New iPlayer Law is a Step Backwards

When my wife and I first moved into our new flat, it wasn’t long before we received a letter from the UK TV Licensing authority.

“Welcome to your new home. Would you be interested in purchasing a TV Licence? Here’s all the great content you could have access to!” is what it did not say.

Instead, the tone was threatening, bellicose, intimidating – a strange mix of officialeese, blunt demands and weasel words, apparently designed to make the average reader feel like a criminal.

That’s how it made us feel – and we don’t even own a television. It seemed to insinuate that we’d be better off getting a Licence anyway just in case we broke the law at some point in the future – perhaps if, say, a television accidentally fell into our laps, switched itself on and tuned itself in to The One Show.

We put the letter in the recycling box. Perhaps its next life will be a better one.

TV Licensing is outdated

After logging in to the website and filling in the boxes that explained why we didn’t actually need a TV Licence, we continued our practice of occasionally watching shows on the BBC’s excellent iPlayer app – which, yes, felt rather odd after the threatening letter which had almost seemed to clench its teeth as it quietly admitted that was something we could do without a Licence (as long as it wasn’t live of course – are you sure you’re not going to watch live TV? Even by accident? Yes, we’re sure).

It was a silly loophole and it makes sense to close it. The problem is that’s all that’s been done. BBC iPlayer is an excellent service which shows just how ‘with-it’ the BBC can be, but shackling it to the existing TV Licensing system exposes just how out of date that system is.

For example, I still don’t need a TV Licence to watch on-demand content from any other UK television providers. Even if I had a television – with the 60+ channels a Licence would give me access to through Freeview – my Licence fee wouldn’t directly benefit the vast majority of broadcasters that I might want to watch.

TV Licences are overpriced

This also exposes just what terrible value a Licence is to someone who only streams content and doesn’t have an actual TV. Sure, 60+ channels on a regular TV is a decent value proposition for £145 – even if I don’t actually watch most of them – but when that’s what we’re being asked to stump up for for the occasional episode of Great British Bake Off or Dragon’s Den (in my household, at least) then it suddenly seems far less appealing.

By way of comparison, a whole year of watching Netflix’s enormous catalogue can be purchased for just over £70, as can Amazon’s video-only offering.

Even upgrading to Amazon Prime or HD streaming on Netflix won’t set you back more than £80/£90 for a whole year – and what’s more, with these services, you can come and go as you please on a month-by-month basis.

Also there’s the small matter that Netflix has never sent me a threatening email demanding that I purchase their service, even if I don’t think I’m going to use it.

BBC iPlayer September 2016

Make iPlayer a true streaming service

Fine, the law has been ‘fixed’. Now what TV Licensing needs to do is move forwards to allow the BBC to offer its iPlayer content as a proper service that treats its customers – and potential customers – with value and respect.

No more threatening letters, no more legal obligation – give us the option to treat iPlayer as we would Netflix, or Now TV, or even iTunes. Let us subscribe for a price that makes sense – give us a log-in so we’re not being asked whether we’re criminals or not when we try to watch something.

Or let us rent shows on-demand, as services like Amazon and Google Play already offer. In fact it’s already possible to purchase old TV shows via iPlayer through the BBC Store, so why not simply extend the system to currently airing programmes and rentals?

It shows just how out of touch and bizarre this new ‘fix’ is that the first people to be deliberately targeted by ‘reminders’ were to be students who are living away from home for the first time – surely not the most likely group of people to be able to afford a TV Licence, let alone the most likely to actually own a TV with which to use it.

Most companies offer discounts and incentives to try and grab students – for example, you can get six months of Amazon Prime Video for free if you’re studying – understanding that if you can get a student hooked on your service, you could have a loyal (and highly-paid) customer for life.

Instead, TV Licensing had already started planning to threaten students for money before the law actually changed – only for it to be later amended so that most students wouldn’t technically need a licence so long as they followed some bizarre preconditions.


