TV licences in the 21st century

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:

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.)

  1. 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. 

Going back to GetGlue

I’ve recently gone back to GetGlue, after an extended hiatus. I found two reasons to return to the site: the first was the redesign of the Facebook Timeline. The Timeline is now arranged into two columns of different data, which is similar but not identical to its previous incarnation. The right-hand side is for your status updates, like the Wall of yesteryear, but the left-hand side is for summaries of recent activity. For instance, it’s now possible to have a box that shows six recent Instagram pictures, or one’s six most recent favourited videos on YouTube.

A screenshot of the television show box on Facebook.

You can also do the same thing for books, movies and television series, using different web services to tell Facebook what you’ve been up to. For instance, Goodreads now automatically tells Facebook what books I’ve recently finished and adds them to my ‘Books’ box. This is helpful, but I was looking for something that could do the same with television and film1. Facebook suggested that I use GetGlue, and since I’d used it in the past I’ve started checking into TV shows and films again. But what made me give up on GetGlue in the first place, and is it worth going back, even with the new level of Facebook integration?

Several things annoyed me about GetGlue last time I used it. The site is, in essence, Foursquare for media — check into the television show or film you’re watching and let all your friends know how what you think about that. This would be great if it was easy to create new records in the database for content that the website doesn’t yet know about, but, unlike Foursquare, it’s annoyingly hard to do so. Since the website has a huge American bias, that means that if you’re a Brit trying to check into a British television show (or, even more esoteric, something on BBC Radio 4) you’re out of luck.

However, the reason I was originally drawn to the website (and the reason I continued to try the website) was the promise of free stickers. When you check into certain things, you win a sticker. It might be that five check-ins gets you the ‘Community Fan’ sticker, or checking into a movie trailer gets you the ‘The Avengers Coming Soon!’ sticker, but they’re cool. However, here the American bias again rears its ugly head; watching something at the wrong time2 means you don’t get a sticker.

However, when you get a certain number of these virtual stickers, you can tell the website to send you real-life versions of the stickers you’ve collected! Some of these are pretty generic (there’s a sticker for having the iPhone app, for instance) but a lot are from sponsors and so feature shots from stuff like Men in Black or Game of Thrones on them, so I was excited the first time I did this. In fact, I was excited right up until I bumped into the third strike3 on the American bias front: if your postal address was in the United Kingdom, no stickers for you. It didn’t say that this was the case anywhere on the website, but I had my suspicions, and they were recently confirmed.

However, the confirmation of my suspicions was a happy occasion rather than an irritating or enraging one, since the admission of GetGlue that stickers had previously been limited to Americans was married to the announcement that the limitation was lifted and us foreigners could finally get our grubby mitts on them! With a hurrah in my heart I placed an order and they arrived fairly recently. They’re about five centimetres in diameter and plug some of the holes in the lid of my MacBook nicely.

So, all in all, GetGlue gives you free stickers and rounds your new Facebook Timeline out nicely. Win!

A photograph of the stickers I eventually got from GetGlue.

  1. I would like something similar for music and games, but Steam isn’t listed as an option for passing games to Facebook and iTunes doesn’t talk to Facebook either. Hopefully might, one day, but this has been requested for ages and still hasn’t come yet! 
  2. Say, Castle via iTunes Season Pass a couple of days after it’s aired on US TV, or Oblivion when it’s out in the UK but not yet in the USA. 
  3. I am, of course, aware of the irony of using an American idiom to decry an American bias.