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  • The BBC Television Licence

    The BBC Television Licence:
    A TV Ownership Tax That Is Not So Easily Avoided


    by Ron Kaufman



    "Using a television without an appropriate licence is a criminal offence. Every day we catch an average of 1,200 people using a TV without a licence. There is no valid excuse for using a television and not having a TV Licence, but some people still try - sometimes with the most ridiculous stories ever heard. Our detection equipment will track down your TV. The fact that our enquiry officers are now so well equipped with the latest technology means that there is virtually no way to avoid detection."
    -- from the official website of the British Television Licensing Authority, May 2003

    In the United Kingdom, citizens must pay a licence if they own a television set. That's right, a TV tax. For Americans, the whole idea of an annual tax to own a television borders on the absurd. However, in the UK, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is a government agency that has the power to tax and enforce laws. In order to obtain funding, the BBC requires that anyone using its services must pay for them. So, if you own a TV set and live in the UK, you could conceivably turn on the BBC broadcasts, so therefore you better pay.

    A colour television licence is 116 a year (around $192 US) and a black and white TV licence costs 38.50 a year (around $64 US). The cost goes up each year and this has lead some lawmakers to question the way the BBC is funded. However, until the law is changed, the TV licence remains -- leading to harassment of those who proclaim not to own a TV set and jail time for those that own TV sets and don't pay the tax.

    The BBC was formed on October 18, 1922 in order to provide the UK with radio broadcasts of impartial and public-centered news and entertainment. From its inception the BBC was a public service, so a radio licence was enacted in November, 1992 of 10 shillings in order to provide funding. The BBC's first broadcast was in January, 1923 and throughout the next few years, the company worked to diversify its broadcasts. The BBC aired news, entertainment, sports, weather and even replayed some American broadcasts. By 1938 the BBC added foreign language services and then served as an important source of information during World War II. Though disrupted because of the war, the BBC's television service started in ernest in June, 1946 when the radio licence was raised to 1 pound and a combined radio and TV licence was introduced for 2 pounds. Throughout the next half-century, the BBC increased it's broadcasts and offerings worldwide. It also increased the TV licence for British citizens.

    The Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1949 (and then amended in 1967) states that anyone who possess a television set as a means of receiving broadcasted transmissions must obtain a licence. All televisions in homes must be licensed. Televisions on college campuses must be licensed. Televisions in hotels must be licensed. Televisions in cars need a separate licence. This work is done by the Television Licensing Agency (TVLA).

    In fact, according the TVLA's official website, "any dealer who sells or rents TV receiving equipment (whether the equipment is new or second-hand) to notify TV Licensing within 28 days of each transaction, giving full details of the buyer or renter. Failure to do so may mean a 1,000 fine per offence for you, or any store manager employed by your company. August 2000 was the first time a major retailer was prosecuted under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1967. One of its outlets was fined a total of 2,500 including costs for not passing on details of six customers who had purchased television sets. More recently in October 2000, a second major retailer was found guilty of five such offences and fined over 2,000."

    The TVLA keeps track of all the TV sets in the country and who owns them. For an individual, failure to pay the licence fee usually results in fine of around 150, but it can go up to a maximum of 1,000.

    The graphic to the left illustrates why this licence is so important to the BBC. The company relies almost entirely on the licence fee for funding. With TV licenses accounting for nearly 2.4 billion in annual income, it takes payment seriously and has created an entire organization to enforce collection. Yes, that's right, the TV police.

    The TVLA monitors all uses of television sets in the United Kingdom while enforcement is handled through a company called The Capita Group. Capita Business Services boasts that its contract with the BBC (signed in February 2002) to collect licenses is worth 500 million over 10 years. In a press release, this private company states that with revenue of more than "898 million in 2002 and employing 17,000 people at more than 200 sites in the UK, Capita offers contact centre services to more than 150 large-scale public and private sector clients. It manages in excess of 29 million contacts a year."



    Collecting 2.4 billion a year is no small task. The TVLA/Capita "TV police" roam the countryside looking for non-licensed TVs illegally broadcasting 30-year-old re-runs of Monty Python. They use the "TV Licensing database" with details of more than 26 million UK addresses -- and their television sets. Also, part of the work is done in special "detector vans." The TVLA website explains that "every TV contains a component called the 'local oscillator', which emits a signal when the television is switched on. It's this signal that the equipment on our vans picks up. But, what if you live in a block of flats or a house without road access? Well if this is the case our enquiry officer can simply use one of our hand-held scanners. Measuring both direction and strength of signal, they make it easy for us to locate television sets in hard to reach places."

