In 1904 the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1904 introduced broadcasting receiving licenses. People would have to pay a fee to receive radio broadcasts. In 1936 the BBC introduced a television service. However, people did not need a TV license as it was covered under the broadcast license.
When the second world war started in 1939, TV services were cancelled. In 1946 after the war, TV services resumed, and people were charged a separate TV licence fee to radio broadcasts.
In 1968 an additional TV license was established for people who watched TV on a coloured screen. The TV license and its operations have long been controversial. This is because even if viewers do not watch BBC programmes, they are compelled to pay for TV licences. The BBC's collection of licence fee money has also raised concerns. Collection agents have been accused of bullying and harassment when collecting licence fees - akin to debt collection bailiffs.
There have been many ways people have tried to legally avoid paying for TV licences. However, the stipulations of TV licensing have often changed to block this. Yet, in modern times new TV programming developments such as streaming services have made TV licences almost redundant. This, along with shady collection tactics and claims that they are forsaking their oath of impartiality, has led to many demanding its abolishment. The conservative government have stated that they aim to abolish the TV license by 2027.
A full valid TV licence costs £159 per year. This TV licence cost has been frozen by the UK government until 2024. You can also have a separate licence that is cheaper if you only use a black and white TV. Black and white TV licenses cost £53.50. Instead of paying the whole TV licence, many choose to spread the cost using monthly direct debits.
TV licences are also offered to certain people at a discounted rate. For example, if you are blind or severely sight impaired, you only need to pay half the cost of a TV licence which is £79.50. Also, if you live in a residential care home or sheltered accommodation, you may only be charged £7.50.
People above the age of 75 who also receive pension credit are granted a free licence.
Do I need a TV licence?
Just because you use a TV, it does not necessarily mean you need a TV license. It does not even mean you need a TV license to watch TV channels. For example, if you use your TV to watch catch-up TV programmes, you do not need one. Unless you are watching BBC programmes on BBC iPlayer. You used to be able to watch BBC iPlayer without a licence when catch-up services first emerged. However, the government closed this loophole meaning anyone watching BBC television programmes, whether live or not, needs to pay for a TV license.
If you watch live TV at all, even if you are not watching BBC programmes, you need a TV licence. This is still the case if you watch live TV using a different device than a TV. For example, you may watch a live online TV service using a smartphone. In this case, you would still need to have a TV licence in place. You do not need an additional TV for using a device outside of the home - so long as you have your original TV licence in place.
With the abundance of alternative sources of video entertainment, there has been a massive decline in Live TV viewers. From 2010 to 2019 there was a 21% drop in live TV viewing hours. TV viewing is also expected to drop to below half of all video viewing from 2023 onwards. This is because people have multiple options to choose from, meaning they can effectively schedule and choose their own programming without having to choose from what is being broadcast live at that moment. People that do not watch catch-up or streaming services do not need a TV licence. For example, people that only watch DVDs, internet videos like Youtube, or play video games do not need a TV licence.
What is the punishment for TV licence evasion?
As things currently stand, you may still be penalised for TV licence evasion if you watch live TV or BBC iPlayer without a TV licence. This can include; prosecution, being taken to court, and a fine of up to £1,000. However, concerns have been raised about the severity of the punishment in comparison to the crime.
In 2014-15 an independent review named the Perry Review looked at the possibility of decriminalising non-payment of the TV licence. At that time, the review recommended the continuation of the BBC's system of deterrence and prosecution. However, in 2020 the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport looked again at decriminalising non-payment of the TV license. Their report found that TV license penalties were “increasingly disproportionate and unfair.”In response, the government stated that decriminalisation would remain under active consideration.
In 2022 the DCMS re-iterated their concerns that the TV licence was enforced using criminal sanctions. The report also highlighted vulnerable elderly people could be legally prosecuted for not having a TV licence. Also, the report showed that there was a gender disparity in TV licence convictions. For example, in 2019 women made up 74% of all people convicted of TV licence evasion. The TV license system is to be reviewed again before 2027, but there seems to be a shift towards decriminalisation and abolishment.
How is the BBC funded?
The BBC is mostly funded by the British public. In 2020, the TV license generated £3.5bn per year. As the BBC is mostly publicly funded, they do not show advertising before, during, or after programmes. The BBC also made £1.3bn commercially by selling BBC programmes to international distributors.
