How to compare BT, Sky and Virgin Media

Last updated: 20 December 2021   By Julia Kukiewicz

Choosing between BT, Virgin Media and Sky for pay TV is difficult - all three have very different services, each with pros and cons.

Sky has the distinction of being the only option available without broadband, plus they offer more channels than their rivals.

Yet if customers are looking to combine TV with ultrafast broadband, Virgin Media are undoubtedly a great choice - if they're available in your area.

BT TV must be taken alongside broadband and borrows much of its content from Now TV memberships, but the ability to change packages mid-contract is appealing.

sky vs virgin vs bt tv box

At a glance

BT Virgin Media Sky
TV price from £12 £29.99 £26
Set-up from £29.99 £35 £20
Max channels 200 230 332
TV box BT TV Pro Virgin TV 360 Sky Q
On demand app BT TV Go
Now TV app
Virgin TV Go Sky Go
Standalone TV No No Yes
Minimum term 24 months 18 months 18 months

Special offers

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.

Offer Terms

Sky Stream Entertainment + Netflix just £19/mth with free setup (worth £39.95)

Hurry! Offer ends in 3 days!
23 May 2024

18 month minimum term. No setup fee. £28/mth after 18 months. Prices may change during the contract period.


Sky Glass with Sky Entertainment & Netflix free for 3 months from just £14 per month

Hurry! Offer ends in 3 days!
23 May 2024

48 month minimum term on Sky Glass. 18 month minimum term on Sky TV. Sky Entertainment & Netflix £26/mth after 3 months. £10 setup fee. Prices may change during the contract period.

Offer Terms

£250 bill credit or a LG 43 inch TV with selected Virgin TV bundles.

Hurry! Offer ends in 7 days!
27 May 2024

18 month minimum term. No setup fee. Prices vary depending on package chosen. Price will increase each year from April 2025 by the RPI rate of inflation announced in February each year plus 3.9%.

Offer Terms

£50 BT Reward card with BT Entertainment TV and BT Fibre 100 broadband, just £44.99/mth with free setup

Hurry! Offer ends 6 June 2024

24 month minimum term. No setup fee. From £54.99 a month after 24 months. BT offers are subject to price increases on the 31st March 2024 by CPI +3.9%.


Price

Winner: Sky offer more channels for lower monthly fees, although bundling broadband together means Virgin can be more economical.

Out of the three providers, Sky is the only one to allow customers take TV services without also taking broadband. This means their base TV packages are cheaper because they don't have to be bundled with broadband services.

We look at bundles below, but here are the costs of the basic Sky TV package alongside the bundles offered by BT and Virgin Media:

Package Channels Monthly price Upfront price Contract term
Entertainment + Fibre 2 96 £51.99 £31.99 24 months
offer Offer: £50 BT Virtual Reward Card + Save £5/mth on BT Entertainment TV with free setup (was £30) (Ends 06/06/2024)
Sky TV + Netflix 401 £23 Free 18 months
offer Offer: No setup fee
Big bundle 117 £33 Free 18 months
offer Offer: No setup fee (was £35)

Sky's entry level plan includes more than double the channels found in BT's Entertainment package.

Meanwhile, Virgin Media's most basic plan, the Big Bundle, also includes fewer channels than Sky's - and no premium options.

Pricing alters when we look at bundles but, on basic TV alone, Sky win by default because they are the only ones offering the service.

Bundle comparison

When we add broadband into the mix, the deals for BT, Virgin and Sky look clearer.

Here are their comparable fibre broadband deals alongside their basic TV packages:

Package TV Broadband Monthly price Upfront price Contract term
Big bundle 117 264Mb average £33 Free 18 months
offer Offer: No setup fee (was £35)
Entertainment + Fibre 2 96 67Mb average £51.99 £31.99 24 months
offer Offer: £50 BT Virtual Reward Card + Save £5/mth on BT Entertainment TV with free setup (was £30) (Ends 06/06/2024)
Sky TV + Broadband Superfast 400 61Mb average £40 Free 18 months
offer Offer: No setup fee

As the table shows, the three providers offer radically different bundles for the same basic trifecta: TV, broadband, phone.

Virgin Media stands out as the cheapest bundle, although their channel selection at this level isn't up to the numbers offered by Sky on their basic deal.

