The changing face of broadcast TV

c: | f: /

The BBC are desperate. They need your money so badly, they’ve changed the way they impose their tax, regardless of how you consume TV. I don’t think they have the resources to do that.

Once upon a time the world was black and white, and took twenty minutes to warm up. I know this because my nan had a valve-driven Logie Baird relic in a wooden cabinet that left a glowing white dot in the centre of the screen for about ten minutes after you switched it off.

Now things are very different. Everything’s instant. You can slipstream shows to a hard drive and watch them at your leisure. You can pause live TV when charity workers knock at the door, so you don’t miss a precious second of some vacuous reality TV star crying for your vote. And you don’t even need a TV to do it.

In the UK, this convenience comes with a price tag: a broadcast tax dreamed up by the BBC as a sole revenue stream because they only advertise their own products and services. With an ever-increasing number of channels to pimp, including at least six radio stations, I’m surprised there’s enough time left for programmes. But I digress.

Traditionally, this tax — currently to the tune of a hundred-and-forty-odd British pounds per year — has been a live broadcast tax. That is, only applicable if you have the ability to receive a stream as it is broadcast, whether you record it or not.

That’s now changed.

Amid falling revenues due to catch-up TV and people watching shows over the Internet, the TV Licensing Gestapo have changed their policy wording so you now need a licence even if you watch iPlayer-based content. Yes, even catch-up.

The thing is, I can’t see how they’re going to police it.

The database knows all

In the 1980s and 90s, the BBC ran the only non-programme-based advert they were permitted to show: a faceless “TV Detector Van” housing space-age technology driving around streets. This mythical transit van roamed neighbourhoods, its drivers firing unicorn dust through a prism to detect if you were watching TV without a licence.

In reality there was probably a guy sat in the back with a concertina printout on continuous stationery, upon which were listed all the houses that had not paid for a licence. Said bloke would roll up at your door, look at the roof, and if you were on the list and had an antenna, he’d knock.

I don’t have a TV. Well, okay, I have a TV, a tonne of DVDs and a subscription to LoveFilm so they can periodically post me movies, but I don’t have a usable TV signal.

A few weeks after we moved in, I detached the rusty satellite dish the previous owners left behind and chucked it in a skip. The only reason the antenna — disfigured and at a jaunty angle due to a storm — is still on the roof is because it’s ten metres up and my ladder’s only two. My Internet connection is low bandwidth and capped, through choice because there’s no need for anything more when only committing code and doing everyday browsing. It’s certainly not man enough to stream much at all. Likewise, my phone.

And yet, the TVLA don’t believe me. They can’t grasp the concept that there’s someone in the country that doesn’t want endless channels of crap streamed to their home. It seemingly doesn’t compute. So let me spell it out:

I. Do. Not. Want. TV.

Next year marks the tenth anniversary of our household not having television in our home. We’re not undead. We’re not Amish. We have electricity. We just don’t see the point in spending hundreds of pounds a year to be told what to think and what to buy. But TVLA are desperate enough that they changed the law to make it much harder for me to avoid having a licence.

Which brings me back to the original point: how are they going to police it?

Bandits of the airwaves

Before the recent policy changes, you had to have a licence if you had the capability of receiving a broadcast while it was being aired. Any kind of video recorder had the capability of doing just that, whether you had a TV or not. Now I need a licence if I have that capability or if I use BBC iPlayer in any way shape or form. Not 4OD or ITV Hub or Kodi. Only iPlayer.

My Internet connection has the capability of streaming content… just.

My PC, laptop and (barely) phone have the capability of running iPlayer.

The fact I don’t choose to do so seems like it’s becoming less relevant to these bozos. We received a letter the other week — addressed wrongly despite us telling them our names for nine years — claiming we needed a licence. We filled the form out again and said we don’t. They maintain if we don’t need one, they’ll come to check because we’re obviously lying. Fine, waste someone else’s license fee sending a man out. Unless he has a search warrant, he can fuck off. I’ve nothing to hide, but it’s the principle. I will not be bullied into buying something that has no value to me, just so the BBC can continue to fund Strictly Come Prancing, baking shows1 or people poncing around medieval England on horseback.

Unless they intend to demand to comb every device in my household for traces of iPlayer, the app must have a beacon in it so they know when it’s downloaded and/or used. Or, perhaps it requires some kind of unfakeable registration process, which’d be an Internet first.

Previously, when you bought a TV tuner, you had to fill out a form with your name and address so they could send you a letter demanding you buy a licence. I had to complete one when I bought ours. I gave fake details, of course. In my defence, I tried to buy a TV without a tuner — just a screen — but they were three times the price. My TV is therefore owned by James Trilby of 1 Mornington Crescent in London, and I apologise to whomever lives there for receiving junk mail from the BBC for the past decade. Mea culpa.

From TVLA’s perspective, it’s pretty hard to disguise a TV; a download is easier. I can only presume the licensing body have been granted the ability to tie an IP address to a home, or be able to subpoena the Internet service providers to find out someone’s usage patterns. Then, armed with this data, they can knock on your door and make their unreasonable demands.

Without this ability, they’ve got no other avenue than to rely on their (incorrectly populated) database, stick a guy in a van with a pair of rubber gloves and an iPad connected to the office, then send him on a perpetual road trip. The thing is, if that’s how they’re spending your licence fee instead of buying or commissioning “quality programming” to satisfy your endless consumption, I’d be the first person to ask why.

1 Alright, not this any more.

1 person scribbled here


    BBC sounds like Finnish YLE. Both are spreading their tentacles with tax money. With YLE it used to be that only those who watched their broadcasts had to pay a fee, but then someone got an idea: change it to a tax where everyone pays. And that tax is going up as YLE gets new ideas, like increasing their presence in social media. :-/

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