Getting The Best Value TV Services

A guide to available TV services, from subscription packages to streaming passes

Want to watch the best TV, movies, sports and boxsets without spending a fortune? We'll talk you through all your options, from the best in free TV to the cheapest ways to watch Premier League football.

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I want to get my favourite TV shows for the lowest possible price. Where do I start?

It's easy to assume that you have to sign up to an expensive, long term contract to watch everything you want on TV. But you don't. You've got lots of options, and we'll talk you through them in this guide.

For a start, don't ignore free TV - it's probably a lot better than you realise. It gets you as much as 95% of the most popular shows on British TV.

But what about those trendy new Prestige TV shows everyone's always talking about? Well, you do have to pay to get those, but they're cheap and don't require any commitment on your part.

Netflix, for instance, will get you things like The Crown and the new Star Trek; or an Entertainment Pass from NOW TV will get you Sky Atlantic with Game of Thrones. Both of these work on 30 day deals. You can just sign up when there's something you want to watch and cancel after you've watched it.

There're box sets and on demand movies at affordable rates as well, plus cheap add-ons through your broadband provider.

In fact, you only really need to commit to a long term, premium TV package if you want live sports. And even then, you might be able to shave a few pounds off your bill.

Basically, you don't ever need to miss your favourite shows, and if you shop smart you won't need to pay a fortune for them.

What TV options can I get for free?

Free TV has improved a lot in recent years. And we mean a lot. It's got 90% of the UK's most popular networks, and with the right kit you can record shows and watch box sets, too. Here’s how.

You've got three options for getting free TV. The main one is Freeview. This gives you more than 70 channels in standard definition, and 15 in HD. You receive it through your aerial, and if you bought your TV in the last five or six years you won't even need a special box to get it.

The standard Freeview offering is just old school broadcast television. There are a couple of ways to bring it more up to date.

Freeview Play gives you all the Freeview channels over the air, plus on demand services from the BBC, ITV (or STV in Scotland), Channel 4, Channel 5, and UKTV. These are accessed over the internet and are all free. Some smart TVs have support for Freeview Play built in - and if you're in the market for a new telly you should definitely look for it. If not, you'll need a Freeview Play box to access it.

Do you want to record shows as well? A FreeviewHD Recorder box (for the standard service) and Freeview Play Recorder box both allow you to do this, as well as to pause and rewind live TV. Prices typically start at around £120 and £180 respectively. You could also look into getting a YouView+ box, which can often be cheaper and gives you the Freeview channels, on demand services, and support for various apps.

Freesat

Your second main free TV option is Freesat, a satellite based service.

Freesat has even more channels - well over a hundred of them, with 13 in HD. This includes everything you get with Freeview, plus extra niche and +1 channels.

Freesat can be a good choice for Sky customers looking to save money because it works with your existing satellite dish. If you don't have one of those, a basic dish and installation will set you back around £80, or more if you want to be able to record one channel while you watch another.

Either way, you'll need to add a box unless your TV has got Freesat support built in. Boxes start at around £50, though you'll pay three times that for one that can record.

Overall, we'd say Freesat is best when you've already got the dish and/or you're in an area with a poor Freeview signal.

Freesat from Sky

Old Sky customers also have a third, lesser known, option for free TV: Freesat from Sky. Confusingly, this is not the same as the Freesat service we've just described, even though it shares almost the same name and almost the same channels. This service uses both your dish and your existing Sky box - you just need to pick up a new Sky viewing card for £25 to get it working.

Freesat from Sky gets you 240 TV channels, with 11 in HD. This is a few more than you get from Freesat, though they're mostly niche channels. One other added benefit is that you automatically get BBC and ITV for your local region without having to faff around with tuning your TV.

Freesat from Sky gives you a wide range of free TV forever. However, Sky does deactivate cards from time to time (for what it says are security reasons), and you need to buy a new one as a replacement. This shouldn't happen often, though - you could go years without needing a new card.

So, which to choose? Well, if you've already got the dish and box then Freesat from Sky is an easy choice. If not, Freesat or Freeview are the way to go.

Adding Premium Channels with Freeview

So, free TV is pretty good. In fact, a survey a couple of years ago suggested that as much as 99% of the most popular shows among Sky customers were actually available on free channels.

Should you still want more, adding a NOW TV Entertainment Pass gives you the best of what premium TV subscriptions has to offer. It streams 11 channels including Sky Atlantic, Sky One and FOX, although you aren't able to record any of them. Many smart TVs support NOW TV, as do consoles and other devices. You can also get a NOW TV stick for around £15, and it'll let you watch Netflix, too.

