Satellite, cable, Freeview, PVR, broadband, video-on-demand and telly-down-the-phone. Confusing, isn’t it?
The power of the television remote control has never been so great. With more than 350 television channels from which to choose, as well as interactive extras like digital videoing and television libraries, the couch potato trigger finger has never had it so good.
But the bewildering array of hi-tech viewing options comes at a price, with all the choice giving even the most hardy of telly addicts a headache.
So where do you start?
The days of surviving on only five terrestrial channels are now virtually dead. The government wants all television channels broadcast via digital signals rather than analogue by 2008. Viewers can opt to watch digital television using either a set-top box, a digital television set, or from satellite, cable or signing up to telly-down-the-phone.
Consumer body Which? believes that the most economical way to try out the digital market is probably to sign up to Freeview with a £50 set-top box plugging into the back of your television. Using a traditional rooftop aerial, you can access more than 30 television channels for free — just as long as they are sitting on top of one of the three-quarters of British homes with adequate reception.
The channels available include the existing terrestrial BBC1 and BBC2, ITV1, and Channels 4 and 5 plus a range of digital newcomers such as BBC Three, ITV2, Price-Drop TV, CBeebies and E4. If you are on the lookout for a new television set you can save buying a set-top box for Freeview by splashing out on an integrated digital television (iDTV), which already has the necessary technology installed. However, David Holes, a researcher at Which?, points out: “Not all set-top boxes are the same. Technology is moving fast and many older boxes now already appear dated.
“Some latest models also offer personal video recorder (PVR) facilities enabling you to freeze or record programmes to watch later. Another extra with some of the new boxes is Top-Up TV where cards can be purchased to buy more TV channels.
The cheapest set-top boxes can be picked up from supermarkets for as little as £30 while the most sophisticated cost more than £100. Already two thirds of the population have signed up to some form of multi-channel television deal and the numbers are rising, according to watchdog Ofcom. Freeview has so far attracted 5.5m customers, according to Ofcom. The digital television market leader is Sky with about 7.5m households, while cable has the lion’s share of the rest, and is in 3.3m homes. Competitors all admit Freeview can work out cheaper but believe that the extra options they can offer means they provide better value for money.
Sky is accessible to 99 per cent of the population, though viewers have to fix a satellite dish to the side of their house and have a set-top box installed. By far its most popular offer is the Sky World package at £42.50 a month, a telly addict’s dream with more than 350 television channels on offer. A Sky spokesman says: “All these extra channels may seem unnecessary to many customers but the deal is all about offering the maximum choice.”
The latest gimmick to attract new customers is the personal video recorder (PVR), which enables viewers to pause and record favourite shows. Sky currently has the edge over the competition by embracing the PVR capability with a Sky+ box costing a one-off £89 purchased separately from television deals.
“The digital recorder technology enables you to record up to 40 hours of programmes and file them in a library to watch later. It can revolutionise the way you watch TV,” says the Sky spokesman. Hot on its heels are the cable providers Telewest and NTL which hope to enter this market with their own similar technology later this year.
They are also rolling out additional TV-on demand libraries where a variety of different programmes are already stored away and can be watched at will.
Alexandra Legg, a spokeswoman for Telewest, says: “TV providers are increasingly focusing on lifestyle and not just the number of channels being offered. We want to give viewers the opportunity to choose not only what they want to watch but also when they watch it.”
Telewest and NTL have a stranglehold on the cable television market, currently only available to half the population. If workers have not already dug up your road to lay fibre-optic cables it is not an option.
Even though cable deals can offer more than a hundred channels, for the sheer number of television channels Sky cannot be beaten. However, cable deals include free phone lines and as well as instant access to broadband deals for an extra cost, which may be better value.
Telewest’s favourite deal is the Supreme Pack at £26 a month, also with more than 100 television channels as well as a free phone line and discounted phone calls. The most popular NTL Family Pack deal costs £30-a-month and also provides more than 100 channels plus free phone line and discounted phone calls.
A new challenger in the digital television market is HomeChoice, which provides television down a BT phone line. It is currently only available in London and Stevenage but hopes to go nationwide next year. The most popular HomeChoice deal is the Base Pack, costing £17.99 a month for 35 television channels plus a basic video-on-demand deal. Cost includes broadband connection and discounted phone calls but customers must also have a BT phone line, an extra £10.50 a month.
Lucy Gaynor, of the utility and television comparison website uSwitch, says: “The first thing to ask yourself is what do I watch on the telly. Freeview offers great basic choice but if you are a sports fan or movie buff then you will probably be better off with Sky or a cable provider. Do not discount HomeChoice if you can receive it.
“However, there is no need to rush in as technology seems to be improving choice all the time. Next year we even expect TV to be available on the internet.”
Gaynor adds: “Be aware that with TV deals you often tie yourself into a 12-month contract, so it pays to do your homework before signing up.” No matter which television provider you end up with, all viewers must pay an additional £126.50 a year for a colour licence.