Virgin Media customers trying to downgrade their television packages following the loss of several popular channels are being told that they can only do so if they sign a new 12-month contract.

Two weeks ago a financial dispute between UKTV and Virgin led to the cable provider withdrawing 10 of its most popular TV channels – including Dave, Drama and Yesterday. The move led to many of Virgin’s 4 million customers wondering why they were paying for a TV service they could get for nothing with a basic Freeview box.

Reader Kate Losowsky, from London, described her attempt to downgrade her broadband TV package as “hell”. She pays Virgin £80 a month, or £960 a year, for her TV, internet and phone package.

“Once they removed the UKTV channels, which are the ones I watch, I had to buy a new TV with Freeview to get them back. I’ve been trying to downgrade my package, but I have been told that they will not let me do so unless I sign up to a new 12-month contract and lock me in for another year. That doesn’t seem right,” she says.

Julia Burrows, from Bristol, is similarly nonplussed by Virgin’s stance. She has been told that if she wants to ditch her basic TV package her bill will rise from £60 to £75 a month. “Before calling we tried to view our contract online on our Virgin account, but it stated it could not find any contract,” she says.

“We also looked at the price that a new customer pays for a landline and internet deal, which is £44 a month. We didn’t expect to pay this, but we didn’t expect the bill to rise. We have researched other providers, but the internet speeds are very poor. It feels like we are trapped in a deal we don’t want,” she says.

At one stage it looked as though Virgin Media customers were also going to lose access to ITV channels, although this was averted when the firms struck a deal earlier this week.

The problem many Virgin customers face is that they have no working Openreach phone line at home. Virgin delivers its services by cable, so those switching to BT, Sky or TalkTalk may require a new line to be installed, which can be a lengthy process.

Ofcom, the media regulator, has so far declined to intervene to say whether affected consumers should be allowed to leave penalty free.

A Virgin Media spokesperson said it has offered both readers lower bills: “We’re are as frustrated as our customers that UKTV has removed its channels from Virgin TV. We are ready to bring back UKTV’s free channels for our customers immediately with UKTV’s permission. These are available for free over the air and online.”

Ofcom has told the landline/broadband providers that it wants them to inform customers when they come off their minimum contract period, after finding that 10m households are probably overpaying because they did nothing at the end of their contract. The news rules will be consulted upon for two months.

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