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TV in the United Kingdom: Keep Calm and Compare On

Television has been a massive part of our lives for the best part of eight decades. But while for most of us, it’s still our main source of entertainment, there have been a raft of changes in recent years that have significantly altered the way we watch TV. TV used to mean hurrying home before bursting through the door onto the couch to catch the latest episode or to watch our favourite sporting event a la The Simpsons.

These days, while that’s still a great way to prep ourselves for some serious TV watching (or to mimic our favourite cartoon family), we don’t need to be plonked on the couch to watch TV – in fact, we don’t even need to be near a TV. Streaming, smartphones, tablets and mobile data have opened up a range of possibilities for how we watch.

No longer do we need to cancel social outings every Thursday evening and unplug the phone in preparation for our favourite weekly show. ‘Binge watching’ has not only changed the way series are consumed, but how they’re made. Now we don’t watch TV at a time the networks want us to, we watch it when it suits us.

We know TV inside and out. We’re well placed to give you the low down on the current state of affairs and update you on the new trends in the area. From Freeview to Pay TV – and of course, the best of streaming – we’ve compared the deals to bring you the best advice. We’ve navigated the complex fine print and offers of all the big and small TV providers to get you the info you really need. Then there’s bundling, which has become an increasingly popular and affordable way of accessing top-quality TV content for millions of Brits.

Television in the UK is made up broadly of Freeview, streaming, and subscription – i.e. Pay TV – services. The advent of streaming, however, has changed the way subscription services operate, with content purchasable on a per film or per series basis, as well as for specific events – i.e. sporting matches or cultural occasions. Technological changes also mean that modern TV viewers can pause, rewind, fast-forward and record certain programs. In the UK, we’re also really lucky to have one of the world’s most extensive set of free-to-air stations, which broadcast top-class content without a subscription.   

Freeview

If you’ve ever lived in a country where cable or pay TV is the norm, British TV must seem like some kind of low-cost mirage. The core of British television is definitely Freeview. Freeview is the UK’s free-to-air television service, which has the country’s most popular channels and TV programs. Funded through three main sources – television licences, advertising and taxation – Freeview is not exactly free, although to access it you’ll only need to pay for a set-top box so that you can connect. The television licence and fees paid in tax indirectly fund Freeview in the UK.

On the whole, while the vast majority of the roughly 500 channels that appear on British TV are not on Freeview – the amount of Freeview channels around 90 including standard and high definition, as well as radio channels. However, Freeview is far more popular than subscription TV. In total, 95 percent of the most-watched programs in the UK each year are on Freeview, from sporting events to reality and scripted programming. Therefore, when deciding which TV service you’re signing up to, the question is very much what you’ll be getting in addition to Freeview – rather than whether or not Freeview will be on the menu.

Streaming TV

Perhaps the biggest change to the TV market in the past 20 years has come from the advent of streaming. If you’re not familiar with the term, streaming – as the name may suggest – refers to the constant stream of top-class content that you’ll have at your very fingertips when you sign up. It also refers to the way we watch TV when we have access to a streaming provider, i.e. accompanied by the constant refrain of ‘just one more episode’. This is particularly the case in relation to TV series – and especially for drama. While in the past we’d have to draw the curtains and cancel all social engagements when the next episode of our favourite show was coming along – yeah, we’re looking at you Lost – these days, all it takes is a click of the ‘skip credits’ button and we’re on to the next one.

As streaming providers have grown in size and buying power, they’ve also begun to commission their own content. From stand-up comedy specials to movies and TV series, these ‘exclusives’ have improved in quality and scope. The 2019 Oscar nomination for Roma – which was produced by Netflix – marked the first time when exclusive content had received this kind of critical recognition.

In the UK – and particularly given the excellent programming offered by Freeview – streaming is an excellent complement to Freeview. Plenty of providers actually incorporate streaming into their offerings, which makes it far more convenient as everything is effectively in the one place. Aside from being more convenient – and in many cases cheaper – this willingness to work together is a welcome development among modern providers, with the customer being the one who ultimately benefits the most.

In the UK, some of the most popular streaming providers include Netflix and Amazon Prime. These operate according to an all-you-can-eat model, whereby you can stream as much or as little as you like for the one regular fee. The other main type of streaming is ‘on demand’. This will often cost you nothing per month – or a small membership fee – but you’ll have to pay for the content you want when you want it, i.e. to rent or buy a movie or TV series. Providers include iTunes, Rakuten TV, Now TV, Google Play and Sky, which also offers a one-off or weekly service to catch particular sporting fixtures.

Subscription TV

Subscription TV – otherwise known as pay TV or sometimes known as cable TV – is the other main way television is watched in the UK. While Freeview is great, subscription services lets you broaden your horizons and tune into loads of extra content – and quite often at an affordable cost. Subscription TV will usually require you to sign a longer-term deal – something like 12 to 18 months – but will often come with serious perks like line rental, easy-to-use set-top boxes and the possibility of bundling.

There are several different subscription providers, with some of the bigger names being Sky, Virgin Media, TalkTalk and BT. Each of these will integrate Freeview with their service – meaning all your TV will be in the one place – while they’ll also give you the option to sign up to streaming as well. Generally speaking, signing up to a subscription provider will require the installation of a satellite dish and or a receiver, or a broadband connection (typically when you sign up as part of a bundle).

Bundling

Bundling is the option of purchasing a group of different products from the same company, whether it be television, home phone, mobile phone, broadband or other services. Bundling is a great way to save money and maximise convenience, which makes it great for customers. You get presented with one bill, while providers will often throw in extra perks and discounts to get you to commit to them. If there is an issue, it also makes contacting the party responsible much easier.

The phrase ‘buy in bulk and save’ probably makes you think of a discount store where you have to buy six months’ worth of toilet paper at a time. But the same principle basically applies to bundling (except without the toilet paper). Regardless of how many people live in your house or apartment and how they are connected – from a single flat, to a family to a large share house – they are all likely to have diverse yet interconnected telecommunications needs. By bundling, you can cater to all of these – while saving money and in the most cases getting an improved service. Bundling is a good option for individuals looking to maximise their entertainment, such as seniors and pensioners, as well as students and families with children.

Sometimes it can seem a little daunting to bundle, primarily as the cost per month may appear higher. However, when you compare it to each of your separate bills and what you are paying, the cost will appear far more reasonable. Then there’s the perks, which often include cost savings (i.e. no connection fee, free modems or handsets) as well as other bonus deals like a free Google Home or discounts from associated companies. So if you’re looking to improve on your TV options, don’t rule out bundling as a way to pay less money while getting yourself more.

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