    With such sophisticated television-hunters on the prowl in England, the BBC has found that most people pay. As of March 2002, 23.7 million licenses had been established.

    "TV licence evasion is against the law. We prefer people to pay their licence rather than be prosecuted. It is our job to ensure that those who do pay should not be disadvantaged by those who don't, so we will continue to pursue all evaders whose actions make less money available for programs," stated the BBC.



    "The success of our actions is evident in the achievements of the last financial year (2001-2). Recent figures show we have brought in an additional 35 million for making programs by growing licenses by more than 300,000. We expect evasion to have reduced significantly again due to the growth in licenses and the 12% increase in evaders caught, up by 50,000 in the year to 448,000 by March 2002. (BBC response to the National Audit Office Report on May 15, 2002)

    The BBC reported that the reduced evasion added up to an additional 4.6 million, which is "the equivalent of three high-quality drama series." I guess the term "high-quality" is a subjective assessment.

    Though fines are a more common result for being caught without a licence, some people have actually received jail time. Although, pressure from the legislature is slowly reducing this practice. In 1995, 235 people were jailed for not paying the TV tax, while in 1999 that number had steadily been reduced to 24.

    The question remains: What if you don't have a TV? Unfortunately, this is a problem. In the eyes of the TVLA and BBC: "Doesn't everybody watch and own a television?"

    For some who don't like television and don't watch television and don't own a television, the TVLA becomes an annual ballet of phone calls, letters and TV licence inspectors. Duncan Bennett has created an entire website devoted to his struggles with the TVLA. "I have not had a television for many years," he states on his website. "One would think that would be an end to it, but it isn't. One cannot simply refuse this entertainment service, without appearing to be dishonest in the eyes of TV Licensing (a.k.a. the Television Licensing Authority or TVLA). The non-viewer does not fit into their framework. To them there are licence-payers and licence-dodgers and the non-viewer (with whom they really have no business) is treated as a suspect licence-dodger."

    In an email, Bennett wrote that "living without a television in the UK is not as simple as getting rid of the TV set. In the UK the licensing authority operates under legal statute giving them wide powers. The licensing authority have no real concept of the non-viewer and class them as suspect licence-dodgers. Thus, we are subject threats and other manner of persecution. Considering we are only refusing an entertainment service it is a ridiculous situation."

    His website shows annual correspondence with the TVLA as he futilely tries to convince them that he doesn't watch TV. "If you would like to get a feeling for the life of people in the UK who do not have television, please look at my web site," he says. His site has links to many organizations within the UK trying to end the practice of TV licensing.

    In one letter to Bennett, the TVLA stated that "there are a high number of people who advise us that they do not use TV equipment, but are subsequently found to be doing so." The letter goes on to say that if their inspectors find that no TV sets are present on the premises, then no further contact will be made -- until next year. "We do not cease our enquiries to any address on a permanent basis because we know that situations do change . . . and without regular checks our records would quickly become out of date."

    Then there's the case of Richard Butler-Stoney who received numerous letters from TVLA for his property in Norfolk. This property, Mileham, is an 11th century castle, unoccupied since 1250 and now home to birds and grazing cattle. He said he's not paying the fine: "We did have a good chuckle but it's not worth replying to. They're welcome to come and chase it up if they want to."

    In the United States, we are hit with so many taxes it's almost beyond belief. There is federal income tax, state income tax, state sales tax, city wage tax, home owners tax, a monthly tax on using a telephone line, special alcohol and cigarette taxes, outrageous hotel taxes and the list goes on and on. Fortunately, the government doesn't tax TV sets. Where the UK is home to 60 million people and 30.5 million television sets, the US has 280 million people and 219 million television sets. That would be a huge financial boost to the government should they decide to place an annual tax on owning a TV. However, there are a lot more firearms in the US and I can only dream of the possible violence that would ensue should a tax collector try and take away someone's TV.

    The BBC and TVLA harassment and annual questioning of non-viewers is appalling. The BBC should find a way to place their usage taxes on the signal and not the device itself. In the UK, owning a TV set for watching VHS tapes and DVDs does not require a TV licence. However, the BBC argues that those sets have the potential of receiving a signal, so a tax is levied. The BBC should realize that non-viewers do exist and find a more modern way to place a tax on TV usage that does not burden those who don't watch TV with defending their position every year.

