I recently wrote about the iPlayer, and made a throwaway comment about not having a TV licence, yet enjoying the ability to finally be able to legally watch TV programmes online, on my Mac. It sparked quite a discussion. Nick Reynolds (no relation) of the BBC kindly pointed out the new licence fee page on the BBC site. I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but the legislation (of which more in a moment) has indeed changed. The page makes a good job of explaining the new situation:
“You need a TV licence to use any television receiving equipment such as a TV set, set-top box, video or DVD recorder, computer or mobile phone to watch or record TV programmes as they are being shown on TV.”
(This is all only relevant in the UK by the way. Americans *cough*, I mean the 56% of my non-UK visitors (of which only about half are from the US) may feel free to look away now).
I find this interesting. Before 2004, and in older documents, it used to say something more like
A TV Licence provides a legal permission to install or use television receiving equipment in order to receive or record television programme services. ‘Television receiving equipment’ can be a television set, a VCR, a set-top box, a TV-enabled personal computer or any other equipment designed or modified to enable it to receive television programmes.
The change is down to new legislation which came into force on April 1st (honestly) 2004, and was announced in a written ministerial statement by Tessa Jowell on 11th March 2004. More interestingly, the act itself is the Statutory Instrument 2004 No 692. The Communications Act (Television Licensing) Regulations 2004 (which was an update to earlier acts from 1926, 1949 and 2003. Part three, section nine says that “television receiver” means any “apparatus installed or used for the purpose of receiving (whether by means of wireless telegraphy or otherwise) any television programme service, whether or not it is installed or used for any other purpose.”
The thing that broadens it even further is the text in 9.2…
In this regulation, any reference to receiving a television programme service includes a reference to receiving by any means any programme included in that service, where that programme is received at the same time (or virtually the same time) as it is received by members of the public by virtue of its being broadcast or distributed as part of that service.
So when the TV licence talks about using a computer, it no longer only means computers with TV receiving cards in them. Steve Hewlett does a good job of explaining this in a Media FAQ in the Guardian last year.
To cut a very long story short, any device that can receive live TV pictures, whether or not originally designed or intended to do so, must be covered by a licence if you use it for that purpose.
Let’s just take that in for a moment. Watching a live TV broadcast, regardless of whether you do it on your TV, your computer, or even (as Steve points out in that post) your mobile phone, means you must have a TV licence. He goes on to say that
…while the new regulations might have succeeded in redefining the term “television” to mean any device capable of receiving it by any broadcast or quasi-broadcast means, they still define a “television programme service” as essentially a live, real-time broadcast stream…
… while the regulations extend beyond traditional broadcasting to cover internet and mobile live streaming, receiving TV programmes on-demand, or say as part of an internet-based catch-up service, appears not to be covered.
If correct, this would mean if you only watched programmes on demand via new services – such as the BBC’s emerging seven-day catch-up facility, or in any way other than via a live broadcast stream, however delivered, you would not be liable to pay the licence fee even if you used your old-fashioned TV.
All very interesting. So, some observations and questions.
- In the UK, while you (still) don’t need a TV licence to own a TV, you do need a TV licence to watch live broadcasts which originate from the UK, regardless of the equipment used. This would include the live stream of News 24.
- (Currently) I can use iPlayer to watch TV shows without needing a licence, because they’re not being simulcast on the TV. I have not used Channel 4’s 4oD, but I believe the same is true. It’s a download service, not live broadcast, and even the new Flash streaming flavour of iPlayer is video on-demand rather than being “received at the same time (or virtually the same time) as it is received by members of the public by virtue of its being broadcast”. Theoretically, I can continue to watch iPlayer without needing a licence, and only my conscience about supporting the programme makers to trouble me.
- The TV licensing authority can already ask to see my TV, and I can tell them (and eventually show them) that I don’t use it to watch broadcast TV. If I don’t have a licence and I chose not to watch live streamed TV though a browser if it’s offered, will I have to prove that to them too?
Why all this interest in the licence? Well, we got rid of our household TV, video, and PC capture card a few years ago. We’d realised we were watching whatever was on, and not enjoying it any more. It was time to go cold turkey. There was a clearing of the house, and part of the cleansing ritual was to (probably a bit smugly) cancel the licence. If I went through the same process now, I’d probably have kept the licence, because the radio and web content is worth the money, but at the time I didn’t think so.
The thing that really put my off the TV licence was actually the licensing authority themselves. When I cancelled it, and again when we moved house, and again when we bought a TV set (not tuned or even connected to the antenna, but bought in order to more fully enjoy DVDs and the Wii) I was quite disgusted with the regular letters, often very aggressive in tone, demanding we purchase a TV licence, with no expectation that people might not actually watch it. The regular bullying was annoying, and rather hardened my will against the system.
Things are changing. My previous frame of mind was in a previous era, a time in which I wasn’t addicted to the amazing content on Radio 4, and when iPlayer didn’t exist. As the BBC (hopefully) continues to open up ways of me watching content on my terms, of course I’m open minded about paying for services I use. I sometime (rarely) even want to watch live broadcasts, especially things like Wimbledon and the World Cup. What I want is to be able to get content when I want it, and I want to be able to do that on a Mac as well as on Widows.
There’s an interesting loophole at the moment, by which I can watch shows through the on-demand services, as long as I don’t record or watch them from a live broadcast. Personally, I may soon choose to pay for a licence anyway, but I wonder how many people the BBC expects will actually be jumping in the other direction, and cancelling licences so they can use the catch-up services on iPlayer (and 4od) for free.