A television licence will be required in the United Kingdom to watch BBC television programmes live or on demand, on any device, through any provider. A change in the law means that viewers will need to be covered by a television licence when watching programmes on the BBC iPlayer, even if they do not have a television, or the programmes have never been shown on television. A survey by TV Licensing reveals that there is still considerable confusion.
TV Licensing, which operates as the licensing authority on behalf of the BBC, has a database of over 30 million licensed and unlicensed addresses in the United Kingdom and uses this to check whether an address has a television licence.
There were 25.5 million television licences in force in 2015, raising £3.74 billion for the BBC at a collection cost of £114.6 million. The number of television licences has steadily risen from 22.8 million in 2000. There were 4.4 million licences issued free to those aged over 75.
A television licence is for the premises, rather than an address. It may not cover other self-contained units of areas occupied by tenants, lodgers or paying guests. However, a licence is not required for any device powered solely by its own batteries, which would include phones and tablets, provided they are not connected to the mains.
TV Licensing estimates that around 93% of homes and businesses are correctly licensed. In the last year 300,000 people were caught without a television licence.
Watching television without a valid licence is a criminal offence, although it is not a recordable offence that would result in a criminal record. The penalty is prosecution and a fine of up to £1,000.
One in ten court cases in the country is related to television licensing, although most are dealt with procedurally, with 99% of cases resulting in a conviction. However, about 30 people a year are imprisoned for non-payment of fines.
The extension of the television licence provisions to on-demand programming was at the request of the BBC, to close what it termed the ‘iPlayer loophole’ that allowed people to watch catch-up programmes without a licence.
Ironically, when informitv first raised this issue back in February 2005, TV Licensing was adamant that there was no “legal loophole” or “grey area”. Well, not any more, it seems.
The new regulations were put before Parliament in July and come into force from 1 September as the Communications Television Licensing (Amendment) Regulations 2016.
The revised regulations refer to “receiving all or any part of a programme included in an on-demand programme service which is provided by the BBC”.
The meaning of an ‘on-demand programme service’ is defined by the Communications Act 2003, as subsequently amended by Audiovisual Media Services Regulations of 2009 and 2010.
Among other things, the principal purpose of such a service is “the provision of programmes the form and content of which are comparable to the form and content of programmes normally included in television programme services” where access is on-demand.
This is considered to include programmes that have previously been broadcast on television but could also include other programmes of similar form and content, even if they have not been previously shown on television. So that would apparently include even short shows on BBC Three, which now only exists online.
There has been much speculation about how the use of the BBC iPlayer might be detected. The BBC iPlayer client code makes requests to discrete internet domains such as bbci.co.uk that could be used to demonstrate access from specific internet addresses.
Internet service providers, such as BT, have said that they will only provide customer details if they are legally required to do so.
The Home Office has said that enforcement of the licence fee is a matter for the BBC and TV Licensing. It said they do not have the power to acquire internet connection records and there are no plans to change this.
However, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, supposedly introduced to investigate terrorism and serious crimes, has been used for television licence enforcement.
A new Investigatory Powers Bill, currently working its way through Parliament, could require internet service providers to retain connection records for twelve months for the prevention and detection of crime.
Of course, the BBC could simply ask people to register to access its catch-up television services. It already restricts certain features to registered users.
In practice, TV Licensing will probably continue to use the threat of detection, combined with over three million visits a year from its ‘enforcement officers’ to persuade people to pay for the licence at £145.50 a year.
The public generally appreciates the BBC and the BBC iPlayer, but the television licence is deeply unpopular among a vocal minority.
The vast majority of households have a licence so are already covered. It is estimated that fewer than 2% of households only watch catch up programming.
The risk is that the BBC will further alienate a younger generation of viewers that it can ill-afford to lose, such as students, living away from home for the first time.
BBC broadcast television viewing dropped by 8% in the second quarter of 2016 compared to the previous year. Viewing fell by 18% among those aged 16-34, coinciding with BBC Three going off air, while iPlayer viewing was only up by 4% across the same period.
The BBC iPlayer served almost 17 million unique browsers in June 2016, serving 290 million requests. 38% of these were from tablets or mobile devices, while 28% were from a personal computer and 31% were likely to be viewed on a television.
Such online viewing remains a small, although growing proportion of all television viewing. Although live and recorded television makes up the majority of viewing for older age groups, Ofcom research suggests it accounts for only 48% of all viewing for those aged between 16 and 24, while free on-demand programming or movies constitutes 13%.
An online survey for TV Licensing found that while six out of ten people thought they understood the term ‘on demand’ only four out of ten agreed with the definition presented. When asked what ‘live TV’ meant, half thought that this meant television events shown in real time, rather than the definition adopted by the television industry of programmes watched or recorded at the same time as they are broadcast.
Of course, the distinction is no longer relevant. If you are in the United Kingdom you will need to be covered by a television licence to watch BBC programmes, unless you bought them, or are watching on a battery powered device.
The survey was carried out with over 4,000 respondents aged over 16 by Harris Interactive in April.