For now, there’s no way my own household can justify the expense of a TV Licence. We’re not going to click the ‘I’m a criminal’ button on iPlayer either.

Just as well we have friends and family who do have TVs and get their money’s worth out of a Licence, or we might – heaven forbid! – have to miss out on seeing whether Candice is going to be able to hold back her swears for a whole series or what deliberately awkward TV-safe innuendo Mel and Sue can come up with next.

The final thing that’s sad about this whole debacle, other than the tone of the letters and the attitude of an organisation whose job is to enforce a law rather than provide a service is that the BBC is, like it or not, one of the great British unifiers. It’s a source of shared culture and experience.

The BBC has always been good at making us feel British.

By fencing off iPlayer, it’s just been made that little bit harder for those who struggle with their income to (legally) join in with the rest of us – whether it’s Bake Off, the Olympics, Doctor Who or whatever else.

Charles Tosh I'm a freelance writer and English teacher who loves travel, technology and mushy movies.

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7 responses to “New iPlayer Law is a Step Backwards

  1. Why don’t they do what they do here in Canada? Here, whether we like the CBC or its programs or not our income tax dollars subsidize it to the tune of
    Can $1,100,000,000.00 a year or for you UK residents about 645 Million pounds. This works out to Can $31.28 for every man women and child in the country. At least they give you a choice in the UK.

  2. I agree with everything in the article except the second last paragraph. The BBC does not make people feel British, it makes the English feel English and the Welsh, Scots and Irish alienated.

  3. You’re kidding right? A TV licence is required to watch TV in Britain? You must mean to broadcast a TV signal. Great Britain isn’t North Korea or some other despotic regime that has this insane requirement. I just checked the calendar and it isn’t April Fools day. I trust you must be pulling all our legs…

    Ron W.
    British Columbia, Kanada

  4. This article appears to be written by someone who doesn’t understand the concept of public service broadcasting or the costs involved in running a national and international radio and TV broadcasting organisation.

    It’s not about *you* getting your “money’s worth” out of the licence fee – it’s about everyone contributing to fund a comprehensive broadcasting service that serves everybody, including making programmes that you don’t like but somebody else will, and programmes that would never get made at all by commercial TV companies but are nevertheless socially or artistically valuable.

    Trying to turn the BBC into some sort of subscription service would simply destroy it, and make its remit as a public service broadcaster impossible to fulfil.

    1. Hi Reg, thanks for your comment!

      So we’re clear, I’m not arguing for the BBC to be turned into some kind of American-style cable company that you can only access with a subscription. On the contrary, online-only iPlayer users are a very small proportion of people watching the BBC, and many of them were watching that way because they could not afford to pay for a full TV license (or a full TV!). Allowing them to access content that, as you say, has been produced for them thanks to the funding everyone is contributing, at a cost which is reasonable and fair to them, seems to me to be in the very essence of what it means to be a public service broadcaster. Why should everyone contribute at the same rate when there is such an enormous difference in the value proposition, and why should those who are financially unable to contribute not benefit from the public service? Isn’t that defeating the whole point of a TV service for everyone?

      Channel 4 is also a public service broadcaster, but unlike the BBC it’s both entirely self-funded and manages to maintain a generous and civil attitude to its audience.

      (Though it’s another debate entirely, it’s also questionable whether the BBC’s current model of programming is really still ‘public service’ in the way it was when it was initially established.)

  5. Hi Charles, I agree with you 100% mate! Personaly, I love it when the inspecter thinks he”s caught me in and I”m streaming, I turn the volume up so he can hear me streaming and then I make it awkward as pos for him to get access! Then eventually let him in to check even tho they cant legally enter without a warrant! I like to make him work to get in and then ask him if I got a licence what I”d get for my money! And then tell him what I get on line for free! No comparison! Netflix, try 123 movies or putlocker! (soz about spelling, but im lazy and aint gonna inform no one that I dont need a licence, or i”d miss the chance of winding the inspector up when he calls)

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