After having a brief debate about the future of the TV licence on Twitter with @robhague and @fredtilley, here are some thoughts about it. For those who don’t know (the non-Brits, mainly): In the UK, watching live television (in colour) carries with it a licence fee of £145.50. This basically means that if you own a television you pay the fee (unless you can prove you’re not using it to watch live broadcasts) and technically speaking, if you watch iPlayer live, you are also required to have a licence.
In the future, obviously, the number of people watching live TV is probably going to decline. I don’t know the timescale on which this will occur, but at some stage the idea of live broadcasts is going to wither and die in the face of the realities of the Internet. As a result, Fred tweeted:
How long until we see a subscription based iPlayer to make up for people who don’t pay their TV licences and just watch later for free?— Freddie Tilley (@fredtilley) August 28, 2013
@fredtilley It's already happened in the USA. I think what will happen in the UK is the replacement of TV licences with monitor licences.— John Coxon (@johncoxon) August 28, 2013
@johncoxon I rarely use a monitor outside work – I watch TV on laptop, tablet, phone (and TV). "A device capable of playing BBC video"?— Rob Hague (@robhague) August 28, 2013
@robhague By 'monitor', I mean 'screen that can display a picture'. Maybe an exemption for smartphones, but tablets/laptops/TVs all count.— John Coxon (@johncoxon) August 28, 2013
Why should people pay for a monitor fee to support a national broadcasting company? Well, the fact of the matter is that the BBC does a lot more than TV and radio now. iPlayer is an obvious one, but their news organisation is one of the best in the world and puts a lot of news online for free. Podcasts with much free content are available for download and the Beeb also puts a lot of effort into expanding infrastructure. Those who don’t use the BBC’s website or other online services might say that they shouldn’t pay, but this is the same argument as people who only watch Sky use against the TV fee, and it hasn’t worked yet.
This point leads me neatly onto privatisation of the BBC as a second option.1 I don’t support privatisation of the Beeb, because I think it would be a huge blow to the quality of news and programming in the UK. However, if the licence fee stops delivering enough revenue to the BBC at the same time as a Conservative government is in power, I can see the need to reform the licence fee being used as a platform to scrap it entirely. I would like to hope that a Labour government would not do this, and that they’d update the fee instead.
However, if a monitor fee that has to be paid on iPads and laptops is brought in, there are obvious problems with making people pay up — the television is a mostly static thing, and easy to locate and charge for (I suspect the exemption of the handheld is partly based on the difficulty of proving someone owns one). The solution to the difficulty of locating televisions and making people pay up is familiar to any resident of the UK: The lovely experience of the TV Licensing company writing to them, ad nauseam, threatening court action if they don’t submit (regardless of whether or not you actually need to!). This problem of finding televisions is one that would be far worse if a monitor licence was introduced, and the current solution is a massive waste of paper and revenue.
So, perhaps, a third option is more sensible. Simply add a percentage to every tablet, laptop and monitor sold (call it the Display Surcharge, or something) which is paid on top of VAT at the point of sale. The money from those fees goes to fund national and public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom, nobody has to be badgered to pay for their television licence, and everyone wins! (Except those made redundant from their jobs as a result of the TV Licensing company going under, I suppose.)
The debate over whether or not the licence fee should exist is an old and tired one that has been had many times; I am reluctant to spend too much time discussing its merits here. I’m focusing on reform, rather than removal. ↩