License Fees and the BBC

I don’t have a television here in the UK. This is not the first time I’ve lived for a long time without a TV, I didn’t have one through much of graduate school. My flat here is small and there is no obvious place for one. But I admit that part of my lack of a TV is due to the “license fee” — a tax that has to be paid every year in order to support the BBC. It’s just under 150 pounds per year, which is less than $250 now but was over $300 this summer when the exchange rate was worse. My visitors from the US have always been amazed to hear of this, as it had never occurred to them that it costs money to get even the most basic channels, since you can normally get a handful of free-to-air channels in the US.

The issue of the license fee has been in the press a lot recently after a few comedians got in trouble over their BBC radio skit of a few weeks ago–this was judged to be offensive. Storm in a teacup, I thought, but it is England so the teacup is taken seriously. And since I don’t own a radio, and haven’t for donkey’s years, I didn’t hear the original broadcast. There have been, apparently, an increasing number of people here in the UK calling for boycotts of the license fee. I enjoyed this opinion piece in the Guardian today about the fee rebels. In the age of TiVo it all seems so silly–use advertisements on television and let people skip them. Or watch things on YouTube or DVDs. Wait, that’s the problem, right? TV is facing the “new media” problems of newspapers a few years back. How to compete with the internet on top of everything else?

When I first lived here, I got nasty-grams in the mail quite regularly at my original apartment, calling for me to pay the fee. Since I did not have a TV and thus could have lived with their inspection of my flat, I was not fussed. But it did seem like a very complicated thing. I have since heard of flat-sharers amongst my friends here who have gotten in trouble since the TV was purchased by one person and the fee paid by someone else with a different name. Linking the TV fee to a name seems like a blunt approach to me, surely it should be associated with the TV itself! I know when you buy a TV here you are given strict instructions about paying the fee, and I believe that TV sellers have to report somehow on who has bought a TV so these fees can be chased down.

I’m not sure what the answer is. The funny thing is that my time in Britain has shown me how little original television of British origin actually airs here. All of two series of “Gavin and Stacey” would be only half of a single American TV season, as I tried to explain to this week’s visitor. I watch TV at the health club when working out, and am more likely to watch “Friends”, “CSI”, “Simpsons” reruns or music videos from primarily American artists on the big screens. I do watch the BBC news channel when nothing else is on, but that can get remarkably tedious–especially when the channel devotes thirty minutes of in-depth coverage to the above-mentioned comedy/taste scandal. Surely there is a better model for the provision of basic television services, especially when the internet has made information accessible to everyone?


10 responses to “License Fees and the BBC

  1. I had a TV of my own for just one year in the UK and never bought a license for it. I lived in a house that had been converted into 2 flats and my landlord – who had the same last name as me – lived upstairs. I figured I could probably get away with it and I did!

    After moving to the US, and having to pay cable fees, I would have been happy to pay the license fee!

    Have BBC seasons changed? They always used to be 13 weeks, with reruns reserved for the summer. American shows seem to run for less time than that, and reruns (most annoyingly) show up midseason.

  2. Most US shows have a “full season” of 26 new episodes through the year. And it used to be that the “season” was always through a fixed time with certain sweeps weeks, although lately the whole reality tv thing has changed that and there are sometimes new programs in the summer, which never used to happen. I’ve seen no evidence that the BBC runs in set seasons of 13 or any other number of weeks, and some of my favorite shows have been only 6 episodes, including the first series of Gavin and Stacey and older shows like “Trust” with Robson Green which never came back for any more than 6 episodes.

  3. 24h news does suffer from the fact that there isn’t normally enough real news to fill 24h, and that viewers want to listen to the headlines soon after they switch on, so it is very repetitive.

    NFAH wrote:
    “The funny thing is that my time in Britain has shown me how little original television of British origin actually airs here.”

    This didn’t ring true, so I looked at the schedule for tonight from 6pm to midnight.
    looking at BBC1 we have:

    2h35 News and current affairs
    1h30 Drama
    0h30 Comedy
    0h30 Celebrity Quiz show
    0h55 Documentary.