BBC programmes are funded by the TV licence under the Royal Charter. This grants public funding to the BBC as a public service broadcaster to uphold independent and impartial news. In accordance with the Royal Charter, the BBC have to abide by certain conditions. This includes:
- Acting in the public interest
- Serving all audiences
- Provide impartiality
- Information is informative and educational
- Reflecting the cultures and values of the UK
Impartiality is a big issue within the BBC and in the eyes of the British public. A 2018 poll by BMG Research found that only 37% of the public thought the BBC was impartial. There has long been speculation that the BBC have a left-wing bias, and accusations of this continue to this day.
This is not helped by the donations that the BBC receives. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated almost £1.6 million to the BBC in 2019/20. This shows that some of their funding comes from left-wing donors, further strengthening claims of bias. Also, as Bill Gates was such a pivotal figure during the Coronavirus Pandemic, it calls into question the coverage of that event. How can the BBC be trusted to be impartial about Bill Gates whilst taking millions of pounds from his charity?
Also, the very fact that the BBC is granted a Royal charter, calls to question whether it can accurately and impartially report news about the royal family.
Why are people against the TV licence?
As stated, many people do not need a valid TV licence as they do not watch live TV or BBC iPlayer. However, there is also a growing number of people that refuse to pay for a TV licence even if by law they need one.
For example, during 2021/22, 1.96 million people stopped paying for their TV licence. This was no doubt partially fuelled by declining trust in the media. The BBC, in particular, has been accused of bias when reporting about; Brexit, Coronavirus, and Ukraine vs Russia conflict.
Another sore point for many has been the BBC's employee's biased statements on social media. Gary Linekar, in particular, has caused anger amongst many by making political statements online whilst receiving wages - paid for by the public, licenced by the Royal Charter. The BBC has also had many extremely damaging scandals that have severely affected its reputation. This includes how serious failings at the BBC allowed Jimmy Savile to continue abusing women and children for decades.
Many people see it as a duty not to pay their TV licence as they do not believe they are upholding the stipulations of the Royal Charter. Furthermore, many people are strongly against the intimidation tactics used by TV licence enforcers.
Enforcers are paid a commission based on how many people they get to pay for their unpaid TV licence. They often target vulnerable elderly viewers as well to intimidate them into paying for a TV licence. Millions of pounds are spent out of the publics money to engage in this harassment. Many people do not want to contribute to this by paying for a TV licence.
Furthermore, enforcers often overstate their powers and are often exposed in humorous Youtube videos by people who know the law. Enforcers in fact have very little power. They cannot in fact enter your home unless you let them, and if you refuse they need both a search warrant and the police to be present.
Why do some people want to keep the TV licence?
Many people want to keep the TV licence as they feel it is the best way to keep news and programming as impartial as possible. On the whole, the BBC is the most trusted source of news in the UK. Reuters have even shown that the BBC is the most trusted news source in the United States. Although the BBC sometimes fails in its goal of impartiality, it is said to be the 'least worst' overall.
There is also the argument for the quality of BBC programmes. For example, the BBC have a reputation for creating some of the best documentaries in the world. This includes countless masterpieces by Sir David Attenborough, which are a source of national pride. Some believe that the TV licence is a small price to pay for the quality of entertainment produced.
Furthermore, the TV licence helps provide opportunities for emerging journalists. In a time when the field of journalism is shrinking, with fewer and fewer jobs, this is an essential lifeline for job-seeking journalists.
Can I afford to pay for a TV licence?
As the pound has fallen to its lowest level since 1985 a recession looks almost inevitable on the horizon. With that in mind, many people will look at cutting expenses in any way they possibly can. Even in dire circumstances, the BBC does not offer a free TV licence. Therefore, each individual must decide whether the luxury of a TV licence is necessary. TV licence discounts are available for certain people, but there is no income-based concessionary TV licence.
The first thing anyone should do to work out if the TV licence is affordable is to create a budget. All essential costs should be taken care of first before any money is given to luxuries such as a TV licence. Things like rent, food bills, utility bills, and taxes should take first precedence. You could work out how much tax you need to budget for each month and each year against wages. Citizens Advice have its own budgeting tool to allow you to calculate your monthly expenses. This will help you see whether or not you have enough left over to pay the licence fee.