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? It's as easy as ABC.
Before we get into the details of these three areas, though, it's worth taking a look at the special offers currently available from each provider.
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 their 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.
Meanwhile Sky's main competitor Virgin Media are offering the following:
Search for more package prices and find out more about Virgin Media in our full review here.
BT may be the new kids on the block but they've become increasingly popular for their TV services thanks to the huge success of the BT Sport channels. Here's the deals they are currently offering new customers who sign up:
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 BT network now reaches over 90% of the UK so the vast majority should also have access to BT TV, which uses Youview through Freeview. Take a look at the Freeview coverage checker to be sure though.
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 SD and HD channel packs
- The live Sky Cinema channels
- Multiroom viewing via an extra mini box
- Up to 50 premium channels
Infinity is available to more than 85% of homes in the UK, with about 40,000 more being added every week - check 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 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 put the providers head to head for their broadband services, as well as offering further comparisons on price and specific packages in the following reviews:
- 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 reality, 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 price outlined 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 exact 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, which allows viewers to pause and rewind live TV, 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 as part of a bundle with both phone and broadband services. 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 (although installation, activation and delivery costs may apply), which can record TV and access catch up and on demand services.
|Virgin Tivo||500GB||250 hours SD||£20 one-off activation cost|
|Virgin TV V6||1TB||500 hours SD||£20 one-off activation cost|
|Sky Q 1TB||1TB (700GB for customer use)||500 hours SD /
150 hours HD
|£20 - £60 installation cost|
|Sky Q 2TB||2TB (1.7GB for customer use)||1,000 hours SD /
350 hours HD
|£60 to £199 installation cost|
|BT Youview box||N/a||N/a||£59.99 activation fee|
|BT YouView+ box||500GB||300 hours SD||£9.99 delivery fee|
|BT YouView+ Ultra HD box||1TB||Up to 600 SD/
|£9.99 delivery fee|
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 box has 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) multiscreen 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 company 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 can be seen from the table above, the setup costs start at £20 for those taking the 1TB box, and can go up to £199 for those taking the 2TB box.
High definition (HD) channels
There's no mistaking HD: it's around four times sharper than average TV and the colours are much brighter.
However, even people with a HD-ready kit - a 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 a 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 15 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 and Sky offer almost the same number of HD channels; although the exact channels available from each differ a little.
|Freeview||VM: Mix TV||Sky: Or/Var||BT: Starter||BT: Entertainment Plus||BT: Total Entertainment||VM: Full House TV||Sky: Box Sets|
Sky's Original and Variety Bundles include just 11 terrestrial channels in HD: six BBC channels, ITV1 HD, Channel 4 HD and 5HD 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 now named Sky Cinema now get the HD versions without having to pay any more.
For those wanting to access Sky Sports in HD it's not as straightforward. Customers will need to subscribe to the Box Sets Bundle and pay an extra £6 a month for the Sky Sports HD pack.
Virgin's Mix package also comes with 11 Freeview HD channels. To get more customers will need to subscribe to the Full House TV pack - which costs £44.
To gain access to Sky Sports content in HD, customers will need to subscribe to a £7 a month pack on top of the monthly £31.75 Sky Sports package.
Unlike Sky, their top bundle, Full House, includes the BT Sport pack in HD; they can also offer MTV Live and H2 (but not the original History Channel) in higher quality over their rival.
Non-Full House subscribers will automatically get access to the HD versions of BT Sport channels when they purchase the BT Sport and ESPN pack, which costs £18 per month.
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.
BT Infinity customers on the Starter and Entertainment Plus packages can add a HD pack for £5 a month, which includes an additional 12 HD entertainment channels. For access to BT Sport in HD though, customers will need the BT Sport pack plus the HD pack.
People with the Total Entertainment deal get all of the channels in the HD pack, and a few others, for free. However, they'll need to purchase the BT Sport pack too to get access to those channels in HD as well as BT Sport Ultra HD.
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 - the FA Cup, and UEFA Champions League, as well as the odd bit of Aviva Premiership Rugby and Moto GP.
Currently it is only included as part of the Entertainment and Max deals but to access it customers will also need to sign up to the BT Sport channel pack. This used to be included with any BT TV package, however, as of August this year BT Sport customers face a monthly subscription of £3.50.
Stealing the thunder of BT's UHD prowess, 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.
More than 120 of Sky's Premier League football matches were shown live in Ultra HD last 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.
Although accessing certain UHD content may be conditional on subscribing to particular channel packs. For instance, to watch a UHD Premier League football match that is being shown by Sky Sports, customers will need to have the Sky Q 2TB box as well as the Sky Sports channel pack.
Getting Sky Q in Ultra HD 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.
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 over here, and if you're unsure between the two channels see this versus guide which compares 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.