When does pay TV beat Freeview?
"IS IT really worth getting pay TV from BT, TalkTalk, Sky or Virgin Media, rather than sticking with Freeview?"
The advent of digital TV, and with it, Freeview has transformed the way we consume television in the UK.
No longer must we choose between a futuristic, shiny pay TV service and up to five channels with fuzzy reception.
Freeview has introduced every household to the wonders of multi channel entertainment, catch up and interactive services.
But pay TV services from BT, Sky, TalkTalk, and Virgin Media have been evolving too.
In this guide we've highlighted some of the ways in which, despite Freeview, pay TV has not only joined the ball game, but taken the ball home and eaten it for tea.
When pay TV wins
Here are three main way Pay TV wins out. Primarily, we'll look at how it gives subscribers more choice: more channels, more movies and more sport.
1. Channel hopping: pay TV bounces all over Freeview
Depending on how good the aerial reception is, there are up to 80 TV channels, up to 12 HD channels and 29 radio stations on offer from Freeview.
This covers all the BBC and ITV channels, Channel 4, Channel 5, several 24-hour news channels and various other entertainment channels including the likes of Drama, Yesterday, and Dave.
Curiously, Dave is available on Freeview but isn't among the free to air channels found on Sky or Virgin Media. Viewers wanting to keep hold of it will need to find it in one of their TV packages and subscribe to that.
Even the most basic Sky package, by comparison, offers around 280 TV channels and about 60 radio channels.
Including all the channels available by adding the various entertainment, sport, movie and HD packs, plus the regional versions of the national broadcasters' channels, and there are well over 500. There's even a Renault Channel.
Of these, 240 are categorised as free to air, which means that viewers without a Sky subscription can access them. However, the entertainment value of a lot of these channels is debatable, and as noted above, Dave and its spin offs aren't included.
There's more on what's available with Sky TV in our review, here.
Virgin Media also offer a chunky number of TV channels, some 230 with their XL TV package, with the extra sport, movie and HD bolt-ons taking the total possible up to more than 260.
Again, we've more detail on what's included with Virgin's TV packages in our main review, which you'll find here.
To see the chunkiest packages side by side, have a look at our family bundle comparison table.
Sport: it's a pay TV whitewash
There are certain big sporting events that will always be available on free TV, like the Olympics, the football and rugby World Cups, Wimbledon and the Grand National, among others.
These are the events referred to as "the crown jewels", those that by law must be shown in full and live on non-subscription national UK television channels.
Everything else is up for grabs, and the broadcasters with the deepest pockets are most likely to secure the rights to the coverage.
That's why Sky Sports have swept the board until fairly recently. Their ever evolving sports channels and HD sports pack are among the main drivers behind Sky's continued growth, in a way that Freeview providers just can't match.
BT Sport are fast becoming a serious contender, however. They're now the only place to see live coverage of the UEFA Champions and Europa League, and all the televised Aviva Premiership Rugby matches.
Virgin and TalkTalk don't offer any of their own sports coverage, but customers of both can add Sky Sports to their packages, and BT Sport is also available to people with Virgin Media and Sky.
Once upon a time Freeview users could access Sky Sports 1, Sky Sports 2 and ESPN through Top Up TV, a Freeview add-on subscription service - but they stopped trading at the end of 2013.
Freeview viewers who have BT broadband can at least access BT Sport online or via an app - but it'll cost them £6 and it's not the same as watching on the TV.
Movies: it's curtains for Freeview
Much like sport, the selection of movie channels on offer from the pay TV providers dwarfs that available to Freeview viewers.
Sky alone have 11 movie channels, plus an on demand movie library containing more than 1,000 titles - and they're now all available in HD as well as SD.
The other three pay TV providers all rely on being able to offer subscriptions to the Sky Cinema channels, as well as their own on demand services.
On the other hand, Netflix, Now TV, Amazon Video, and Blinkbox also offer on demand services, some of which are available via smart TVs or Freeview set top boxes, and which can work out significantly cheaper than subscribing to a pay TV provider for their movie channels.
2. Record, pause, rewind, interact: set top boxes
Sky can be given the credit for introducing a new verb - "Skyplusit" - into the English language, and with the introduction of Sky Q they appear to be hoping to do it again.
But they're not the only ones offering fancy boxes - at least two of the other big pay TV providers can offer top end technology as well.
Set top boxes that can record, pause and rewind live TV are the norm these days, their popularity boosted by handy functions such as being able to skip the ad breaks, the ability to record an entire series with the press of a button and, in the case of Virgin Media Tivo (more here), record other TV shows it thinks we'll enjoy based on our previous likes and dislikes.
But as most Freeview TVs don't allow for recording, many viewers might want to splash out on a twin tuner Freeview set top box as well, and there's nothing to stop them getting one with lots of recording space.
Virgin Media and Sky both offer huge libraries of entertainment and movies on demand via their set top boxes. It's a bit like having a DVD box set store in your living room.
Virgin also offer Netflix through their set top boxes - as do BT and TalkTalk - allowing even those with cheaper subscriptions to access a wide range of on demand content.
All four big pay TV providers also offer access to the most popular catch up TV services like BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4, and My 5.
The gradual proliferation of smart TVs and set top boxes, able to access the internet through a wireless or Ethernet connection, means that Freeview can at least rival some of the services available to pay TV subscribers.
The exact services depend on which brand or model of Freeview kit we have, but access to BBC iPlayer and YouTube are the least Freeviewers can expect.
3. Adding broadband and calls
Finally, one big area that the pay TV providers have heavily exploited in the last few years is the rise in popularity of TV, broadband and phone bundle deals.
The deregulation of the UK broadband market has meant that there are now literally hundreds of different packages on offer from many different suppliers.
But go for a service from one of the big four - and some of the bigger small providers, like Plusnet and EE - and it's entirely possible to get another service or two thrown in at a discount, or even free.
These bundles are very profitable for the providers, so they're willing to lower prices considerably for those willing to sign up to more than one.
Sky, for example, provide a cheap, light use broadband service to customers subscribing to their Sky Talk and Sky TV services - but they also offer other, more attractive deals like these:
Not to be outdone, Virgin Media's Big Bundles are their best value packages - and then they offer deals such as the following:
|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.|
Because both BT and TalkTalk TV are internet-based, anyone thinking of getting either has to take their phone and broadband services as well - but that doesn't mean they don't also offer some good deals.
Here's what's available from BT, for example:
And this is what TalkTalk are offering as incentive right now:
There's usually a bundle of some sort to suit most budgets or requirements - those after the best all-in packages should compare family bundles here, while those with tighter budgets can compare the cheapest here.
When Freeview wins: price
That brings us on to our final point. It's easy to knock Freeview when comparing it with the pay TV services, but let's not forget one big advantage: It's free.
Pay TV viewers must buy a subscription, they're locked into a contract of at least a year in length, and they often pay for channels that they don't even want.
In contrast, Freeview users just need to pay their TV licence and make the one-off payment for the box. After that, they can watch as much or as little TV as they want, all for no extra cost.