The BBC Television Licence:
A TV Ownership Tax That Is Not So Easily Avoided

by Ron Kaufman

"Using a television without an appropriate licence is a criminal offence. Every day we catch an average of 1,200 people using a TV without a licence. There is no valid excuse for using a television and not having a TV Licence, but some people still try - sometimes with the most ridiculous stories ever heard. Our detection equipment will track down your TV. The fact that our enquiry officers are now so well equipped with the latest technology means that there is virtually no way to avoid detection."
-- from the official website of the British Television Licensing Authority, May 2003

In the United Kingdom, citizens must pay a licence if they own a television set. That's right, a TV tax. For Americans, the whole idea of an annual tax to own a television borders on the absurd. However, in the UK, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is a government agency that has the power to tax and enforce laws. In order to obtain funding, the BBC requires that anyone using its services must pay for them. So, if you own a TV set and live in the UK, you could conceivably turn on the BBC broadcasts, so therefore you better pay.

A colour television licence is £116 a year (around $192 US) and a black and white TV licence costs £38.50 a year (around $64 US). The cost goes up each year and this has lead some lawmakers to question the way the BBC is funded. However, until the law is changed, the TV licence remains -- leading to harassment of those who proclaim not to own a TV set and jail time for those that own TV sets and don't pay the tax.

The BBC was formed on October 18, 1922 in order to provide the UK with radio broadcasts of impartial and public-centered news and entertainment. From its inception the BBC was a public service, so a radio licence was enacted in November, 1922 of 10 shillings in order to provide funding. The BBC's first broadcast was in January, 1923 and throughout the next few years, the company worked to diversify its broadcasts. The BBC aired news, entertainment, sports, weather and even replayed some American broadcasts. By 1938 the BBC added foreign language services and then served as an important source of information during World War II. Though disrupted because of the war, the BBC's television service started in ernest in June, 1946 when the radio licence was raised to 1 pound and a combined radio and TV licence was introduced for 2 pounds. Throughout the next half-century, the BBC increased it's broadcasts and offerings worldwide. It also increased the TV licence for British citizens.

The Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1949 (and then amended in 1967) states that anyone who possess a television set as a means of receiving broadcasted transmissions must obtain a licence. All televisions in homes must be licensed. Televisions on college campuses must be licensed. Televisions in hotels must be licensed. Televisions in cars need a separate licence. This work is done by the Television Licensing Agency (TVLA).

In fact, according the TVLA's official website, "any dealer who sells or rents TV receiving equipment (whether the equipment is new or second-hand) to notify TV Licensing within 28 days of each transaction, giving full details of the buyer or renter. Failure to do so may mean a £1,000 fine per offence for you, or any store manager employed by your company. August 2000 was the first time a major retailer was prosecuted under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1967. One of its outlets was fined a total of £2,500 including costs for not passing on details of six customers who had purchased television sets. More recently in October 2000, a second major retailer was found guilty of five such offences and fined over £2,000."

The TVLA keeps track of all the TV sets in the country and who owns them. For an individual, failure to pay the licence fee usually results in fine of around £150, but it can go up to a maximum of £1,000.

The graphic to the left illustrates why this licence is so important to the BBC. The company relies almost entirely on the licence fee for funding. With TV licenses accounting for nearly £2.4 billion in annual income, it takes payment seriously and has created an entire organization to enforce collection. Yes, that's right, the TV police.

The TVLA monitors all uses of television sets in the United Kingdom while enforcement is handled through a company called The Capita Group. Capita Business Services boasts that its contract with the BBC (signed in February 2002) to collect licenses is worth £500 million over 10 years. In a press release, this private company states that with revenue of more than "£898 million in 2002 and employing 17,000 people at more than 200 sites in the UK, Capita offers contact centre services to more than 150 large-scale public and private sector clients. It manages in excess of 29 million contacts a year."

