Subscription costs could cloud your viewing heaven

Personal video recorders seem to promise much, but package prices vary widely. Chiara Cavaglieri reports

Sports fans have a multitude of events to enjoy over the summer, with football World Cup qualifiers, the British Open golf, and, of course, the Ashes, to mention just a few.

Many of those wanting to watch the action from their couch have turned to the latest digital technology to enhance their viewing pleasure and ensure they don't miss a shot, stroke or goal.

Only a fortnight ago, Ofcom revealed that the number of personal video recorders (PVRs) sold in the UK has reached almost nine million, an increase of nearly one million since the start of the year. "We strongly recommend that everyone who is getting digital TV buys a PVR. We work with a huge variety of customers, young and old, and they all constantly rave about them," says Charlie Ponsonby, chief executive officer of digital TV and broadband comparison service

These digital recording devices have revolutionised the television experience and allow viewers to take control with the option to fast forward adverts, store programmes to watch and even pause live television when the phone rings. The big players are Sky+, with five million customers; Freeview+ with more than 2.6 million and V+ from Virgin, which has about 600,000 subscribers. Other options include BT Vision and Top Up TV and a range of high-street PVR boxes.

"The choice of PVR on the high street is almost limitless, but the ones that come with digital TV suppliers are very impressive and heavily discounted – or free – due to the channel subscription you will pay," says Michael Phillips of price comparison service The advantages of these devices may seem clear but the big question is: how much do consumers have to pay for the privilege of controlled viewing?

First, there is the initial cost of the box itself and/or installation fees. With Virgin Media, for example, the V+ box is free but there is a £99 installation fee. After this there is a monthly fee to pay, usually on a minimum 12-month contract. Right now the Sky+ box is free with packages costing from £16.50 per month, but as soon as you start adding sports and movies that price shoots up. Combining all the entertainment packages on offer plus Sky Sports and Movies channels would cost £46 per month.

With these kinds of figures, it's clear that a more advanced viewing experience doesn't come cheap, but there are ways to cut costs. First, for anyone not wanting to cough up for a monthly subscription, a Freeview box is one of the cheapest and most popular options. Viewers can make the most of 48 digital channels and boxes start from as little as £20. For those not wanting to miss out on all the mod cons, there are Freeview PVRs available on the high street with prices ranging from £60 to £470. Similarly, Freesat PVRs can be purchased with prices starting at about £200 and available storage for up to 200 hours of programming. However, with both options premium sports and movie packages are not available.

Another money-saving option is to "bundle", by combining TV, phone and broadband packages from one provider. Bundles typically offer much better value for money and could save on average £360 per year, according to Simplify Digital. But deals do vary from one week to the next.

With Tiscali, TV bundling is compulsory and subject to a minimum contract of 12 months. Prices start at £19.99 per month for TV Variety Pack, up to 8MB broadband, phone line rental and UK weekend and international calls. Sky Sports and Movies can be added to packages starting at £22.50 per month. There is also a £50 charge for an upgrade to a PVR, which enables you to record two channels and watch a third.

There are several other considerations when purchasing a digital TV package, and one of the most important is to check the contract length. With Sky, for example, although a 12-month commitment is required for its basic service, customers are free to switch from one specific channel pack to another from month to month.

Also, viewers who already subscribe to a TV package but want to switch to something more advanced should always contact their current provider to see what they might offer instead. Providers want to keep their existing customers so may well come up trumps with a discounted deal to prevent them from taking their business elsewhere.

Of course, TV watchers who have so far shunned the advent of digital may soon have to change their approach. The national switchover from analogue to digital TV has already begun and will roll across the country over the next few years. As a result, digital refuseniks could soon find their screens going blank.