If TV is your priority, rather than movies or sports, then Freeview with an optional NOW TV Entertainment Pass (or Netflix or Amazon) is a great way to go.

What's the cheapest way to get pay TV channels?

Pay TV costs a lot of money, but you can sometimes snag good deals if you get it as part of a broadband bundle.

  • Probably the easiest way to get cheap pay TV is through NOW TV. You can get a 14 day trial on both the Entertainment and Cinema passes when you first sign up. You can also get all the passes at a lower rate if you buy a NOW TV stick. Check out any potential offers on Now Broadband here.
  • Some BT broadband packages include TV at low cost rates, giving you BT Sport and AMC along with Freeview channels through the YouView service. See the latest BT deals here.
  • TalkTalk has affordable TV bundles with six Sky entertainment channels. You can also add other premium channels, including some Sky Sports channels, on a 30 day deal. See TalkTalk offers here.
  • EE TV gives you over 70 free channels plus the chance to add premium content, including sport and movies, through optional add-ons. Shop for EE deals here.

I only want to watch certain shows and box sets. Do I really need to subscribe to an entire TV package?

Almost every programme is available on demand through one streaming services or another, and you can access them on short term deals. You don't need permanent access to a whole raft of channels just to catch a handful of your top shows.

Many of the most hyped new shows are originals and exclusives for Netflix and Amazon, and both are available on 30 day deals. Amazon is cheaper when you sign up for a year, but you can choose a monthly option if you don't use the other benefits of Prime.

Plenty of hit shows that are first shown on Sky or other premium channels, like Breaking Bad or Fear the Walking Dead, end up there eventually, too.

If your favourite programme is on Sky and you don't want to wait until it shows up elsewhere, you can catch it as it's broadcast through NOW TV. Just remember that NOW TV often only has episodes available for a few days or weeks. You need to watch new episodes as they come rather than wait until a season has ended and bingeing on it all at once.

And don't forget the on demand services from all the terrestrial stations. BBC iPlayer and Channel 4's All4, in particular, are fantastic. They have archive sections that serve up anything from David Attenborough and Doctor Who to cult favourites like The IT Crowd. They also offer tons of original shows through BBC3 and All4's Walter Presents, a curated collection of the best new international series.

Ultimately, getting the best deal is all about deciding what you want to watch and when you want to watch it. If you're a comic book fan, for example, you'll find that Marvel shows are on Netflix and DC shows are on Sky. Instead of subscribing to both services at the same time, why not dip into one for a while, then cancel and switch to the other?

Cancelling paid services from time to time is always a good idea anyway. After a few months away you might be offered a better deal to entice you back.

What's the cheapest way to get sports channels?

Sport is the main attraction for premium TV services, and it's also the most expensive. So how can you get sports channels for the cheapest price?

Cheap Premier League Football

From the 2019 season, the cheapest way to watch Premier League football independent of your broadband provider will be through Amazon Prime Video. Amazon has secured the rights to show 20 games a season for three years. Don't think this will give you full season of coverage, though - they'll be showing ten matches a day on two separate days.

BT Sport is also quite cheap if you're a BT broadband customer, and will get you 42 games in 2018, and 52 from the 2019 season. BT also show the Champions League and other sports including UFC. It isn't a great deal if you don't have BT Broadband and don't want to switch - you can add it on either Sky or TalkTalk, but it's pretty expensive.

Sky is the priciest option, and you have to take it on an 18 month contract. But it also has by far the most comprehensive football coverage, and Sky have a stranglehold on the rights to loads of other sports. You can get Sky Sports through NOW TV and TalkTalk on 30 day deals. You'll pay a little more for them, though there's nothing to stop you cancelling during the off season to save some money.

Get other sports on a budget

For other sports, NOW TV offers great flexibility because it lets you watch Sky Sports on even more short term deals. You could pick up a week pass, for instance, to watch the Open Golf or an Ashes Test Match, or a day pass for an F1 Grand Prix.

Amazon is becoming a bigger player in sports coverage, generally. As well as the EPL it has the rights to show US, French, and Australian Open Tennis, and is likely to add more in future.

The increased competition in broadcast rights may be good for the sports but it's expensive for those of us who have to pay for it. If you wanted to watch all the available Premier League football next year you could end up paying as much as £1000 across the three providers.

What's the cheapest way to get movie channels?

When movies are more your thing you're spoilt for choice, with well over a thousand films available on demand at any time.

