Monday, 6 July 2015

TV licence loophole

Radio transmissions were licensed.

Whilst it is less so now, with mesh technology and pico cells and so on, the concept at the time made sense. You have a limited resource that covers a wide area or even a country, and as such you need licensing to ensure it is not abused.

This included licensing of radio receivers, which was odd, and clearly just a money making exercise. It is only the transmission in the limited resource space that needed controlling and hence licensing.

This included Radio and TV licences, which has diminished to just TV licences. The idea of charging more for colour (and less for someone that is blind, FFS) is crazy. Again, you should only need to licence the transmitter really.

I recall as a student I had no TV but had a radio receiver which was a BBC micro teletext box. This confused the fuck out of NTVLRO. At the time, the interpretation was that if you videoed (e.g. VHS) something you needed a licence to play the video not to record it. This sort of made sense as the fee depended on whether you viewed in colour or black and white. The licence was for you personally receiving the TV signal (watching it). This changed later to being the recording equipment needing a licence and nobody believing you had a black and white TV any more. At the time we had a big debate as teletext is black and white dots only so I said I only needed a black and white licence. They felt I needed a colour one. The teletext was used to stream BBC micro programme code! It came down to the received BBC micro programme listings - if the listing had colour (in-line colour character codes) then viewing the listing needed a colour licence (if you had a colour monitor), but if it was all plain text then only a black and white one was needed. I suspect the pedantry was strong in this one, even at such a young age - I have not improved much.

But more and more changes mean that "Live streaming over IP" is now something that needs a Wireless Telegraphy TV licence. That is mad, and to be honest a loophole that needs plugging.

The "iplayer loophole" some mention is madness. The loophole is allowing licence fees for live streaming over IP where no wireless telegraphy is involved, and to be honest the whole basis for charging a radio licence is long since obsolete.

If they want to charge for player - then make it a subscription service - simple, and no pen pushers and other vultures getting in the way of the money going to the BBC. But don't fuck about pretending it is a "licensing" issue.

If we start licensing streamed individual videos, I will want my cut for some of my youtube videos.


Update: Thanks for debate on irc.

OK, where does the BBC fit in?

I think there are things that are at different levels.

Some things fit at a level of national infrastructure and things we all need or may need and somehow need to be paid for by all. This is things like NHS, and so on that need to be paid out of general taxation.

I think there are things that are not viable on a pay as you go basis, but not universal for general taxation, and need to be charged on a class of use basis. Things like perhaps road and fuel tax based charges that go to pay (in theory) for roads and infrastructure. But that there is some choice with people whether they are in that class and pay towards that class of infrastructure. This is complex, especially roads, as we all want an ambulance or Tesco van to be able to get to our house via roads even if we do not have a car, etc. Also, such taxation is rarely pigeon holed to its target budget.

Finally we have services we use that can be worked on a pay for what you use basis. These can be state provided services, but something we pay when we need, and not something we have to pay a share to. Of course you then have competitively provided commercial services as the final logical step.

Ultimately these are points in a spectrum of socialist to capitalist models.

No, I have no bloody idea where BBC fits in this - but pinning it to an antiquated model of radio spectrum usage tax is mental and needs changing.

19 comments:

  1. I completely agree. Further .. if iPlayer moved to being a chargeable service, pay-per-use, I'd pay for it without a qualm. If it moves to being something for which you must pay a TV license, I'm just going to stop using it: I watch broadcast TV for about ten hours a year, and that's just *not worth it*.

    But it seems it's going to move to a 'TV license needed' scheme (which needs no extra code and simpler legislation), so it's goodbye iPlayer for me. I suspect a lot of people will come to the same conclusion.

    Further -- if you look at the age distribution of iPlayer users versus TV license holder, it becomes clear that this is *yet another* way to transfer money from the young-and-poor to the old-and-asset-rich. It seems UK governments will *never* have enough of those... and I've had enough of playing, thankyouverymuch.

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    1. Yes this happens at the same time as the gov. have told the BBC they must fund all the free licenses for the over 75s themselves.

      TBH I think they should just have the bakks a universal thing that everyone pays rather than pissing about making something 95% of people pay due to spurious and constantly changing reasons.

