By Marc Shoffman | Wednesday, January 30th 2019
BT and Virgin are among the heavyweights in the battle for pay TV customers, offering top technology and content. But there are plenty of differences between the pair, from the channels you can watch to how much you can record.
Pay TV customers are a demanding bunch and BT and Virgin cater for much of their needs with the usual catch-up, streaming and recording services but their offerings start to differ when you look at the channels and technology on offer. We’ve laid out the key differences for you.
The starting point for BT TV packages is that you have to have BT broadband in order to get BT TV – it is not available as a standalone TV service. You also need to decide whether or not you want BT Sport included, and if you want a deal with a set-top box that will let you record (as opposed to one that will just let you pause and rewind) live TV. It offers four packages based around these themes.
BT’s Classic package comes with up to 80 Freeview channels, including Dave, BBC4 Film4 and E4. There are also channels for the kids such as CBBC HD and CBeebies. The classic package throws in a YouView+ Box that lets you pause and rewind live TV and record up to 300 hours of programming.
The next step up for greater channel choice is BT’s Entertainment package. This gives you up to 100 channels to flick through such as National Geographic, E!, Universal and Gold. You get more choice on the Max HD package with 142 channels such as Discovery, Nickelodeon, DisneyJunior and MTV with 21 in HD.
The Entertainment and Max HD packages also come with the recordable YouView+ Box. But then things get a bit complicated. The Classic and Entertainment packages will let you add BT Sport for a fee, but the Max HD option will let you add BT Sport for free for the whole contract. Max users also get US channel AMC which was the network behind award-winning classics such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
If you aren't worried about recording, there is also BT's Starter package that gives you a YouView box that lets you record and pause live TV and throws in BT Sport for free for six months.
BT customers can boost their TV service with bolt-ons such as BT Sport or on-demand kids or music channels if they are not already included in your deal. There is also access to Netflix and other streaming services such as BBC iPlayer and ITV Hub. If you are using BT Superfast Fibre, you will also be able to add Sky Cinema and Sky Sports.
Virgin lets you purchase its TV packages separately to its broadband, although it is worth looking at Virgin's bundles as you can get speeds of 350Mbps and beyond. Virgin’s basic Player package comes with 134 channels. Similar to BT, many of these are actually HD versions of standard definition channels or radio stations.
A better point of comparison is the actual content. The Player bundle gives you all the standard Freeview channels plus radio stations. Virgin’s Mix package gets a bit more interesting, giving you 231 channels, including more premium stations such as FOX, Universal, Sky One, Sky Living, Gold and MTV. You will also get Sky Sports News and Sky Sports Mix, which features Friday night football from a range of English and international leagues, the ATP tour and even the Drone Racing League.
The Player and Mix bundles mainly offer channels in standard definition. The Full House bundle offers 331 channels, including all of the above with more of the premium channels such as Sky One and Sky Living in HD. Full House is even bulkier when it comes to sport, incorporating BT Sport as standard. It also provides channels such as MTV, Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and Discovery.
The only channels missing are Sky Sports and Sky Cinema. Luckily, that is where the V.VIP package comes in. It has 369 channels, including everything you get on the lower down deals as well as all the Sky Sports and Sky Cinema options.
Virgin’s TV packages also provide access to streaming services such as YouTube, BBC iPlayer and subscription service Netflix.
If you take one of the cheaper packages, you can also purchase extra channels such as BT Sport or Sky Cinema on a monthly basis. There are also extra add-ons such as Asian channels, Baby TV or European stations from countries such as France and Portugal.
The type of technology you get with BT depends on the TV package you choose. Its Starter package just gives you a YouView box that lets you record and pause live TV.
BT’s classic and Entertainment packages come with a YouView+ box that lets you pause and rewind live TV and record up to 300 hours of shows. The YouView box lets you record two live channels at the same time. But you can only watch one live channel while another is recording. You could however still watch a recorded programme while two are recording in the background.
Its high-end Max HD package comes wrapped up in a YouView+ HD set-top box that gives you 600 hours of recording space.
In contrast, Virgin gives all its customers the same set-top box. All users get its latest V6 box which comes with a whopping 1TB of storage. You can do the usual pausing and rewinding of live TV, plus it gives you up to 500 hours of recording space, while you can record six shows at once and watch a seventh at the same time (should you ever need to).
The V6 box is also ready for 4K definition, something you only get on BT’s premium YouView+ HD box.
It’s all very well having lots of decent channels, but you also want to know you will be valued as a customer and that any issues will be resolved quickly and adequately.
Both BT’s and Virgin Media’s TV services seems to struggle with customer complaints. The latest Ofcom data for the second quarter of 2017 shows BT had the most complaints per 100,000 customers for pay TV at 14. Virgin Media had the second most at nine. Both are above the industry average of five complaints per 100,000 customers.
The main issues raised about BT were complaints handling, followed by billing, pricing and charging, and faults, service and provision.
If issues do arise, both have pretty long customer service hours. BT is available to hear concerns 24 hours a day and seven days a week on the phone and offers live chat online between 7am and 22.45pm.
Virgin Media offers live chat online between 8am and 8pm Monday to Saturday and you can call them 7 days a week between 8am and 10pm.
Customers of both BT and Virgin get pretty similar extras. Each offers seven days of catch-up TV on apps such as BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, Channel 4 and Channel 5 and they will also let you access YouTube and Netflix. Both also offer movies to rent on demand and have apps that let you stream content on the go.
Virgin Media goes slightly further for households where people may want to watch different programmes at the same time. BT will provide a maximum of two extra YouView boxes – either standard or recordable - for an added subscription. In contrast, Virgin will provide up to five extra boxes with a multi-room subscription.
If you can tolerate the odd customer service issue, both provide some great channels and technology.
BT and Virgin both offer an extensive choice of channels. You will need to look beyond their basic packages if you want more than just Freeview channels and it might be worth paying a bit more to get stations such as Gold and Universal. Virgin is a step ahead though as its higher range deals will also give you channels such as Sky One and Sky Living. BT has reached an agreement to offer Sky channels from 2019, but for now its customers are shut out.
BT’s unique selling proposition is BT Sport, which comes free with BT TV, although you can also get this on Virgin’s - but only by paying for the premium packages. That leaves the technology. Its YouView recordable box gives you up to 300 hours of recording space or 600 for its HD version alongside catch up and on demand TV. But not all customers are treated equal with BT. Starter users don’t have the recording options while only BT’s Max package customers will get an ultra HD box ready for 4K resolution. To top it off, you can of course only get BT’s services with its broadband.
In contrast, Virgin won’t make you take out its broadband if you just want TV and it gives all its customers the same V6 recordable 4K-ready set-top box.
When you combine access to BT Sport and Sky content including Sky Sports and Sky Cinema on some of its deals, there can only really be one winner in this battle: Virgin Media. It takes the spoils for giving you freedom to choose your own broadband while offering some great channel choices and technology.