Virgin vs Sky vs BT: which TV package is best for you?

Fed up of Freeview? Itching for some more channels to feast your eyes on? Addicted to Game of Thrones or the English Premier League? If you're looking to add hundreds of extra channels to your TV set then there are three main options to consider for those in the UK.

Trying to figure out which one's right for you can be confusing, particularly with so many special deals on the table at any one time. Here we've sifted through the big print and small print for you to compare packages from Virgin, Sky and BT against each other.


Sky Q

These three pay TV companies pipe content into your home in different ways: BT uses a combination of your broadband connection and standard TV aerial (and you must sign up for BT broadband if you want to use its TV service), Sky uses a satellite dish on the wall of your house, and Virgin Media uses fibre optic cabling connected straight to your home.

If you can get Freeview, you can get BT, and Sky is almost as comprehensive (estimated to cover about 98 percent of the UK). Virgin Media TV is less widespread: about half of the homes in the country are estimated to be connected to Virgin's network, so if you can't currently get hooked up, then you've already taken one TV provider out of the equation.

We've mentioned that BT TV subscribers must take BT broadband too. That's not the case with Sky or Virgin, though both companies do offer broadband packages as well, and will give you a discount if you take TV and broadband together - that's yet another factor to consider, especially if you're already signed up with an Internet Service Provider contract.



Sky is the king of pay TV channels: it offers multiple sports and movie channels, plus extras like Sky Atlantic (which shows Game of Thrones). Its sports and film channels are available on BT and Virgin too. BT, meanwhile, focuses on sports in terms of its own in-house channels, with rights to some Premier League matches and all Champions League games.

Virgin Media doesn't make any of its own channels but does offer all the key ones from BT and Sky, with the exception of Sky Atlantic. All of these providers give you access to the regular channels too, together with the likes of MTV, the Discovery Channel and kids' channels, though ultimately it depends which package of channels you decide to go for.

In terms of the overall number of channels, Sky wins out with a maximum of 320. Virgin is second (230) and BT third (130). Sky also has the most high-definition (HD) channels with 50 available, although they do cost extra. The good news is there's lots of choice when it comes to picking which channels you want to sign up for and which ones you don't need.

It's worth mentioning Sky Q here, Sky's next-gen service with support for 4K, wireless streaming around the house and more besides - the channel bundles are the same, but the technology's more advanced and future-proofed, and you might want to consider it if you want the very best tech currently available (and can afford the extra payments).



With prices shifting so regularly we would point you the official package pricing pages for BT, Sky and Virgin to do your own calculations, but we will list some of the main options here for reference, all of which were correct at the time of writing. As a new customer, you may well be able to bag yourself a better deal - it's actually worth doing some haggling.

If you're adding BT TV to your existing BT broadband, then you can get 80 basic channels for free. At the time of writing you can get more channels and a better set-top box for either £5 or £10 a month on a 12-month contract, though Sky Sports (£22 a month for SD, £27 a month for HD) and Sky Cinema (£13.50 a month) are optional extras on top of that.

Over on Sky, prices start at £20 a month for the basic channels for new customers: for all the good stuff (movies, sports, box sets on demand) you can pay up to £80 a month, with various levels in between. Go for the full-fat Sky Q experience and you could be handing a hefty £96 a month over to Sky, plus the standard one-off setup and installation costs.

Virgin TV prices start at £10 a month for 9 months before it goes up to £24 a month on a 12-month contract. That really is for the basics though (around 60 channels) - for all the sports and movie channels in HD you need to shell out £68.50 a month (with 200Mbps optical fibre internet included). There are various choices between those two extremes.

As we've said, you need to consider bundles including broadband and home phone line rental, and don't forget the fees for connection and hardware that you get charged when you sign up for the first time. Fortunately, the calculators on the various broadcasters' websites are pretty straightforward to use, so you can see how much you'll be paying.



There are a few more factors to weigh up: each company provides a different set-top box with different features included, although the basics in terms of what you can do are largely the same. All these boxes let you pause and rewind live TV, for example, so if someone knocks on your front door you can pause your show in the meantime.

In some cases you can pay extra to BT, Sky or Virgin for a better box: more space to record shows, more shows recorded simultaneously, a better remote control, better TV quality, support for watching TV in multiple rooms in the house, and so on. Some boxes support smart apps, so you can access the likes of Netflix and iPlayer through the same interface.

It's also worth investigating the proprietary mobile and web apps made by these firms that come with your subscription, which are always useful for catching up with shows while you're away from home. Most packages let you view a selected number of channels through a web browser too, though you may have to pay extra for the privilege.



BT is the odd one out here: you must be a BT broadband customer to get it, the channel selection is smaller, and it's cheaper. It's best to think of BT's pay TV package as an optional extra for its broadband, an enhanced version of Freeview that would suit those who want BT Sports, Sky Sports and Sky Cinema without paying too much extra.

After that it's Sky vs Virgin. If you can get both at your house then it's a very close call indeed: both offer similar channels and similar features at a similar price. It may come down to which deals are available when you're shopping, or who provides your internet: Virgin is reckoned to be slightly superior in terms of its various broadband offerings.

Sky Q changes the game somewhat, giving you 4K content, more simultaneous recordings, and a slicker interface compared with Virgin Media. It'll also cost you more, of course, and no doubt Virgin is working on a next-gen service of its own - until then, Sky Q is just about the most impressive pay TV service you can sign up for, even if it comes at a high price.