Freeview and Freesat have a small but decent selection of movie channels. These range from Film4, showing mainstream and independent films, to Talking Pictures TV, which specialises in often long forgotten classics.

Streaming offers a greater choice. While Netflix is better for TV, Amazon is arguably better for movies. It has a growing range of exclusives, and also supports Amazon Channels. This is a collection of add-on channels split by studio or genre. It's great for fans of indie cinema, or genres like horror. Each of these channels only cost a couple of pounds a month to add.

For even more, a NOW TV Sky Cinema Pass will get you over 1000 films to watch on demand, and includes the largest number of recent cinema releases. You can grab it on a 30 day rolling contract, for around a tenner a month.

What channels can I get in HD?

HD TV is renowned for the clarity of its picture. Sadly, what you can get in HD, where you get it, and what it costs, isn't always so clear.

  • Freeview offers 15 channels in HD. Freesat has 13.
  • Amazon offers HD as standard for no extra cost. NOW TV has 720p HD by default. A 1080p upgrade is planned, though may be a paid extra. Netflix is limited to SD in its Basic plan, with HD in the Standard plan and 4K in the Premium plan.
  • Sky has 40 channels in HD available through a paid add-on. To watch the available movies, box sets and sports in 4K you'll need to upgrade to a Sky Q 2TB box.
  • Upgrading to BT Sport in HD will set you back around £10 a month. 4K is quite a bit more.
  • Virgin Media requires you to sign up to one of the higher tiers to get a decent number of channels in HD. Even those freely available on Freeview, like E4 and ITV2, are only available in HD through Virgin on the two most expensive plans.

What's the benefit of streaming TV passes vs subscription TV?

In 2018 streaming services became more popular than premium subscription TV in the UK for the first time. It's easy to see why.

  • It's cheaper - most fairly recent Smart TVs have apps for Netflix, Amazon, NOW TV and other services, so you might not even need to buy any extra gear to get them working (and if even if you do, they're all pretty cheap). The plans are affordable, and there are no setup fees.
  • No contract - most streaming services use rolling 30 day deals, and you can cancel whenever you want. So, you can subscribe to Netflix for a month, watch the new season of Better Call Saul, then cancel again until something else takes your fancy. There's no need to keep paying if you aren't using it.
  • Free trials and special offers - you can get a 14 to 30 day trial on most streaming services. If you cancel for long enough you might also receive some very attractive offers to tempt you back.
  • Extra features - the best value Amazon Prime Video deal comes on a 12 month plan. This means a higher up front cost than other services, but it comes with free next day delivery on your Amazon buys, music streaming, selected free Kindle ebooks, and cloud photo storage.
  • It's easy to go mobile - you can enjoy your favourite shows on your morning commute because all streaming services have mobile apps you can load onto your phone or tablet.
  • Extra app support - when you watch on devices like an Amazon Fire TV Stick or Apple TV you can combine various services like Netflix and iPlayer into a single interface and with unified search function. On the Fire Stick you can also add extra channels - from Eurosport to channels for fans of independent cinema - for a low monthly price.

What are the benefits of premium subscription TV services?

Premium subscription TV might cost a bit more, and will tie you in for longer, but there's still a good number of reasons to sign up.

  • Sport! - there's no getting away from it: sport is the most compelling reason to sign up to a premium TV service, especially if you want a lot of it. Get it as part of a broadband bundle and you'll almost certainly save money.
  • It's easier to manage - Yes, there's a longer commitment. But paying a single bill on the same day every month is a heck of a lot simpler than juggling three or four services that renew and bill on different days. Plus, if you're truly committed to saving money through streaming, you need to cancel NOW TV often and search for better offers.
  • More channels - a full Sky or Virgin package will get you more channels than you'll have anywhere else.
  • You can record premium channels - shows, movies and sports events disappear from streaming services after a certain amount of time. If you'd rather record stuff to watch whenever you want, you can only do that with a premium TV subscription.
  • The picture quality can be better - streaming quality is not always as good as what you'll get through a dish, cable, or over the air. Also, live events on NOW TV, like football matches, have a short delay compared to the satellite broadcast. It isn't a big deal - unless you happen to be following along with the match on Twitter, too.
  • You can stream to tablets - the latest boxes let you stream your recordings to a tablet. You're no longer chained to the couch whenever you want to catch up with your favourite shows.
  • Streaming apps are supported, too - you'll get mobile apps that let you watch your premium channels on your phone or tablet. And Virgin, Sky and YouView (BT etc) boxes let you install Netflix anyway, so you don't have to choose between one or the other.
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