    However, the bottom line is that in the UK, if you don't own a TV, you'll never have to pay the BBC. The TV Licence: just one more reason to kill your television.

    "Every man has his weakness. Mine was always just cigarettes."

  • #2
    They should rename it really!

    It was called a licence because when it was introduced in 1922 they didn't have the modern phrase "subscription TV", because they were the only broadcaster and because they didn't have any means of scrambling etc.

    In the 70s and 80s the BBC and various governments came under attack, mainly from comedians as it happens, as to the existance of the license fee.

    However, in th 90s TV exploded in the UK from 3 or 4 channels to the several hundred we have at the moment. This was started by satellite broadcasting (Sky, BSB - then the marged BSkyB that we have at the moment). In addition cable spread.

    Logic would dictate that as technology has moved on, that the licence fee should be turned into what it is, a subscription service, especially as digital terrestrial television is now dropping through everyone aerials and Digital Satellite also carries all the BBC channels.

    However, interestingly, what people have realised is the value that the 116 subscription gets you. When it is compared to BSkyBs 360+ and the absolute rubbish that ITV and Channel 5 (the major free to air commercial stations) chuck out. To be fair to ITV and Channel 5, their advertising revenue has gone through the floor because of Sky and so they are a bit stuck for cash. What they would like is a slice of the "licence".

    For example (engage BBC advert mode :) )

    Your 116 gets you :-

    2 National TV stations on Analogue
    6 National Digital TV stations on digital (including 24 hour news and Teletubbies :))
    5 National analogue radio stations
    12 digital radio stations
    A local radio station for each county (sometimes the only radio station - i.e. in outer Cumbria :))
    Possibly the single best website in the world (WAB accepted of course)
    Some amazing educational programmes. When i was at schoole we had computers (in the 80s). howeveratthis time the PC was thousands of pounds, so the BBC in collaboration with Acorn produced the BBC micro, quite possibly the single most important computer for a generation. OK it wasn't brilliant. but it had an excellent implementation of Basic, could be netowrked (which later "influenced" appletalk :) and helped to formalise the home computer boom that thUK was leading the world with.

    Oh, the BBC World Service (TV or radio) is not funded out of the license fee. the Government pays for that in case they need some propoganda.

    Interestingly, the great British public was most vociferous about the license fee when British TV had an international reputation for quality and excellence, envy of the world and all that. Which was from the 60s to the 90s.
    Now, when British TV doesn't "rule the world" because the overall quality of all of it has started to go south (god i hate reality TV ) the British public doesn't really care.

    Also interestingly, the BBC has striven to be impartial, an managed to go the other way with the recent Hutton Inquiry stuff!

    It would be sad to see the BBC go, which would be the outcome of funding changes, look at how many posts are one here from BBCi articles.
    Last edited by Trooth; 31 Dec 03,, 20:37.
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    • #3
      :YIKES! The idea of a TV Tax is frightening. That would definitely never happen in the US. The first pol that suggested that you should have to pay to watch TV would be strung up on the nearest street lamp. I honestly think that, if the government tried to make people pay $200 a year for TV, there would be a revolution. :ar15

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      • #4
        BTW, if you have two TV's do you have to pay twice as much?

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        • #5
          No, you only pay once. There is some limit, but i can't remember what it is. Mind you if you are a TV shop you are exempt (i think)!

          We all pay TV tax, subscription TV is way more expensive than the BBC and i would argue much worse value (at least in the UK).

          Certainly, the "tax" as you call it has enabled the BBC to keep a quality output while ITV has given up, Channel 5 never really tries. Channel 4 is a bit useful it must be said. but that is cos it is funded largely by ITV (don't ask).

          BSkyB annexed all the live football (thus indirectly causing a lot of trouble for some clubs). that football deal is all that keeps BSkyB going and now ha a question mark over it.

          As i said, it would best to change it to what it is,a subscription fee, but the problem is that f we mess with it we'll probably break it.

          This funding method has served Briitain well for 80 years. All that TV and Radio, and no breaking programmes for commercials is good, ask any F1 fan.
          The way i now look at it, it works out at 30p a day. Less than the average lottery ticket spend, and about the same a packet of crisps.

          I feel for that bloke who doesn't have a TV. As far as i am concerend they shouldn't harrass the man at all. It should be a subscription fee and now that digital Tv is now available via an aerial (as opposedot cable or satellite) i hope the BBC will make use of that as it is really getting into Interactive TV through it.