We look at add-ons later in this guide, but first let's look at the most comprehensive bundles offered by BT, Virgin Media and Sky with the fastest widely-available broadband:

Package TV Broadband Monthly price Upfront price Contract term
Sky TV + Broadband Superfast 400 61Mb average £40 Free 18 months
offer Offer: No setup fee
Mega Volt bundle 230 1.13Gb average £84.99 Free 18 months
offer Offer: £250 bill credit or a LG 43 inch TV + No setup fee (was £35) + O2 mobile SIM with Unlimited data, minutes and texts (Ends 27/05/2024)
Full Works + Fibre 2 125 67Mb average £61.99
for 3 mths,
then £114.99
£31.99 24 months
offer Offer: £50 BT Virtual Reward Card + Save over 30% for 3 months and free setup on BT Full Works TV (was £30) + (Ends 06/06/2024)

Virgin loses top spot for low prices, but we can see why: an incredible 1.13Gb average download on the included broadband. The Ultimate Volt bundle also comes with Talk Anytime and an unlimited 5G mobile SIM on the O2 network.

It's clear from the table that BT's most comprehensive package is very costly and includes fewer channels than their rivals along with much slower broadband speeds than Virgin Media.

There are issues with availability for Virgin Media which we cover later, but now let's take a look at the content offered by each provider to see how that compares.


TV content

Winner: Sky have the best variety of channels in their base package.

The types of TV content offered by the three providers are different in some respects, so it's worth understanding what channels come with their base entertainment packages before looking at the add-ons available.

BT

BT switched to a TV system based primarily on Now TV memberships in early 2020. This means much of the content available in their packages comes from Now TV (who are owned by Sky).

They also provide their AMC channel with every package and BT Sport is available in sport plans and their VIP package.

Here are their two entertainment plans: Entertainment and Big Entertainment:

Package Channels Monthly price Upfront price Contract term
Entertainment (BT broadband customers only) 96 £17 £39.99 24 months
Big Entertainment (BT broadband customers only) 107 £27 £39.99 24 months

Note: all the content in Big Entertainment is also included with the VIP plan.

One of the downsides to BT providing a platform for Now TV memberships is that the majority of their content is therefore also available on Sky TV too.

As an example, most of the premium channels in their basic Entertainment plan apart from AMC are also available in Sky's standard TV pack. The exceptions seem to be the kids' channels, but these can be added cheaply to Sky TV too, so that isn't really a problem.

AMC Sky One Sky Witness
Sky Crime Sky Comedy Sky Arts
Sky Documentaries Sky History Sky Atlantic
Gold Comedy Central Syfy
National Geographic Discovery MTV
Boomerang Cartoon Network Cartoonito
Nickelodeon Nick Jr Nick Toons

Yet some customers may prefer BT TV because it gives them access to Sky content through Now memberships without them actually needing to be a customer of Sky.

Read our full review of BT TV.

Virgin Media

Virgin Media's basic bundle includes Freeview plus around 60 channels in the form of Mixit TV.

There's not much there to get too excited about, and it's only really when we start adding picks to the mix that we get more of a content selection.

Adding one Entertainment Pick costs £7 per month, with each subsequent one costing £5 per month.

As the table shows, there's overlap between the picks, but the depth of content is good for the price:

Pick Included channels
Entertainment + Documentaries Sky Max, Sky Witness, Sky Witness + 1, GOLD HD, GOLD + 1, Comedy Central , Comedy Central HD, Comedy Central + 1, ITV 2 HD, ITV 3 HD, ITV 4 HD, ITV BE HD, E4 HD, Dave HD, More 4 HD, Film 4 HD

History, History + 1, History HD, Crime & Investigation, Crime & Investigation +1, Crime & Investigation HD, Discovery , Discovery + 1, Discovery HD, Sky Arts, Animal Planet, Animal Planet + 1, Animal Planet HD, Discovery History, Discovery History + 1, Discovery Science, Discovery Science + 1, H2, H2 HD, DMAX, DMAX + 1, Eden, Eden + 1 , Eden HD, National Geographic , National Geographic + 1, National Geographic HD, Nat Geo Wild, Nat Geo Wild HD, Discovery Shed, Discovery Turbo , I.D, I.D +1, Love Nature, Love Nature HD
Entertainment + Drama Sky Max, Sky Witness, Sky Witness + 1, GOLD, GOLD + 1, Comedy Central , Comedy Central HD, Comedy Central + 1, ITV 2 HD, ITV 3 HD, ITV 4 HD, ITV BE HD, E4 HD, Dave HD, More 4 HD, Film 4 HD

