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In a media world defined by choice, the BBC licence fee is an outdated compulsory subscription model that should be scrapped. How can we keep justifying this outdated TV fee?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

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!

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 .


We had a similar situation in New Zealand that people didn’t like paying the license fee. What we did was that we scrapped it and paid for it out of general taxation. The argument used was that the cost of collecting the license fee amounted to 25% of the money collected.

So no reason to scrap the work the BBC does, but I think the fee itself should be scrapped.

Personally I’d have no problem with adverts on BBC TV/Radio to drive the costs down further as well as long as the content is not compromised.

Beyond accepting advertising,the BBC would be banckrupt. Programming is an art form that costs money and those who contribute to making the shows, documentaries etc are hand picked. Would it not be foolish, to accept second rate workers, resulting in second rate programmes, bringing the BBC into disrepute?
Yes! It would be wonderful if we were to accept a free licence but nothing would attract good viewing if there was no money about.
Before voicing an opinion, consider the programmes currently in the Schedule and discuss which should be removed, because that is what would happen.

It’s like banging your head against a wall trying to deal with socialists !
You like your socialist ideas & organisations ,but are totally incapable of understanding why those of us who hate socialism (it did kill in excess of 100 million people you know) don’t .

Just for accuracy, the TV license is not compulsory, no one has to have a tv set. If you have a tv set, you can buy or rent shows and films with out receiving a broadcast – no license required.
It is like the lottery, no one has to join in.

The license fee, a voluntary subscription, is better, though not everything the BBC does is good value for money. But who else would do the Proms or Radio 6 Music, to give just two examples?

If public broadcasting is paid for from general taxation, there is a greater chance of government interference.

I’m not sure if it’s as clear cut as that. If you have a TV that’s receiving channels, you have to pay the TV licence. But what if you don’t want to (and don’t) watch BBC channels?

My understanding is that you are required to have a licence if you have any apparatus capable of receiving a TV broadcast, which these days includes many devices that are not TV sets. I may be wrong?
However, in my opinion whether I’m right or wrong doesn’t matter as I still think the licence fee is astoundingly excellent value and I will happily pay it just to get Radio 4 (preferably in analogue though, so it doesn’t cut out every time someone walks by with a mobile phone!)

travellingviewer says:
17 September 2010

It is not clearcut. The BBC needs to be able to plan and budget high quality programmes, whether in natural history, drama or documentaries. That is what makes the BBC what it is: special, good. Yet it is spending fortunes on overpaid “sports”men and women and bombarding us with sports programmes, sometimes on both of its channel at the same time. Anyone iwth money can do that. And I don’t want my money to be spent in that way. Moreover, why should a licence fee payer not be allowed to view Springwatch when travelling abroad?

The morons who fail to appreciate the value (in every sense of the word) that the BBC provides are sufficient proof, for me, that the compulsory licence fee should remain in place as a means of funding it. Any other model, such as an optional subscription, would have to be significantly raised above the level of the current licence fee to offset the loss of revenues from those who would choose not to pay. And yet, those who chose not to pay would still be able to watch the BBC for free via services like iPlayer – unless, of course, access to that was wrapped into the paid subscription.

But, what astonishes me is that, now I live in Amsterdam, I can still receive BBC 1, 2, 3 and 4 via our cable service, which we pay for of course, but I’ve been unable to ascertain if any of what we pay actually goes to the BBC! If it doesn’t, that’s scandalous. I’d happily still pay for a TV licence to support the BBC, but without a UK address, apparently that’s just not possible. And there’s no other way I’m aware of to pay money to the BBC. Charitable donation, perhaps?

It would be a travesty of unparalleled proportions if the BBC were to lose its unique position in global broadcasting, by dumbing down the system of funding just to kowtow to the attention-span lacking couch-potato morons who so stupidly fail to recognise that commercial TV is NOT free! Where do they think the money comes from? From the companies who make the products that are advertised, of course. And where do those companies get the money? From the sale of their products to these same viewers of the commercial channels. Products whose prices are raised to cover the cost of advertising them! Durrrrr….. it’s a moronic system of funding for a moronic audience.

