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What is Digital TV and how does it work?

Digital TV uses digital transmissions to broadcast audio and video, as opposed to analogue transmissions in the more archaic form of television from decades past. It represents the biggest leap in the evolution of television technology since the advent of colour televisions in the 1950s, offering superior quality, more variety and moreaccessibility than ever before.

Digital TV enables the broadcasting of high-definition (HD) television formats that provide resolutions that are substantially greater than standard definition. Many types of digital TV can be accessed over the internet using a high-speed broadband connection, while some can even be accessed on mobile devices and on-demand, anytime you like.

Digital TV availability

Between 2008 and 2012, as part of the so-called ‘digital switchover’, the UK replaced the entire analogue TV system with a digital one. That means digital TV is already the new standard that’s been adopted by the biggest broadcasters and providers and will gradually become the dominant form of television as more and more households make the switch by subscribing to a digital TV package.

Digital TV providers

Sky, Virgin Media, BT Vision and TalkTalk are the main packaged/premium digital TV providers in the UK. Freesat and Freeview, meanwhile, offer free-to-air digital terrestrial television channels.

However, from 2012, Freeview, operated by BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky and Arqiva, is being phased out in favour of a new ‘hybrid’ set-top box developed by said companies, plus Channel 5, BT and TalkTalk.

On-demand digital TV

On-demand television, also known as ‘video on demand (VOD)’, enables you to watch what you like, when you like. On-demand TV services offer a wide range of shows and films at your fingertips for enjoying any time of the day on a variety of devices, including your home computer, video games console and smartphone.

Some on-demand services require a telephone connection, but many can also be accessed using just a compatible device and a broadband internet connection.

Some of the most popular on-demand digital TV services out there include Sky Anytime+ and Now TV, Netflix and LoveFilm.

Catch-up digital TV

Catch-up television is quite similar to on-demand, in that it allows you to view shows and film at your own convenience. The difference is that these are programmes that have already been broadcast on regular TV and are available for a limited time, usually seven to 30 days, for you to catch up on.

Unlike on-demand TV, most catch-up digital TV services are free to access using an internet connection (supported by ads in most cases). They are also available on a wide selection of devices, such as games consoles and smart televisions.

The most popular catch-up TV services in the UK are BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD (4 on Demand) and Demand 5.


YouView is an Ofcom-approved set-top box developed by a coalition of broadcasters and telecoms providers that gives users access to a deluge of digital terrestrial television channels, radio stations and on-demand and catch-up TV services using an internet connection or through an aerial.

It also offers PVR (Personal Video Recorder) functionality that lets you record programmes to enjoy later.

The YouView box can be purchased for a one-off fee of £299, but can also be snapped up free with a TalkTalk Plus plan with no additional monthly subscription required.

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