Watch, Watch +1, Watch HD, Alibi, Alibi + 1, Alibi HD, Universal, Universal + 1, Fox, Fox +1 , Fox HD, Syfy, SyFy +1, TCM, TCM + 1, TCM HD, Sky 2, Movies 24, Movies 24 + 1
Entertainment + Lifestyle Sky Max, Sky Witness, Sky Witness + 1, GOLD, GOLD + 1, Comedy Central , Comedy Central HD, Comedy Central + 1, ITV 2 HD, ITV 3 HD, ITV 4 HD, ITV BE HD, E4 HD, Dave HD, More 4 HD, Film 4 HD

TLC, TLC + 1 , TLC HD, E!, Good Food, Good Food + 1, Good Food HD, Lifetime, Lifetime + 1, Lifetime HD, Real Lives, Real Lives + 1, Comedy Central extra, Discovery Home and health, Discovery Home and health + 1, MTV, MTV HD, MTV Live HD, MTV Music, MTV Hits, MTV Base, MTV Dance, MTV Rocks, MTV OMG, Club MTV, VH1, Box upfront, The Box, Box Hits, Kiss, Magic, Kerrang!

Stepping up to the Bigger Bundle, however, includes channels from all Entertainment Picks as standard and, beyond that, the Ultimate Volt bundle includes all available sports and movie content too.

Here's how the pricing looks with broadband attached:

Package TV Broadband Monthly price Upfront price Contract term
Big bundle 117 264Mb average £33 Free 18 months
offer Offer: No setup fee (was £35)
Biggest Combo bundle 210 132Mb average £79 Free 18 months
offer Offer: £250 bill credit or a LG 43 inch TV + No setup fee (was £35) (Ends 27/05/2024)
Bigger Combo bundle 190 362Mb average £40 Free 18 months
offer Offer: No setup fee (was £35)
Mega Volt bundle 230 1.13Gb average £84.99 Free 18 months
offer Offer: £250 bill credit or a LG 43 inch TV + No setup fee (was £35) + O2 mobile SIM with Unlimited data, minutes and texts (Ends 27/05/2024)

In comparison to BT, then, Virgin Media have much more variety in their entertainment options - and it's coupled with faster broadband speeds on an 18-month commitment rather than the 24 months we see with BT.

There's one major element missing from Virgin's entertainment line-up though: Virgin customers cannot watch the Sky Atlantic channel, while BT and Sky customers can.

It might not be a deal-breaker for many, but it's definitely something to consider if American drama shows are important to you.

Read our full guide to Virgin Media TV packages.

Sky

Sky's basic TV package includes hundreds of channels, although it should be noted the impressive 300+ channel catalogue is padded out with some real niche options, so quantity doesn't always equal quality.

As an example, popular channels like Sky Atlantic, Syfy and Sky Crime are placed alongside Turbo, Star Bharat and Colors Cineplex in the line-up.

Yet there are plenty of highlights in there too, meaning Sky's base package is far superior to Virgin Media's entry-level deals.

Package Channels Monthly price Upfront price Contract term
Sky TV + Netflix 401 £23 Free 18 months
offer Offer: No setup fee

In recent years, Sky have also added a couple of channels in the form of Sky Documentaries and Sky Nature, yet BT TV customers were also able to access those since they were placed in the Now TV Entertainment Membership line-up too.

This again shows the strength of Sky in comparison to BT TV: Sky can choose which channels to put on their subsidiary Now TV and therefore which channels BT TV customers can access.

While there's plenty of cooperation between the providers now (and far more than there used to be), it's still something to be aware of.

Find out more about Sky TV and their packages.


Add-on content

Winner: Sky offer cheaper access to premium content, plus their HD add-on is straightforward.

Virgin Media and Sky have opted for a range of extra channel packs that allow customers to choose which content they want and add it to their packages for a set amount per month.

BT's deals work slightly differently but they still offer distinctive packages for sport and cinema.

Comparing BT, Virgin and Sky for TV may often come down to their sports and movies plans, so we'll look at those along with HD options in this section.

Sports 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.

Here's a quick look at how much it'll cost to add Sky Sports and/or BT Sport to the main TV packages offered by the big three:

Cost of BT Sport Cost of Sky Sports
BT Included with Sport, Big Sport or VIP Included with Big Sport or VIP (£5 extra for HD)
Sky £27 per month £32 per month
Virgin Media Included in Bigger Bundle or Ultimate Volt or £18 per month Included in Ultimate Volt or £31.75 per month / £38.75 per month in HD

Bear in mind that as these packages cannot be purchased on their own (in most cases) we'll need to factor in the cost of a base TV package as well as broadband in the case of BT and Virgin. Use our Sky Sports comparison table to compare costs when added to different services and packages.