          Last edited by Trooth; 01 Jan 04,, 00:24.
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          • #6
            The problem really is that the government owns this company. One has to wonder, why the government needs to own a media company. Governments are best at providing needs. The wants should be left to private individuals. It just seems very awkward to have the government mandate a subscription to a service because you bought a product.

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            • #7
              It isn't actually a company, it is the British Broadcasting Corporation. It has a mandate that it should be independant from any government which is protected by several acts of parliament. To this end i think it achieves this. Certainly both the current Labour (sorry "New Labour") government and previous Conservative governments regularly criticise the BBC over its bias against them.

              In terms of revenue, it gets its "liceence fee" but otherwise operates as a company, despite its name. BBC Enterprises (subsidiary) happily flogs programmes and formats all over the world (eg The Weakest Link, The Office, Teletubbies and so on). But i take you point, the benefit of a lack of commercials must be weighed against the on going Dale Winton problem.

              Historically its state owned status has enabled it to pioneer many things. TV itself, for example was first broadcast by the BBC, as well as Teletext, Video recording, RDS and so on. curently it is into Dgitial terrestrial broadcasting and Digital Audio Broadcasting.

              Great Britain also had a large Empire that needed to be communicated with "This is London calling" is an introduction still used to this day! So there was a historical need for such a broadcasting company for the colonies. This need might not now be the same, but the same philosphy is applied to the regions. You might be in a small cottage on a moor in some extreme. you might not beable to pick up much, but you will have a local BBC radio station covering your area. Independent Radio often doesn't bother with the outlying areas.

              All governments have a state broadcaster that is paid for by the people. The BBC is possibly the most versatile and probably offers its people the richest service. Is it the best model? Personally, in this instance i think yes, simply because in my life in Britain i have got so much value out of it, and my experience of alternatives is of poorer value.
              Last edited by Trooth; 01 Jan 04,, 02:35.
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              • #8
                Trooth,

                The point is one has NO choice in whether they want it or not.

                If I wished to purchase a television for the sole purpose of setting up a home entertainment system to watch movies on a big-screen with six-speaker surround sound, there is no way to get around that tax.

                2 National TV stations on Analogue
                6 National Digital TV stations on digital (including 24 hour news and Teletubbies )
                5 National analogue radio stations
                12 digital radio stations
                A local radio station for each county (sometimes the only radio station - i.e. in outer Cumbria )
                Only 8 TV stations?

                My TV services gets me the following analog channels:
                ABC
                NBC
                CBS
                PBS
                FOX
                CBC (yes, Canadian Broadcasting Channel)
                UPN
                5 local Public Access Channels

                Digital:
                WGN Superstation
                C-SPAN
                TV Guide Channel
                Home Shopping Network
                C-Span 2
                ESPN
                The Weather Channel
                ESPN 2
                Fox Sports Net
                FX
                Fox Family
                WB
                ABC Family
                USA Network
                Sci-Fi Channel
                TBS Superstation
                TNT
                Bravo
                History Channel
                HGTV
                Food Network
                Court TV
                Travel Channel
                Lifetime
                A & E
                History Channel
                Discovery Channel
                The Learning Channel
                Animal Planet
                Cartoon Network
                Nickelodeon
                Disney Channel
                E!
                Comedy Central
                MTV
                VH1
                Country Music Television
                Soap Network
                TNN
                Hallmark Channel
                Eternal World Television Network (Catholic)
                CNN
                CNN Headline News
                MSNBC
                CNBC
                Trinity Broadcasting Network (Evangelical)
                Fox News Channel
                PAX
                Women's Entertainment
                American Movie Channel
                Some movie classics channel
                2 shopping channels

                That is all basic cable, $40 a month
                "Every man has his weakness. Mine was always just cigarettes."

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                • #9
                  Here's my DirectTV channels:
                  I get all the ones highlighted in green and the ones with the crosses next to them plus my local channels for $40 a month.

                  http://www.directv.com/see/pdf/chnllineup.pdf

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                  • #10
                    Question: Can DirectTV be hooked up to multiple TV's in the house and every TV be able to display different channels?
                    "Every man has his weakness. Mine was always just cigarettes."

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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Ironman
                      Question: Can DirectTV be hooked up to multiple TV's in the house and every TV be able to display different channels?
                      Yes. I think they give you three boxes free if you want them. It is $5 more a month for each additional box after the first.