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  2. Adrian Johns' book "Piracy" has an excellent section on the origins of the BBC and the advent of radio, and the basis and evolution of the "TV licence".

    My perspective is pretty similar to yours: rather than trying to argue that all computers need to be licensed on the basis that they are equipment capable of receiving TV as it is broadcast, just turn iPlayer into a subscription service. Better, sell bundles — I would happily have paid for a Top Gear bundle, but I don't need an antiques, home renovations and cooking shows bundle. Of course, I suspect that popular shows would subsidise less popular ones (and would need to do so in the context of public service broadcast too) but, as yet, I've not read a good argument as to why adopting a subscription model for iPlayer would not solve most of the alleged problems with the system today.

    (And turn non-payment into either a copyright infringement or a breach of contract issue, and do away with any notion of being unlicensed being a criminal offence.)

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  3. So you're the person that bought the one BBC Micro Teletext adaptor Acorn ever sold. OK that's an exaggeration, but they didn't sell many.

    My problem with iPlayer and the BBC generally as a subscription service is it won't bring in anywhere near as much money as the licence fee. I'd rather everyone simply have to pay for it in the UK, the way everyone pays for schools regardless of whether they use them and any number of other things. The percentage of the population that use the BBC regularly is much higher than use various other services that we all have to pay for.

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    1. "My problem with iPlayer and the BBC generally as a subscription service is it won't bring in anywhere near as much money as the licence fee."

      Why do you think that? Bearing in mind some people already opt out entirely (by not owning a TV) and others avoid paying illegally, how many more people do you think would stop subscribing if we had the choice? 10%? Easy to cover with the savings from current enforcement, and perhaps a modest increase or a little trimming: nothing drastic.

      A universally-funded version restricted to public service content *only* - i.e. the Parliament channel, educational/documentary content and the like - might be OK - but taxing non-viewers to fund Eastenders? Forget it.

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  4. I'm going to respectfully disagree here.

    IMHO, the value of the BBC (and its funding model) is that they can produce content/services that, for some reason, aren't commercially viable, yet are of value to the country. e.g. content that is high risk (not a guaranteed success), or simply niché content (lets say, sciencey stuff that is educationally valuable, but doesn't have the mass-appeal that a commercial channel would want in order to dedicate production money and airtime to).

    Obviously, a lot of this is undermined by the BBC producing long-running popularist junk like East Enders, etc., but I do feel that without a licence fee we would end up losing a lot of valuable content in favour of cheap-to-product/popularist crap such as reality TV. I think we'll also go the way of US channels, with wall-to-wall adverts, even on subscription channels. (The likes of Sky are pretty bad already - you pay a subscription and still have to watch ads, but the US channels are even worse).

    To my mind, that we have to fund the BBC through non-commercial means is a given, but the question is how to fund them. I've felt for a long time that the TV licence is fundamentally unfair because the BBC do lots of non-TV things (the website, radio, etc.) which are available to non-licence payers, yet funded by the TV licence. iplayer just makes that more pronounced, and honestly, it was pretty obvious that having broadcast content available without needing a licence fee was only going to end with a big reduction in the number of licensed households. Addressing the iplayer situation should have been addressed years ago - now there are a lot of people who have stopped paying, and making them pay again is going to cause a big backlash.

    The opinion I've held for many many years is that the TV licence should be collected from every household in the country (irrespective of whether they watch TV, etc.), probably just as part of the council tax bill. This would maintain the funding of the BBC, pretty much everyone in the country uses *some* BBC service, so it seems fairer. It would also put the folks at the TV Licensing Authority out of a job, which given their threatening behavior can only be a good thing. Tieing the licence fee to whether or not you own some particular technology (TV, computer, internet connection, whatever) is a complete nonsense

    (For the record, I don't currently have a TV licence. We don't watch broadcast TV, preferring to use iPlayer instead. We would be happy to pay a licence fee, and in fact intend to do so, but every time I think about applying I receive a threatening letter from the licensing authority that puts me off giving them any money).

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    1. I could live with that solution, although I can imagine that, for some, being forced to find another £1xx a year irrespective of whether they use the service is going to be tough. It would mean a high cost-per-programme for me, though (probably more than the cost of the content we get through Netflix, iTunes and so on) as we watch virtually no BBC content (especially now that Top Gear has gone) and do not listen to BBC radio. However, unless the price is raised, it is at a level where it would be an irritant rather than anything else.