The exception to the bundling rule is getting BT Sport through BT - the provider introduced a flexible monthly pass in 2019 for customers who only want sport.

Getting the best deal on the sports channels is so important that we have a whole guide devoted to Sky Sports, another one on BT Sport here, and if you're unsure between the two channels see this Sky Sports vs BT Sport guide which puts them head-to-head.

Movie channels

The rise of streaming services may have dented the popularity of Sky Cinema, but it's still a hugely popular addition to pay TV packages.

Here's a quick look at how much it'll cost with BT, Sky and Virgin:

Cost of Sky Cinema
BT Included in Big Entertainment or VIP
Sky £19 per month
Virgin Media £21 per month

See the total monthly amounts when taken with the various TV packages offered by the big three using our Sky Cinema comparison table.

This guide covers more on adding Sky Cinema and how much it'll cost with each provider.

HD channels

There's no mistaking HD: it's around four times sharper than average TV and the colours are much brighter.

All new TVs are now HD-ready at the very least. With just Freeview, we can access up to 15 HD channels but to get the best range of HD content we need to look to one of the pay TV providers.

Here are the number of HD channels currently available with each package:

Freeview Virgin Media: Big Bundle Sky TV BT TV Virgin Media: Ultimate Oomph
15 19 15 15 85

The 15 channels available in HD on Sky TV and BT TV are the Freeview channels.

For Sky customers to access their subscription content in HD, they will need to add one of the following extras:

TV Extra Features Contract length Monthly price
HD 40 live Sky channels in HD, watch Netflix on 2 devices (if applicable) 31 day rolling £7
Ultra HD + HD Access to UHD content, watch Netflix on 4 devices (if applicable) 31 day rolling £11

Meanwhile, BT TV customers looking to add HD to the content accessed through Now TV memberships will need to pay an extra £5 per month for the HD add-on or sign up to VIP where HD is standard.

There's no option with Virgin Media to just add HD to a smaller bundle, so only customers with bigger plans will be able to access more HD content.

Movies and sport in HD

Sky's restructurings also mean that the Sky Cinema and Sky Sports packages include these channels in HD as standard. So customers no longer need to purchase a separate pack.

For BT TV customers, Sky Cinema content in the VIP plan will be HD as standard or they will need to add the HD extra to access Sky Cinema in HD if they are on the Big Entertainment plan.

Virgin Media subscribers also get Sky Cinema in HD as standard.

On sports, it's a little more complicated.

Again, BT TV customers with Sport or Big Sport will need to add the HD extra to access the content in HD or sign up to VIP.

Yet Virgin Media customers looking to watch Sky Sports in HD will need to pay an extra £7 per month to add that service on top of the subscription fee. However, if they have BT Sport, they will get those sports channels in HD as standard.

Find out more about HD TV.

As the Sky TV add-on options make clear, UHD content is also available for an extra fee. So far, there isn't too much UHD content out there, but customers with compatible TVs may want the option.

While BT TV were the first to launch a dedicated UHD channel back in 2015, their focus so far has been on BT Sport Ultimate and some AMC content in UHD.

Virgin Media customers with V6 or Virgin TV 360 boxes can also access the Virgin TV Ultra HD channel at no extra cost.

Although UHD is frequently touted as the next big thing, it hasn't yet taken off to the point where BT, Virgin and Sky are fighting for customers based on the amount of UHD content available.


Equipment and viewing

Winner: The Sky Q set-top box is still the one to beat.

All the big three offer free standard boxes (although installation, activation and delivery costs may apply), which can rewind and pause live TV and access catch up and on demand services.

TV box Capacity Recordable TV Upfront Price
Virgin TV 360 1TB 500 hours SD/100 HD £35
Sky Q 1TB 1TB (700GB for customer use) 500 hours SD /
150 hours HD
£20
BT YouView+ box 500GB 300 hours SD £20
BT YouView+ Ultra HD box 1TB Up to 600 SD/
60 UHD
£20
BT TV Pro 1TB Up to 600 SD/ 60 UHD £20

The BT TV Box Pro launched in June 2021 and is now the standard set-top box for all BT TV customers.

