Your television choice

Andrew Rowland | 20 October 2020 | 0 comments

It used to be simple: if you wanted television, you got an aerial on your chimney, connected to the TV and you were away. Then came Sky with satellite broadcasting, cable, and then broadband and streaming, so that today many people are confused about the options open to them – and indeed about how they are actually receiving their programmes.

So if you’ve ever lost signal and wondered if it’s the Wi-Fi, or think you have to pay Sky to get satellite TV, read on – this article is for you.

What are the choices?

Newcomers like Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV and our own BritBox deliver their programming through the Internet – we’ll look at them next time – but we still have the very traditional means of delivery, many free, and if your telly doesn’t have a service built in, or you want to record, just add a Freeview, YouView, Freesat or Sky box. This is also one way to add ‘smart’ services like catch-up, and to get high definition on older ‘HD Ready’ sets – if channel 101 just says ‘invalid channel’, you’ll get clearer pictures with one.

Freeview and YouView

We get up to 127 TV channels plus radio through an aerial for free. Freeview and YouView use the same broadcasts and even the channel numbers are the same. All UK TVs have Freeview built in but don’t usually allow recording (for that you usually need a box) and only ‘smart’ TVs have catch-up (BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub etc.) and online services like Netflix.

With YouView you usually subscribe to a package of channels from BT, TalkTalk or PlusNet, who provide the box. The extra channels come over the Internet but are integrated into the same programme listings so you wouldn’t know. You can also access pay-per-view (PPV), where you rent a film for one viewing. Even non-recording boxes can pause and rewind live TV for half an hour.

The differences between the two services is a bit fuzzier than that in practice. YouView was supposed to be the successor to Freeview and was designed as a hybrid system, combining aerial and Internet delivery of channels. Most of the Internet channels are not free, though. But in the meanwhile, Freeview has added some Internet channels too (12 at the last count), which are not compatible with YouView, and some of which are not free. So today we have two services providing virtually the same channels with just some minority ones requiring Freeview.

The main difference is that if you buy a telly, it will have Freeview – some may have YouView also built in as an option – but if you get a package from your ISP they will provide you with a YouView box. But you can buy one if you want, just like Freeview boxes. Neither service requires broadband, but without it you’ll miss out on those few channels as well as catch-up. The YouView interface (what the menus and screens look like) is the same everywhere, whereas Freeview allows manufacturers far more freedom and there is less consistency.


Freesat is Freeview for satellite reception, i.e. the channels come from a small dish on your house, pointing at a spacecraft. The channel line-up is pretty much the same as Freeview’s plus some extra – 166 in total plus radio – though sadly lacking Channel 4 HD. It uses exactly the same transmissions as Sky but there are no paid-for channels. With broadband you can get catch-up too (except All 4).

Freesat is often neglected but is very reliable, high quality and not subject to retunes like Freeview is. It is economical to install, but though a few TVs have it built in, you generally need a box, which can get expensive if you have several TVs.

Sky and Virgin Media

Both are proprietary platforms, one for satellite, one cable. You pay a monthly subscription to get a package of extra channels on top of the free ones and the option for PPV. Sky Q makes multi-room viewing very easy, with all your Sky channels and recordings sent via the house Wi-Fi to other tellies. Stop subscribing though, and you have to send the box back, losing all your recordings. The only reason for taking one of these (other than if you cannot get aerial or satellite but can get cable – there is only about 50% coverage) is for the paid-for channels. If you cancel Sky, just swap your box for a Freesat one – the connections are the same.

© Andrew Rowland 2020

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