      (I'm not convinced a subscription model negates the possibility of public interest broadcasting thought — it all depends on how the subscription prices are set and how the income is spent — and would, at least, ensure that those who use the licensed services pay for them.)

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  5. As far as funding the BBC goes I believe that true public service broadcasting e.g. news, politics. educational output - should be state funded and entertainment/non-essential output should be funded by adverts/subscription - or axed.

    Now how the funding is collected is yet another issue. Currently 10% of the criminal cases going through the court system are related to non-payment of the licence fee. It is totally disgusting and unacceptable that, often poor people, are being criminalised because they didn't fund EastEnders.

    Not only do I believe the licence fee should be cut to only support true public service output the funds that are raised should take into account ability to pay. Today someone on unemployment benefit (approx £70/week) has to spend two weeks income to purchase the TV licence - how many middle class families(who aren't living in poverty) would be happy to spend two weeks wages for the pleasure of the licence fee? Owning a TV is a normal part of being an informed member of society, being poor should not mean you have to dispense with that.

    The obvious answer is to lump it into income tax with some independent watchdog to prevent political interference - the current system doesn't stop political interference as Charter renewal, for starters, shows.

    Whenever I see supporters of the BBC licence fee on TV they always ignore the plight of the poor and umm, and ahh, about how the licence fee is the only way to fund the BBC and how, if it's going to change, it should maybe in five, or ten years time - which is coded language for "No, change, ever!". It really makes me despise the middle class BBC apparatchiks, there is absolutely no excuse for how the licence fee impacts the poor.

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    1. You seem to be suggesting that everybody has a right to watch EastEnders without having to pay for it. That does sound a little strange.
      I do wonder what proportion of the populist BBC output is watched by people who couldn't afford to pay for it. EE is probably a good case in point.

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    2. I'm really surprised that a significant number of licence non-payment cases go to court, given that it's pretty much impossible for them to get evidence unless the defendant incriminates themselves.

      I.e. they can't enter your premises to collect evidence unless you either let them in, or they already have enough evidence to get a search warrant. Its difficult to see how they would get a search warrant - ok, so they could spot a TV through the window, but that could be used for watching netflix, DVDs, playing games, etc. Even if they spot you in the act of watching something on the TV, they would need to be able to demonstrate that it is content that is currently being broadcast, rather than a DVD or catchup-TV - that seems difficult given the large number of broadcast TV channels that are available (a large number of channels to check against makes it not a simple case of saying $programme is currently on BBC 1 and you are currently watching $programme so you're guilty).

      I guess if you have a subscription to Sky/Virgin/Whatever at the same time as not having a licence then that's going to be sufficient evidence for a search warrant, but how often are people that stupid?

      Now, my personal experience of the TV Licensing Authority is that they are borderline criminal, and I can certainly see them intimidating someone enough to let them through the door or incriminate themselves. Examples:

      Just after moving home (a couple of decades ago), I had no TV and therefore no TV licence. The TV Licensing authority took to sending me nasty letters with "YOU ARE BREAKING THE LAW" written on the _outside_ of the envelope. If I hadn't just graduated (and was therefore broke), I would've taken them to court for libel - I wasn't breaking the law (I had no TV) and yet they were telling the world that I was a criminal, definitely sounds like libel to me.

      My wife was working away from home for a few years and had no TV in her flat, so again, no licence. The Licensing authority sent regular abusive letters that, at first glance, look like you're about to get a court summons if you don't pay up. IMHO if a private company did this kind of thing the police would become interested in them. I've heard of several cases of people who don't have a TV paying up because they're scared of the impending court action that would never actually happen.

      While I was in her flat, a licensing officer called and demanded to enter. Of course I refused to let him, but he was pretty pushy and was definitely of the "you're guilty unless you can prove otherwise" attitude. Again, someone easily intimidated would probably give up and let him in, and again, if a private company was going round demanding that people let them into their houses in order to avoid court proceedings, I'm pretty sure the police would take an interest.

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  6. TV licences are nothing to do with the Wireless Telegraphy Act any more. They used to be, but for a good few years now have been to do with the Communications Act.

