The number of competing streaming services – Netflix, Amazon, Apple and, from later this month, Disney Plus – means that a monthly satellite or cable subscription will no longer guarantee you access to everything you might want to watch. It also means that loyalty to a particular network or service is a thing of the past; many of us now hop from one to the other as easily as we used to get up to change channels.
BT acknowledged this last month when it threw out its old pay-TV model in favour of flexible bundles which allow subscribers to change their channels every month. In practice, this means you can cancel your sports package in May and switch to cartoons for the summer holidays. BT has also integrated Now TV – which is essentially Sky delivered over the internet instead of by satellite – for the first time.
While others may come along and out-flex BT, this is unquestionably the subscription model of the future. Long-term contracts will be gone; demand will be driven by what’s on and when.
Yet despite the increasing reliance on programmes delivered through your broadband box, none of this changes the reliance on the one component that has been a constant since the days of Dixon of Dock Green: your aerial.
BT, in common with TalkTalk and a few other suppliers, delivers your pictures through a hybrid system that harnesses conventional airwaves and contemporary fibre cables. Unplug either and you lose half the service. You can’t even set up the online side of things unless you have an aerial in the first place.
This is a nuisance if you want to put a TV in a room without an aerial socket readily available. In an age of wi-fi, calling out someone with a ladder to run a cable from the roof and through a hole in the window frame seems like an anachronism – but with all-in-one subscription packages like this, there is no way around it.
You can, however, become more flexible even than BT still and do away with your aerial or satellite dish completely. Plugging in a streaming box to the back of your set turns it more or less into a computer. You can access not only catch-up services and premium networks but also some live TV channels, just as normal.
It’s perhaps the best solution for transportable TVs, which you can then take from room to room with no need for a new hook-up each time.
By far the best box for the purpose is the Roku Express, which costs £30 and streams in high-definition from all the principal services, without favouring one over another. It’s not perfect, though – the TVPlayer app, which livestreams most of the main UK networks, was withdrawn from Roku and several other platforms last year, and there is no guarantee that others which work at present will continue to do so. However, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 apps are among those offering live streams.
This type of aggregation of free and paid-for content from different sources – aerial, satellite and the internet – is the holy grail of TV providers right now, and BT’s mix-and-match packages are a first step in that direction. But it’s a movable feast. A few years from now, the idea of paying BT or any other single supplier to satisfy all the family’s viewing will be as redundant as the aerial man and his ladders.