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?