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Coming to the UK?

If you are coming to the UK from abroad, here is an introduction to the television services you can watch for free.

If you are coming to the UK from abroad, here is an introductio
published on UK Free TV

Television is provided in the UK using terrestrial transmitters with four or five analogue channels and a free-to-air digital service called Freeview. In towns and cities, subscription cable services are provided by NTL-Telewest. Both a free-to-air satellite (referred to as Freesat) and Sky subscription satellite services can be received in most of the UK and around eight million homes having a dish.

There are three types of broadcasting organizations in the UK:

  • Public corporations
  • Private companies with public service commitments
  • Private companies

Public corporations

There are three public corporations - which do not have shareholders and do not make profits which use their income to provide a range of television channels, radio stations and online services. These are:


The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is funded from The Licence Fee, which is collected by the government from each household in the UK. It is mandatory to pay the television licence fee of 131.50 if you own a television set, or any other equipment that is capable of receiving television this includes set-top boxes and computer-based receivers. Because of the licence-fee funding, the BBC's channels do not carry any advertising. The BBC run:

  • BBC ONE, a mass-audience mixed schedule television station that broadcast on analogue, Freeview, digital satellite and cable. The channel features local, national and international news programs, drama, sport, current affairs, comedy, nature, documentaries, children's and entertainment. Almost all the programmes are first-run and created and made in the UK.
  • BBC TWO, a minority-audience mixed schedule television channel also broadcast on analogue, Freeview, digital satellite and cable. This channel offers an alternative schedule featuring comedy, music, documentaries, news, quizzes and so on.
  • BBC Radio. On analogue sets there are five stations, the first dedicated to popular new music, the second to easy listening, a third to classical music. Radio 4 features a full schedule of speech radio encompassing news, consumer items, documentaries and interview programs. Five Live is a speech-based news and sport network.
  • They also provide six digital television channels. CBBC is for school children, cBeebies for pre-school children and broadcast during the daytime. In the evening BBC THREE is for a younger audience and features comedy, drama and quizzes. BBC FOUR is a high-brow channel with documentaries, classical music and arts programs. There is also a parliament channel, and a 24-hour UK and international news channel.
  • On digital radio (known as DAB and also on Freeview, digital satellite and cable) there is "new black music" on 1Xtra, "guitar-based" 6Music, "classic comedy, drama and children's" on BBC7, the Asian Network, plus the World Service Europe.

Channel 4

The Channel Four Corporation is funded by the advertising breaks in its programs. They provide:

  • Channel 4 (on analogue in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and throughout the UK on Freeview, Satellite and cable) provide a mixed schedule of news, entertainment, documentaries and reality television which has to provide an alternative view and cater for Britain's minorities.
  • Digital channels E4 (Freeview, part of pay satellite and cable packages) which is an popular entertainment-only channel which premiers home-grown programmes and the best of US television. More4 is a channel with serious programs, usually time-shifted programmes from the main channel. Film4 shows UK and international films from 3pm to 3am.


In parts of the Wales principality the Welsh language is spoken as a first tongue. To cater for these people the S4C provides the forth analogue television channel in Wales.

Private companies

One company, British Sky Broadcasting provides both the subscription service for the very popular digital satellite system, and a large number of channels. As well as providing the receiver boxes and satellite dishes to homes, and collecting the subscriptions, they also run:

  • Sky Sports, a premium range of channels that show the national sports: football, rugby and cricket and Sky Sport News (also on Freeview) is a 24 hour sports news network.
  • Sky Movies, more than ten premium channels that show the television premiers of Hollywood and British movies as well as classic films.
  • Sky News, a free-to-air 24-hour breaking news network.
  • Sky One, Two and Three, which show the best US drama and entertainment shows. Sky Three is on Freeview.
Sky also runs a few a handfuls of other music, quiz and travel channels.

Private companies with public service commitments

ITV runs the third analogue channel (called ITV1) in England and Wales, specialising in drama and entertainment and regional news. In Scotland, STV broadcasts much the same and UTV provide the same in Northern Ireland.

ITV has a range of digital channels on Freeview: ITV4 is sports and US programmes for a male audience, ITV3 broadcast classic ITV (and, confusingly, some BBC) programs, ITV2 complements ITV1 and CITV has programmes for children.

In some parts of the UK, "five" broadcasts classic US programs, films plus a full range of UK programs. Five is also on Freeview, cable and satellite.

Bringing equipment to the UK

If you want to bring a television set from outside the UK, in many cases it will not pick up the analogue television signals. Most other EU counties use the PAL-I or SECAM standard which will display the UK analogue channels as black and white, with no sound. Usually these sets can be used in combination with a Freeview receiver (or satellite or DVD player) using the SCART connection.

Most UK satellite dishes point at the Astra 2 satellites which are located at 28.2 degrees east over the equator. If you bring a satellite receiver to the UK, you will probably need a new larger dish, or if you reuse a dish, you may need to have it repositioned to point to different satellites to get TV from home.


By 2012, all television transmissions in the UK will be digital. Sky stopped their analogue satellite service some time ago, and the number of analogue cable subscriber will reach zero quite soon.

Freeview provides free-to-air services that require only either an integrated digital television or a small set-top box to watch. If you know your postcode, you can check which services you can receive by clicking here. Set-top boxes can be obtained from many stores, often for a little as 20.

Fitting a Freeview box is simple:

  • Unplug your television set from the mains
  • Unplug the aerial lead from the television set
  • Connect the SCART cable from the Freeview box to your television
  • Plug the aerial lead from into the set top box vPlug the Freeview box and television back into the mains
When you first start a Freeview set-top box it will automatically scan all the UK transmission channels (C21 to C68) for the multiplexes of channels. For most people the box will find all six frequencies which provide 35 television channels and a large selection of radio stations.

In some places the aerial will be of the wrong 'group' to receive all the channels, and it is necessary to upgrade the aerial to a 'wideband' type.

Freeview is only transmitted at the moment from the main 80 transmitters. Starting in 2008, all the relay transmitters will be converted to digital transmission, and this will only provide three of the six Freeview multiplexes with the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and five services.

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