How to make the most of watching TV online

ByAnthony Hill

With a decent broadband connection you can enjoy TV shows and movies any time you like. Here's our guide to watching programmes and films online...

Some of the world's very best TV is available to watch on the internet for free, either "live" at the same time it's being broadcast, as a download to view later on or streamed via online catch-up services.

There are a just a few things you need before you are able watch TV online. These include reliable broadband, a fast connection and a suitable download limit.

Follow our guide for top tips and advice on how to make the most of video-on-demand services and watching TV programmes online.


How do I watch TV online?

Catch-up TV platforms and video on-demand services let you watch what you want whenever you like, without the traditional constraints of a television schedule. You can watch programmes on your PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone, and even some MP3 players and games consoles.

There are now lots of places you can legally download and watch TV programmes online. BBC iPlayer and Channel 4's 4oD have proven massively popular with the UK audience.

Channel 5, ITV and Sky Broadband ( also offer similar services allowing you to watch their shows online, at a time that suits you.

In addition to the broadcasters' on-demand and catch-up TV platforms, there are subscription services to stream movies and TV shows that may not be available elsewhere. The likes of Netflix and LOVEFiLM offer packages from as little as £5 per month. 

What's the difference between streaming and downloading TV online?

There are basically two ways to enjoy TV online:

  • Streaming
  • Downloading

Streaming  - This is the quickest and simplest way to watch TV online. Streamed programmes play directly over the internet, as soon as you hit the "play" button. You will need to be connected to the internet for the full duration of the programme, so if you require subtitles, want to watch offline or in high-definition (HD), downloading may be a better option.

Downloading - Downloaded programmes are saved on your computer's hard drive, and can be watched whenever you want, even if you're no longer connected to the internet. However, many have digital rights management (DRM) protection that locks them after a day, a week or a month, preventing you from watching them again and again.

Top tip - If you don't have to watch the programmes live, it's a good idea to download them overnight. Traffic shaping, which slows down your connection - and therefore your downloads as well - is applied by most broadband providers during peak hours.


What broadband package do I need to watch TV online?

You don't need any particular broadband package to watch TV online, but you will need one with a high download limit, a reliable connection and fast speeds.

Some internet providers, such BT ( and Sky ( as have truly unlimited packages specifically designed for heavy downloaders.

While many firms offer "unlimited" services, there is usually a fair usage policy in place meaning you could be penalised for ignoring contractual guidelines. A "truly unlimited" package, with no fair usage policy, is much better if you stream or download a lot of TV and/or movies.

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If you want the very fastest broadband, to ensure no interruptions for "buffering" when you stream TV online, Virgin Media ( is known to offer the UK's fastest fibre optic broadband.

Virgin Media does not yet provide a cable service everywhere in the UK, but there is also BT Infinity, which offers a similar experience delivered via BT's telephone network.

Top tip - Use our broadband calculator to compare packages and find one that best suits your needs.


Do I need superfast broadband to watch TV online?

Usually, a minimum connection speed of at 2Mb is required in order to enjoy TV online. The faster your broadband, the less you'll be affected by annoying pauses for "buffering".

However, for "live" programmes that are streamed, you will need a constant speed of around 2Mb or more. If your speed dips too low, which can be caused by several people using the same home connection, your live programme won't run smoothly.

So while you don't need superfast speeds, fibre optic broadband will give you the best experience. Visit our fibre optic broadband page to compare packages. 

Top tip - Check the details of your existing package, and use our free to see how your provider is performing. If you think you will regularly use video downloading or streaming services, then considerswitching broadband providerand choose a package with a faster connection speed.

Download our free guide to speeding up your broadband.


Will watching TV online affect my download limit?

You will need to keep an eye on your download limit if you regularly watch TV online. Even if you're streaming, rather than actually downloading shows, all the data received by your modem will count against your monthly download allowance.

If you do lots of streaming or downloading, your connection speed being throttled during peak times. Some customers with set download limits may even be charged for excessive usage if they repeatedly rinse their monthly allowance.

Read our guide on .

Can I watch online programmes on my TV?

If your TV has a socket for a VGA or HDMI cable - which most new flat screen TVs will have - you should be able to connect your computer to your TV and watch online programmes or movies on your television screen.

There are also "smart" TVs on the market which combine the features of a traditional television set with those of PC, allowing you to connect with broadband and browse the web on-screen. You may also be able to access online TV and on-demand streaming services directly this way.

Top tip- For a better connection from your PC or laptop, with a clearer picture and sharper sound, and the ability to watch high-definition content, try using a HDMI cable. However, while most new TVs have a HDMI socket, not all computers do, so you might need to buy an adaptor if you want to watch content in this way.

Do I need a TV licence to watch programmes online?

As a general rule, you do not need to have a TV licence if you're watching pre-recorded shows on your computer, even with the BBC iPlayer's catch-up service.

However, you are often not allowed to watch "live" programmes at the same time they are being broadcast on TV unless you have a valid TV licence.

You should always check the terms and conditions of your chosen service before you start streaming shows. Licensing agreements will vary between individual broadcasters.

How much does watching TV online cost?

Most online TV services let you download and watch programmes for free. However, some content require a one-off payment or monthly subscription.

All content on the BBC iPlayer and ITV Player is free to watch, though you will need a TV licence to watch anything that is broadcast "live" at the same time it is shown on television.

Most of the programmes on Channel 4's 4oD service are free, however, other programmes and films are paid for one a pay-per-view or subscription basis. Most of the programmes on Demand Five are also free, though like 4oD, some have to be paid for, and prices can vary.

Top tip- There are lots of TV clips available on YouTube, so if you can't find what you want for free from the broadcaster, try YouTube instead. However, the quality may be reduced, and you may have to watch your favourite programme in numerous instalments.

Can I use a British catch-up TV service abroad?

While some online TV services can be used abroad, others, such as BBC iPlayer cannot. Because of rights agreements, the iPlayer programmes are only available to users who stream or download them in the UK.

However, you can watch downloaded BBC iPlayer programmes while abroad if you download them in the UK. But bear in mind that they will expire after a certain amount of time.

Top tip- Online TV and on-demand services such as Netflix can be accessed in countries other than the UK and allow you to watch a number of British films and TV programmes.

Read our guide on film streaming services

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