If we had more sense, as a society, we’d have found a way to dispose of TV advertising (and much of the rest too, while we’re at it). It’s a totally unproductive industry. The only people who really profit are the advertising agencies and the people they employ (directors, actors, models etc) to produce the ads. The rest of society is simply subsidising the often glamorous lifestyles of all the pople who work in the advertising industry. If the continued existence of the BBC were only to represent an alternative to this huge social wastage, that alone would be more than enough reason for it to continue!

Finally, I would say that it is way past time that the government did abolish the TV licence (say what? huh? please read on!) – and pay for the BBC out of general taxation, the same way it pays for everything else it funds. It’s ludicrous to incur the additional costs of running a separate service to collect the TV licence fee, which is also subject to evasion that will become even harder to avoid as services move away from the conventional broadcasting model to one that is more about on-demand viewing of online streaming content. But whatever is done, we must ensure that the BBC continues to be a paragon of broadcasting excellence – and it would be nice if, as such, it would stop chasing ratings by including ‘popular’ rubbish such as Eastenders and Strictly Come Dancing in its schedules and focus on more quality drama, documentaries and other content worthy of the standards the BBC maintains.

H. Russell says:
19 September 2010

Firstly, not being a reader of the Guardian newspaper by choice, I see no reason why it should be compulsory for me to have to support it’s broadcasting wing. Secondly, if the licence fee is to be retained, why not give some of it (proportionately) to the independent stations?

Err… some of the licence fee revenues ARE given to independent, commercial stations now!

Since when has the Guardian been owned by the BBC or vice-versa? It’s news to me that the BBC is a broadcasting wing of any newspaper!
There does seem to be some very muddled thinking cropping up on this thread.

What would Britain be like without BBC News? What would the world be like without BBC World Service News? We don’t have a choice about paying for that, either, though it comes out of our tax pound not licence fee. We’re discussing this on the Which? Tech podcast this afternoon, and you can hear it on Wednesday morning.

darren says:
20 September 2010

Why are we paying to be brainwashed by the BBC quality programmes are available on a pay as you go basis. Many poor people get criminal records due to being criminalised for not paying the tv license. Enforcement of the fee results in dubious practices.

J.Kimberley says:
22 September 2010

I do not buy the Guardian I despise its views.Why then should I be forced to -pay for the B.B.C ,an organisation that has the same opinions as the Guardian.

Not sure how you work this one out! The Guardian and the BBC regularly seem to be in some dispute with each other as far as I can see?
It’s a shame that people are trying to bring politics into this because it demonstrates that they don’t actually understand the issues or the debate, and that both muddies the waters and also, I’m sorry to say, makes those people look somewhat foolish.

How much do we pay for Sky subscription per year? How much quality, non repeated non-American material do you find on the encrypted Sky channels? What revenue does Sky get compared with the BBC. Why don’t we moan about the Sky monopoly? I pay nigh on £60 pounds a month to Sky. I am only supposed to watch that on one receiver on one TV at one named address, and should not take that card with me when I am not at home. Get real! you really want to sign everything over to a Sky monopoly! True there are problems with the crazy collection rules and regulations – but that is the fault of the legislators not the BBC! And even the inflexibility of the licensing authority is tame compared with the conditions dictated by Sky!

I know it’s quite a way up the board, but Tony’s post about socialism puzzles me – what is socialist about this topic? Indeed, what is political about this topic? People in favour of abolishing the license fee include a number of notable Tories and notable Labour Party members, and of course members of many other parties, including some very right-wing extremist parties. Likewise those in favour of keeping the fee include an equally broad spectrum of politicians and public.
I don’t get Tony’s point????

helen says:
10 October 2010

One or two adverts can be used to help bring down the cost of a tv licence. I seldom watch programes on the BBC as I access ITV, channel 4 and SKY. A low number of adverts will not spoil the number or range of programes on offer at the BBC. I do not think we should have to pay a licence fee of such high cost even if radio is included in the price.

Here’s a little bit of good news for the 42% of you who think the TV licence should go/or be optional. The government’s spending review has said the BBC will freeze the licence fee for six years – a 16% saving in the government’s budget. You can read more about the spending review here: https://conversation.which.co.uk/money/spending-review/

Minami says:
22 January 2011

I was in a lot of debt and having to save every single penny and cut down on everything. But I still had to pay for a TV licence. Even if I got rid of the TV then I would still need a licence because my computer can access TV.

Chris says:
4 October 2011

The only question to ask yourself is “are you happy to pay people like Mr Paxman £1.5m a year”