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Why I want a compulsory TV licence to go

Black and white old TV

In a media world defined by choice, the BBC licence fee is an outdated compulsory subscription model that should be scrapped. How can we keep justifying this outdated TV fee?

The media environment is defined by choice. But the one element that’s missing is the choice to pay the licence fee or not.

We are forced to pay the licence fee by law, and thereby forced to pay for the BBC, despite alternatives being freely and widely available.

And as technology delivers alternative ways to watch TV, so the fee’s justification crumbles.

So, here’s my opinion on why it should be scrapped. Jon Barrow argues for keeping the TV licence in his Conversation ‘Why I’m in favour of the TV licence’.

Good value for money?

Fans of the licence fee insist Auntie beeb is good value for money and a bastion of quality and independence.

Indeed, the service sometimes does deliver high-quality programming the envy of the world over (insert the title of any David Attenborough film here), with no adverts and independent of the whims of media tycoons.

That’s all fine, but ignores the lack of real choice at the heart of the equation. Good value for money? If you don’t want to buy the product it’s not.

The guardian of quality and independence?

But surely the BBC ensures we enjoy high-quality programming the like the rest of the world can only sit and envy? Come again? Whilst this may have been true 20 years ago, nowadays it’s arguably the likes of non-publically funded HBO and AMC among others that are responsible for the ‘new golden age of TV’, not the BBC.

No adverts? Try using a PVR. And arguing that the BBC is a bulwark against nefarious tycoons foisting their political opinions should instead be an argument for regulatory bodies with teeth and strict regulation on ownership, not a compelling reason to keep subsidising.

If the licence fee was scrapped would the airwaves be awash with tosh rather than quality drama? The evidence would suggest otherwise. Award-winning shows such as Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire and others are the product of subscription based TV, not subsidy.

In fact, many would argue that without the assured billions (£3.5 billion at the last count) from the hapless licence fee payer we would see a BBC that was forced to concentrate on the bits that could ensure it makes its own way in the world. And then move away from its own mind-numbing catalogue of low-quality programming (which looks a lot like the derided free stuff on the commercial channels).

Nevertheless there are millions of viewers who’ve happily been paying for the corporation for years. And given the choice will carry on paying for all the bits they love – the good bits. Cut out the largesse, put the BBC on an equal competitive footing and let the corporation show us what it can really do.

Pay-up or lock-up

A fuss over nothing? After all, the licence fee amounts to just a few quid a week. Unfortunately not. The licence fee is an anachronism, enforced by the strong arm of the law (and zealous BBC fee collectors) to make sure we cough up.

Using TV equipment (including computers) to watch TV as it is broadcast without the appropriate licence is a criminal offence and non-payment of fines can lead to prison.

In the words of one of the many BBC adverts doing the rounds, ‘Your town, your street, your home… it is all in our database.’ Good old Auntie!

Read the other side of the story in Jon Barrow’s ‘Why I’m in favour of the TV licence’ here.

What do you think about the BBC TV licence fee?

I agree with Jon and think it's worth the price (58%, 156 Votes)

I agree with Mike and think it should be optional (42%, 112 Votes)

Total Voters: 268

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Everyone always forgets, and this article fails to mention it too, that the licence fee, whilst misleading called “TV licence” also pays for the BBC radio.
BBC radio, including a vast number of digital services and all the podcasts and Internet services, would have NO money without the TV licence.
Before my lifetime there was a “wireless licence fee”. Unless we’re going to bring that back (and it was scrapped because it was so hard and costly to police – just imagine how impossible it would be now) we must keep the TV licence fee regardless of our views on the TV output, because without we would have no quality radio programming at all and absolutely no chance of advert-free raio.

jusinryoutaose says:
31 January 2013

I quite like the radio, too, for the most part.