    I used to work for a car radio manufacturer (Radiomobile). One used to have to buy a separate licence for a car radio. It was great for business when the government abandoned that.

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  7. If the BBC is going to be kept in a commercial free form, then there's four options to fund it - A subscription/levy tied to owning something (like a TV receiver), A Household levy (like council tax), An industry levy (ask ITV, Virgin Media, Sky, et al, to fund it) or general taxation.

    If we accept that cord cutting is likely to increase, and thus decrease BBC funds, then the first option is not sustainable, especally as its unfair to ask some users to fund those who use the service, but don't use it.

    The other option could perhaps be to make it an "internet license", have it tied to owning an internet connection. This would probably have to include mobiles rather than just wireline broadband (if we accept there is a trend from wired to wireless). I can see some advantages to that - we could ask ISPs to collect it (like they do VAT), meaning there is no need for the TV licensing people at all, and no more nastygrams from them. I think I can imagine RevK's reaction to being asked to do this...

    A household levy, like council tax, would be argued as being unfair on those who don't use the services, an argument that exists today, but this probably makes it bigger. A person who can't pay (rather than chooses not to pay) can sell their TV (or simply leave it unplugged) to escape liability for a license, but if you get in difficulties and its a household levy, you're stuffed.

    An industry level will be resisted bitterly by the established players, who will complain about being asked to fund their biggest competitor... Never mind ITV Studios linked companies are probably selling programmes to the BBC anyway.

    and that leaves General Taxation. Every political group seems convinced already that the BBC is biased against them. The Tories call them leftist, the left calls them tories, and the SNP calls them english dominated tory sympathisers.... Putting the BBC budget at the whim of the chancellor every year will put their political independence at risk - although the ABC in Australia seems to be doing a reasonable job of resisting the Abbot government...

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  8. What is even more strange is how do you define a live stream?
    Is there a specific time difference between the actual event and the viewer that is watching defined anywhere?

    With Analog transmissions there was no noticeable delay so live transmissions are easy to classify.

    Now with Digital transmissions, what you see is not live its delayed slightly for error correction purposes, interleaving etc and may be delayed by up to 2-3 seconds.

    Does it mean that if you time-shift what you watch then you don't need a license to watch it?


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    1. If you record (say) EastEnders, you WILL need a TV License, always.

      If you watch it via iPlayer when it is being live broadcast (eg. 20:00 to 20:30 or whatever time it is on), you need a TV License.

      If you watch it via catch up on iPlayer (eg from 20:31 onwards after the point of broadcast), you do NOT need a TV License.

      To avoid doubt:

      If you record EastEnders (say on a Freeview box), and you watch it at 20:31 (eg after it was broadcast) you STILL need a TV License.

      Oh and also, if you watch or record the repeat of EastEnders on BBC Three, you still need the TV License.

      But you can watch it via iplayer catch up without one

      Oh - and for the avoidance of doubt, if you only watch weird (foreign) Satellite channels that aren't intended for the UK, but you can pick them up, you DO still need a TV License...

      Yeah... REALLY...

      It's all on the TV Licensing site.

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    2. From memory, the wording was "near real time"

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  9. Why not just bring back advertising? I simply can't understand why it couldn't be done - they used to have adverts!
    Sure they are annoying, but with modern technology, they simply sell you a "no adverts" service that streams to you.

    Double win: millions see the adverts and BBC gets money, those happy with paying £150 a year for advert free service can carry on.

    Do I get a medal?

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    1. You might do if you can answer this question.
      What will those who have paid to have 0 adverts watch whilst those who haven't are watching adverts?

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  10. Just fund the BBC from general taxation. Saves the 5-10% admin costs too.

    There's no difference from the situation now. The government already tells the BBC what it can or cannot do. Other countries have already gone down this route to save money.

    To force the BBC to lose all its tiers of middle management, fund C4 from the same source so that it can have some advert-free programmes. Competition from another publicly-owned network would help the BBC's efficiency no end.

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  11. They want to avoid general taxation as the license fee is chargeable to all the unemployed etc. move it to general taxation and then it will likely be burdened on tax payers, whilst I dont think thats a too bad thing. many people would oppose it.

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