    All of it of British origin.

    40 minutes of US film/docudrama (Band of Brothers)
    2h documentary of either UK or US origin
    Remainder – British.

    So the BBC is certainly keeping its end up in the original programming stakes. It is true though that many of the new digital channels are just reruns of US shows. The BBC digital channels though (which many in the UK can’t watch) show repeats and what is presumably innovative new shows that they didn’t want to risk on BBC1/2 – hence the short runs.

    You are missing out not listening to the radio. Unfortunately the superb “letter from America” stopped with the death of Alistair Cooke, but where else could you find a soap that has been going for 50 years, the venerable institution that is the shipping forecast (LW only), “Desert Island Discs”[1] as well as much news and informed comment.


    [1] Particularly poignant was Terry Waite’s appearance on the show after several years as a hostage in Beirut. His luxury was a pencil!!!

  4. This summer I was really enjoying the BBC shows “Robin Hood” and “Hustle,” though I admit I was watching via Netflix and iTunes, which have no commercials, can be paused, and can be fit into your schedule. The question is what pays for these shows (or American shows like “Lost,” which I adore) when there is no longer a public willing to watch them live with commercials.

    I have a million channels here in China thanks to my apartment coming with satellite service (three of them are even in English: CNN, Star World Asia, and CCTV-English), but I admit I still buy Chinese soaps on DVD to watch at my leisure just because I cannot for the life of me figure out the viewing schedule. Episode one might be broadcast at 8:15 pm on a Tuesday, and then episode two on Thursday morning. If there is any pattern to it, I can’t see it.

  5. Chris, I really meant written content–not news, not reality shows, not dancing competitions. I think in those categories the BBC is really putting out very little.

  6. > The funny thing is that my time in Britain has shown me how little original television of British origin actually airs here.

    But since you don’t own a television, how could you know whether the above is true or not?

  7. Howard, does one have to own a TV to read the weekly listings when bored sitting on a train? I don’t think so…

  8. > Howard, does one have to own a TV to read the weekly listings when bored sitting on a train?

    Indeed not. But if you read the listings carefully you would realize that your contention “how little original television of British origin actually airs here” is so wide of the mark as to be close to nonsense.

  9. Now to address your point about the TV licence.

    The lack of advertising on the BBC makes it more pleasant to watch, but, much more importantly means that its editorial independence is not compromised. Programmes are not pulled because of threats to withdraw advertising. Compare this with the disquiet about the independence of research funded by drug companies.

    The BBC have a public service obligation to produce programmes which are “good for us”, and not just take the safe option of repeating popular shows from abroad. I’ve also discovered that the other analogue channels also have some public service obligation imposed on them – for example for Channel4, wikipedia says:

    “The public service remit for Channel 4 is the provision of a broad range of high quality and diverse programming which, in particular:

    * demonstrates innovation, experiment and creativity in the form and content of programmes;
    * appeals to the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society;
    * makes a significant contribution to meeting the need for the licensed public service channels to include programmes of an educational nature and other programmes of educative value; and
    * exhibits a distinctive character.”

    So that’s the good part. The bad part is the collection of the licence fee – and those who get prosecuted for not paying are (so I read) people on low incomes with disorganised lives. The other problem is the nastygrams you get if you don’t actually have a TV.

    For example, a recent letter in the Telegraph says:

    “Sir – In answer to Joanna Richards from TV Licensing (Letters, November 20), may I say, just to be clear, absolutely everybody – no matter what they do for a living – runs the risk of prosecution if they send threatening letters through the post.

    Allen Booth, Redhill, Surrey”

    Is the BBC perfect – certainly not, and I don’t like paying the licence fee either – but the independence from commercial and government bias has got to be a good thing. For completeness, the world service _is_ paid for out of general taxation and not the licence fee.

  10. > is so wide of the mark as to be close to nonsense.

    Please may I change my sentence here, which seems to me now to be over-emotional and confrontational, and just wrong in disputation, to: “is unsubstantiated and for that reason unlikely to win adherents”.

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