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TV Licensing is outdated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which shows just how ‘with-it’ the BBC can be, but shackling it to the existing TV Licensing system exposes just how out of date that system is.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.
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.