with more than one Tivo will find they can stream from one to another, vastly increasing their viewing options.
Sky offer on demand 3D content - mostly movies - and more Ultra HD content than any of their rivals for those with compatible TVs, available with their clever (and now much better value) multiroom option.
There is an extra box service available with BT TV, but as with their Starter packages, customers are basically paying to get another BT TV box - and subscribers have to choose between that or being able to add Sky Sports or Sky Cinema to their main box subscription.
There's more on the multiroom services available from each in our guide here.
As mentioned above, Sky recently made their Sky Q boxes the standard kit for new TV customers, following their unveiling late in 2015 and their subsequent launch in February 2016.
As well as having a lot more storage, they have many more tuners - the Sky Q 1TB box has eight, four of which can be used to record live TV at any one time, and the Sky Q 2TB box has 12 tuners, with five available for recording at once.
Some of the spare tuners in each box are reserved for streaming to other devices - and in the 2TB box, one is kept by for ultra HD content, whether live or on demand.
As with Virgin Media's Tivo boxes, we're basically renting them from the broadcaster, and as seen from the table above, the setup costs start at £15 for those taking the 1TB box, up to £199 for the 2TB box on its own.
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 HD-ready kit - an HD TV or set top box - aren't actually watching high definition unless they're watching a channel labelled "HD", whether free-to-air or included in one of the HD subscription packs from Sky, Virgin Media or BT.
According to BARB, more than 40 million of us now have access to an HD TV, with figures having risen fairly steadily since early 2012.
All new TVs are now HD-ready at the very least - we've a guide to the differences in both viewing experience and price here - but to get the best range of HD content we still need to look to one of the pay TV providers.
Freeview HD is available to roughly 70% of the UK, and like standard Freeview it's received through a normal aerial. But there are only around 12 HD channels available.
There are a few more to choose from with Freesat HD- and, because it's broadcast via satellite, it's available to almost all of the UK. This requires a bigger upfront cost, because of the need to buy a satellite dish as well as a set top box but, as with Freeview there's no monthly subscription to think about.
There's more on Freeview and Freesat here.
When it comes to pay TV, however, Virgin now offer as many channels in HD as Sky, although the exact channels available from each differ a little.
|Freeview||VM: Mix TV||VM: Fun TV||Sky: Or/Var||BT: Starter||BT: Entertainment||VM: Full House TV||Sky: Box Sets|
|12||11||11||11||12||Up to 28||50||50|
Sky's Original and Variety Bundles 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 non-premium Sky HD channels, customers need to take the Box Sets bundle. Among the extra channels they'll get in HD that aren't available from anyone else are Sky Atlantic and the Disney Channels.
When Sky announced that they were renaming Sky Movies, they also confirmed a couple of other changes: subscribers taking the newly titled Sky Cinema now get the HD versions without having to pay any more.
Sky Sports viewers still have to pay for the HD pack, which now costs £6 a month.
Virgin Media HD is included free with all packages, but customers need Virgin's Full House TV pack - which costs £41.50 - to get more HD channels than come as standard with Freeview.
Unlike Sky, their top bundle includes BT Sport in HD; they can also offer MTV Live and H2 (but not the original History Channel) in higher quality over their rival.
As BT's TV is broadcast over the Youview platform, which is a slightly fancier version of Freeview, they 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.
Beyond that, however, BT Infinity customers can get an HD pack for £5 a month, which includes an additional 13 HD entertainment channels, plus the four BT Sport and ESPN channels in HD; people with the Total Entertainment deal get all of those, plus BT Sport Ultra HD included in their subscription.
To find out more about HD TV, see our full guide here.
For about a year, from August 2015 until the following summer, BT had the first and only ultra high definition channel in the UK in the form of BT Sport Ultra HD.
It shows a range of fixtures from the Premier League - among those not shown by Sky Sports - FA Cup, and UEFA Champions League, as well as the odd bit of Aviva Premiership Rugby and Moto GP.
The Ultra HD channel comes at a cost, but for the time being at least the standard BT Sport line up is free to all BT TV customers who are within contract, whether they have Infinity or standard broadband - as long as it's available in their part of the country.
However, since August 2016, Sky Q Multiscreen customers with the 2TB box have been able to watch a range of sport, movies, and entertainment in Ultra HD for no extra cost.
More than 120 of Sky's Premier League football matches are being shown live in Ultra HD during the season, while at least 70 movies - including premieres and older releases - and a range of shows are available to watch at the higher resolution on demand.
Getting Sky Q in Ultra HD also doesn't rely on having a superfast broadband connection because it's broadcast via satellite - so even the on demand content is available to viewers with less than brilliant internet connections.
Sports and movie channels
There's no denying that Sky Sports has been a huge driver in getting people to sign up to pay TV - which is why BT Sport have invested so much in trying to wrestle broadcast rights for various events from them.
The rise of streaming services may have dented the popularity of what used to be called Sky Movies, but it's still a hugely popular addition to all of the pay TV providers' packages.
There's more on adding Sky Cinema, as it's now called, and how much it'll cost with each provider, here.