Rock and a hard place 

1 February 2002 tbs.pm/1799

A trip to the ancestral seat in a leafy suburb east of Manchester gave me the opportunity to try out my parent’s new Sky dish. I’ve had an ITV Digital box since spring 2000 and was eager to compare the two, especially to see if I was missing anything!

Sky One

The way pay-TV is sold is usually in the UK is on the basis of films and sport, but neither my parents nor myself have much of an interest in them.

We both have basic packages consisting of just all the primary channels available on each platform. The results of the comparison without these two programme areas are quite interesting…

Channel Line-up

ITV Digital has around 60 channels whilst Sky Digital has hundreds. How can you compare two systems with such radically different capacities? It’s a fair question until you look at what is on the latter.

Sky offers a huge block of channels dedicated to films, which are time-shifted throughout the day. This increases the number of channels, without actually increasing the amount of programming.

Viewers with both boxes get a number of free-to-air shopping channels. I lost count of how many there were on Sky, but at least three began with the name “Simply”. ITV Digital offers you just two.

There are also a large number of channels on Sky aimed at various sections of the Asian community. Not being Asian, nor that interested in watching people trying to sell me tacky jewellery or sets of towels, neither really appealed to me that much.

ITV Digital claims to have the most popular of the pay-TV channels, and UK Gold, Granada Plus, E4 and Discovery are all on the platform.

When it comes just to plain entertainment, unless you’re a fan of the Sci-Fi Channel, or are desperate to watch UK Drama, then ITV Digital offers most of what the average viewer wants.

In other areas, ITV Digital looks sadly lacking. There are very few channels devoted to kids, factual programming or music. By the sheer capacity of the platform, Sky wins hands down, as long as you want to watch those channels!

If you don’t care about MTV2 or have no interest in Einstein TV then you may well ask “what’s the point in paying for them?” Saying that, the costs per month of both platforms are pretty similar.

Many of the factual and kids stations on Sky are time delayed, showing programmes that were shown on the main channel an hour before.

Initially I couldn’t see the point of this, but as I scanned through the factual section on the electronic programme guide, I realised the uses these channels.

Quite often I flicked through to find an interesting documentary half way though, and the ability to wait a bit before seeing it from the beginning can be quite useful.

Personally I saw little use in the time-shifted channels for kids programming. Perhaps broadcasters think children have such poor attention spans, that they can’t remember a programme they watched an hour before.

One thing that Sky offer that ITV Digital can’t is radio. Most national radio stations are available, along with various digital and satellite only stations. Listening to the radio via your TV is a rather bizarre experience.

I found my eyes being continually drawn to the TV, even though there was nothing there apart from some basic text information about the programme. The lack of static and interference was very nice though.

Both platforms fall down on one thing – original, good quality programming. On the Entertainment channels, there are very few new British programmes.

Many stations seem to consist of little more than US imports or repeats from the archives of the main UK broadcasters. Ironically, viewers are often paying extra to view repeats of programmes they could have watched for free a few weeks before.

Digital terrestrial television offers one advantage – full regional television. Regional services in England on satellite are often restricted, especially for news programmes.

Sky subscribers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do get full services from the BBC and ITV.

Programme Guides

To help you through the channels, Sky Digital offers an electronic programme guide to help you choose what to watch. Split into different genres, you can scroll through the channel listings with your remote.

You can even set it to remind you of programmes you want to watch later or programme it to change channels automatically if you wish to record programmes.

In contrast, ITV Digital’s boxes are more limited with just “Now and Next” programme information. It does offer a timer function, but this is more like setting your VCR in that you have to know all the times and channel details.

If you know all the details, it’s much faster to use, but for those who just wish to browse, not as useful.

Personally I found Sky Digital’s array of full screen menus rather bewildering, feeling bombarded with the number of options. In contrast on ITV Digital, the only time you ever need to enter into the menu system is to set the timer, but this is mainly due to the fewer available functions on that box.

Most of the ITV Digital remote controls also have handy “Subtitles” button for turning subtitles on and off, and a “Wide” for switching between fullscreen and letterbox formats.

I personally have found these very useful, and I could find no way of easily performing these functions on the Sky box without going into the menu system.

Interactive Services

Both platforms have interactive services, although ITV Digital offers little more than a few, very slow TV guides. Sky has more, with different companies offering interactive shopping and banking.

Quite often though, the box will start connecting to the phone without telling you, which I found annoying. In some cases, it didn’t even tell you it was doing it, and the phone numbers dialled are usually local rate, not free.

If you’re not careful, then an unexpectedly large phone bill could be on the way.

Both platforms have interactive services for programmes. On satellite these often include the ability to see different camera angles, or hear different commentary.

Many, though, are just a waste of space, offering little more than a quiz, or the option to take part in a vote.

Overall

To be honest, I personally saw little I wanted on Sky that I didn’t already have on ITV Digital. Yes, Sky has more channels, but quantity doesn’t mean quality. I lost count of how many channels were showing Star Trek or Tom and Jerry.

Film fans will probably delight at the huge number of film channels available on satellite, but for sport, each has some that the other doesn’t have. If you are prepared to pay your money, you can take your choice.

If you don’t like sport, or don’t want the films, there’s very little to choose between them. Sky has more specialist channels, whilst ITV Digital sticks to the mainstream ones.

Which platform, if any, you go for is up to you. The only real reason I can suggest for choosing ITV Digital is if you feel sorry for underdogs!

Ultimately though it is what you want to watch that will help make your decision, and many viewers will no doubt be just as happy with the extra free to air channels like BBC Knowledge and ITV2.

With new boxes available soon that allow access to just the free channels on digital TV through an aerial, many people may well wait to avoid subscription charges all together.

Since this article was written, ITV Digital closed and was replaced by Freeview. BBC Knowledge has become BBC Four.

Your comment

Enter it below