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                      • #12
                        $40 is 22 per month or 264 per year (compare with the BBC at 116).

                        I am not talking about quantity of channels, most of the time they are either showing repeats or time shifted programmes. Further i can only realistically watch one at a time and record perhaps two others. I currently have access to about 50 channels, for which i spend only that 116 a year. the medium by whih i receive those 50 channels is actually provided by the BBC. So for all those people who might want to watch more than 3 domestic analogue "non-BBC" channels they would morally have to pay the BBC something to receive the digital output. After all ITV happily washed its hands of the medium leaving millions of people with non-refunded subscriptions (as well as lots of football clubs facing financial ruin).

                        Of those 50 channels (not all BBC channels, but the BBC saved the digital medium that carries them) i probably watch and record a dozen. As the old saying goes "Quality not quantity".

                        Of the countries i have visited, and the languages i speak, in my opinion British TV is much better than the following :-

                        Australia,
                        Belgium,
                        Canada,
                        France,
                        Germany,
                        Greece,
                        Spain,
                        USA

                        Although obviously what i cannot easily adjust for is cultural differences that make my understanding of some of these programmes difficult. However it is fairly easy to see now, with over 200 chanels available in Britain that the only things that maintains any form of quality is the BBC, that forces the others to compete on quality) other wise we would have "24 hour people on the toilet" as th next reality show. The counter argument is best expressed in the following sentence. Please Justify ITV2 and Sky One.

                        To people who don't live with the BBC it is difficult to convey the effect it has had on British society, my point is that of all the things that are wrong with Britain, this isn't one of them. The BBC is more at the heart of Britain than most other things. It is also the finest and most significant broadcaster ever. The closest, in the area of news only, has recently become CNN, but even then only in th US, CNN International does not really square up as a proper TV channel.

                        If you disapprove of such an outrageous tax, on principle, and i know that all on this board are fond of their high priniples, then i suggest that you remove all articles from BBC websites from this board and ban the future posting of them. After all something so clearly outrageous should be protested against. :)
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                        • #13
                          So for all those people who might want to watch more than 3 domestic analogue "non-BBC" channels they would morally have to pay the BBC something to receive the digital output.
                          Why can't they opt to receive that service???? Trooth, the problem we see is that it is FORCED, one MUST pay for the service for owning a television, REGARDLESS of whether they watch it or not.
                          "Every man has his weakness. Mine was always just cigarettes."

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                          • #14
                            Well in theory they don't have to pay for it. If you own a TV and only plug a video or DVD (etc) into it, you don't have to pay the licence fee. The first post in this article is based around some chap who is struggling with the reality of it. Which is unforgiveable (but realistically one of your usual call centre admin nightmares that has ben taken forward by someone who wants something to rage against).

                            The way it has worked out now, escpecially as the government intends to "switch off" analague broadcasts by 2010 and make better use of that part of the EM Spectrum, is that the licence fee will be amended to be pegged to the Freeview Service as opposed to the BBC itself. Then it will be pegged to the broadcast of digital TV, as opposed to the owning of a TV itself (which it actually isn't related to in theory).
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                            • #15
                              Originally posted by Trooth
                              $40 is 22 per month or 264 per year (compare with the BBC at 116).
                              Or you can just but a TV. Bring it home, and get 12 channels for free.

                              I am not talking about quantity of channels, most of the time they are either showing repeats or time shifted programmes.
                              That is in fact not the case

                              Further i can only realistically watch one at a time and record perhaps two others.
                              The point is that you have more of a selection of things to watch. For example there are 2 history channels and like 6 or 7 discovery channels. There's the Do-It-Yourself network. There's a cooking network. I could go on.

                              Of those 50 channels (not all BBC channels, but the BBC saved the digital medium that carries them) i probably watch and record a dozen. As the old saying goes "Quality not quantity".
                              I can count 36 off the top of my head that I watch often.

                              Of the countries i have visited, and the languages i speak, in my opinion British TV is much better than the following :-
                              USA
                              I disagree.

                              If you disapprove of such an outrageous tax, on principle, and i know that all on this board are fond of their high priniples, then i suggest that you remove all articles from BBC websites from this board and ban the future posting of them. After all something so clearly outrageous should be protested against. :)
                              I don't really care were the BBC is getting its money. After all, I'm not paying for it. You are. I rarely use BBC articles anyway since I consider them a biased news agency.

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