Sky Q, first introduced in 2015, is now the standard for all customers, and it's still an excellent piece of kit that BT and Virgin have tried to emulate in the years since launch.

Virgin made their latest TV 360 box available to all customers early in 2021, so all new customers will receive that as standard. Read more about Virgin TV 360.

All three boxes are excellent and well-suited to modern TV viewing, including access to on demand content and apps through the menus (plus all have voice activated functionality too).

Overall, choosing between them is difficult, but we'd say Sky Q is still the one to beat, even if BT and Virgin are certainly improving their boxes with every release.

We've compared TV boxes from BT, Virgin and Sky or find out how to add multiroom to the different TV services.

Sky have also got another option that neither Virgin nor BT can match: Sky Glass.

This is an Ultra HD TV designed to work with Sky TV content and get rid of the satellite dish once and for all. It works via broadband (as Virgin and BT services do) but goes straight into the TV rather than a set-top box.

Read more about Sky Glass in our dedicated review.

TV on the go

BT offer TV customers the ability to watch subscription content via the BT TV App and the Now TV app, depending on the services they subscribe to.

Most customers will find the Now TV app is the one to use as that includes any subscription entertainment, movies and sports content. In fact, only BT Sport channels are available via the BT TV App (Freeview isn't available either).

Sky customers receive the Sky Go app at no extra cost. The content on this app mirrors a customer's subscriptions including any sports or cinema content.

Virgin TV Go allows access to up to 110 live channels and box sets on the move, just as long as a customer is subscribed to them.

Note: Virgin customers will need to download the Sky Sports App to watch that subscription content.


Availability

Winner: Sky and BT are widely available through different delivery methods.

Check exactly what services for all three providers are available near you using the postcode checker below:

The UK's three biggest pay TV companies transmit their services through different means: Sky TV comes via satellite, BT use broadband and Virgin Media use their fibre optic network. These differences make some services more widely available than others.

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.

The BT superfast broadband network now reaches around 96% of the UK so the vast majority should also have access to BT TV.

Virgin TV is the least widely available of the three: less than 60% of households can access it, mostly in and around the bigger cities.

Expansion continues, even in smaller communities, but it remains the case that not every customer who wants to sign up for Virgin TV will be able to do so.

Read more about Virgin TV's availability.


Tips on how to get the best value for money

Before rushing to sign up, don't forget to check out the latest special offers available with all three providers. In addition, we offer some tips below to help new and existing customers get the best value for money no matter which provider or package they decide on.

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 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 18 months - 24 for BT - so don't be afraid to say, "I'll think about it and call you back". Also remember that there's a 'cooling off' period after signing up, so any regrettable decisions can be undone by customers who move fast!

See our 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.

Our verdict

Overall winner: Sky offer a standalone TV service as well as allowing customers to take broadband too and their content is still unparalleled.

Those looking for a basic, stand-alone TV plan with a good channel count and reasonable monthly price can't go wrong with Sky TV.

BT's TV packages have some of the lowest channel counts and require customers to take out BT broadband services too, which bumps up the monthly price.

Plus, customers can access much of the content elsewhere through Sky themselves or Now TV directly - there's not much unique content available.

Virgin Media, for those who can get it, is a tempting option: the provider's bundles come with lightning-fast broadband and a decent number of channels for a reasonable price. In addition, they're generous with their new technology and continue to expand partnerships to bring more content to customers.

For us, however, it's difficult to look past the comprehensive packages offered by Sky TV. One that could push people towards Virgin is faster broadband but, otherwise, Sky remains the one to beat.

As we've already said, when deciding which provider and package offers the best deal, customers will need to consider their priorities: more channels, standalone packages, low monthly prices or free extras?

Before making a decision, customers can browse the different TV packages and extras available with each provider using our broadband & TV comparison page.

For more head-to-head guides see our reviews of Sky vs Virgin, BT vs Virgin and Sky vs BT.

Comments

Lee
17 July 2016

The problem we all face now is each provider increasing the cost to ensure the average person has to choose one over the other. I have BT and Sky, but the recent price increase now means after my current contract expires I'll have to take one over the other. Tricky, mean and greedy.

Robert OBrien replying to Lee
24 January 2022

I have the same problem - sky tv, bt (ee) mobile and bt broadband. looking at the pricing structure I probably need to go BT all in - but agree its not good.

marc
1 March 2015

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.

sealighter
19 October 2014

I have Netflix on my TV.

Daniel
18 June 2014

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!

Which broadband & TV deals are available in your area?

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