I don’t reckon much of the BBC’s 3.2 billion a year (the latest figures for licence fee revenue at time of writing) gets spent maintaining its radio output, though. In fact I’d be surprised if it doesn’t spend more on its portfolio of celebrity signings (most of them poached and lured from commercial stations with the promise of being given fat wads or your cash) than it does on radio.

Just think, those hilarious clothes Jonathan Ross likes to buy, a load of poor little people scrabbling around to heat their homes this winter helped him buy those. And not so much as a ‘thanks peasants’!


My personal feeling is that I’m content enough for the license fee to exist, but I’d rather it was better spent within the BBC. I used to work in programme development there, and let me tell you, a depressingly huge portion of the “drama” budget is earmarked for “safe bets” like Eastenders, Holby City, Casualty etc. These aren’t “drama” series in the way you’d describe HBO output as drama, they’re simply soaps – the kind of shows that would go out at three in the afternoon in the States, but are given prime-time slots in the UK.

The BBC lets itself down with a crippling lack of creative bravery. Too much of the budget is ring-fenced for middle-of-the road TV. When I worked at BBC History, the only topics with guaranteed budget would be WWII, the Tudors, the Romans etc – how many times have we seen these? For drama, taking a known source novel and putting together a cast, location and costume department isn’t a creative risk, it’s a quick-win period drama that gets the easy labels of “lavish” and “what the BBC does best”.

David Attonborough’s wonderful last few series are certainly much-trumpeted successes. But don’t forget – they’re co-produced with American networks, and American money.

Dexter, the Sopranos, the Wire…none of these will happen in the BBC’s limited creative environment, where the license fee has to be bureaucratically accounted for and channelled into easy guaranteed returns.

What the BBC has to do is learn to adapt to the new landscape – people can pick-and-mix their entertainment. Either by recording shows to a PVR, or buying boxsets, or downloading/streaming shows – there’s no need to sit through tedious programming in the hope of something good turning up. Now that you can choose specific content and watch it immediately, 90% of the BBC’s TV output ends up looking like unnecessary filler.


Great to have some informed opinion from Rich. I can’t help but feel there’s a wealth of creative talent in the UK which is being short changed by the BBC and it’s pointless efforts to justify itself as all things to all people. Why is the UK so far behind the TV curve? Lack of talent? Nope. Lack of money? Certainly not. It’s time to redistribute all the money we as a nation spend on TV into channels and programming we choose to watch. Instead of spelling the end of the BBC this would release it to create the quality programming so many of us yearn for (and are willing to pay for).

Julian Smith says:
16 September 2010

The BBC is amazing, it’s one of the reasons I’m proud to be British. Murdoch’s influence through SKY is malign, if he ever ran down the BBC, we’d be swamped with adverts every ten minutes, terrible TV and enormous costs – witness SKY Sport!


Or alteranernatively if you don’t like Sky, don’t subscribe. Just like if I don’t like the BBC I can . . oh yeah hang on.


We’ll be talking about this on the Which? Tech Podcast next week, so let’s hear more! For my money – literally – a lot depends on what the BBC does with the huge amount of material it could now make available online. Recently the BBC said it would make available material from 25 years of its “broom cupboard” children’s studio. Yet the BBC has hangars full of wonderful material – much of it not tied up in copyright confusion – which it could make available online. This is stuff we paid for. Here’s a taste of what they could and should be doing a lot more of, especially for Agatha Christie fans. http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/agatha_christie/ A site full of documentaries, audio and video about the writer. Why does it not do more of this? It’s a mystery!


Interesting the bbc’s defenders mention the tv tax being used to fund the bbc’s radio stations ,but fail to mention (or ignore) the extreme damage that their unfair financial position has done to the commercial radio stations (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/jun/21/global-radio-restructure ),
but that was what they were set up for in the first place wasn’t it ? We all know Radio 1 was started to try to put Radio Caroline out of business & if it wasn’t for WWII Radio Normandy (a pre war commercial radio station) would have kept beating the bbc for listening figures .