Collecting £2.4 billion a year is no small task. The TVLA/Capita "TV police" roam the countryside looking for non-licensed TVs illegally broadcasting 30-year-old re-runs of Monty Python. They use the "TV Licensing database" with details of more than 26 million UK addresses -- and their television sets. Also, part of the work is done in special "detector vans." The TVLA website explains that "every TV contains a component called the 'local oscillator', which emits a signal when the television is switched on. It's this signal that the equipment on our vans picks up. But, what if you live in a block of flats or a house without road access? Well if this is the case our enquiry officer can simply use one of our hand-held scanners. Measuring both direction and strength of signal, they make it easy for us to locate television sets in hard to reach places."

With such sophisticated television-hunters on the prowl in England, the BBC has found that most people pay. As of March 2002, 23.7 million licenses had been established.

"TV licence evasion is against the law. We prefer people to pay their licence rather than be prosecuted. It is our job to ensure that those who do pay should not be disadvantaged by those who don't, so we will continue to pursue all evaders whose actions make less money available for programs," stated the BBC.

"The success of our actions is evident in the achievements of the last financial year (2001-2). Recent figures show we have brought in an additional £35 million for making programs by growing licenses by more than 300,000. We expect evasion to have reduced significantly again due to the growth in licenses and the 12% increase in evaders caught, up by 50,000 in the year to 448,000 by March 2002. (BBC response to the National Audit Office Report on May 15, 2002)

The BBC reported that the reduced evasion added up to an additional £4.6 million, which is "the equivalent of three high-quality drama series." I guess the term "high-quality" is a subjective assessment.

Though fines are a more common result for being caught without a licence, some people have actually received jail time. Although, pressure from the legislature is slowly reducing this practice. In 1995, 235 people were jailed for not paying the TV tax, while in 1999 that number had steadily been reduced to 24.

The question remains: What if you don't have a TV? Unfortunately, this is a problem. In the eyes of the TVLA and BBC: "Doesn't everybody watch and own a television?"

For some who don't like television and don't watch television and don't own a television, the TVLA becomes an annual ballet of phone calls, letters and TV licence inspectors. Duncan Bennett has created an entire website devoted to his struggles with the TVLA. "I have not had a television for many years," he states on his website. "One would think that would be an end to it, but it isn't. One cannot simply refuse this entertainment service, without appearing to be dishonest in the eyes of TV Licensing (a.k.a. the Television Licensing Authority or TVLA). The non-viewer does not fit into their framework. To them there are licence-payers and licence-dodgers and the non-viewer (with whom they really have no business) is treated as a suspect licence-dodger."

In an email, Bennett wrote that "living without a television in the UK is not as simple as getting rid of the TV set. In the UK the licensing authority operates under legal statute giving them wide powers. The licensing authority have no real concept of the non-viewer and class them as suspect licence-dodgers. Thus, we are subject threats and other manner of persecution. Considering we are only refusing an entertainment service it is a ridiculous situation."

His website shows annual correspondence with the TVLA as he futilely tries to convince them that he doesn't watch TV. "If you would like to get a feeling for the life of people in the UK who do not have television, please look at my web site," he says. His site has links to many organizations within the UK trying to end the practice of TV licensing.

In one letter to Bennett, the TVLA stated that "there are a high number of people who advise us that they do not use TV equipment, but are subsequently found to be doing so." The letter goes on to say that if their inspectors find that no TV sets are present on the premises, then no further contact will be made -- until next year. "We do not cease our enquiries to any address on a permanent basis because we know that situations do change . . . and without regular checks our records would quickly become out of date."

Then there's the case of Richard Butler-Stoney who received numerous letters from TVLA for his property in Norfolk. This property, Mileham, is an 11th century castle, unoccupied since 1250 and now home to birds and grazing cattle. He said he's not paying the fine: "We did have a good chuckle but it's not worth replying to. They're welcome to come and chase it up if they want to."

In the United States, we are hit with so many taxes it's almost beyond belief. There is federal income tax, state income tax, state sales tax, city wage tax, home owners tax, a monthly tax on using a telephone line, special alcohol and cigarette taxes, outrageous hotel taxes and the list goes on and on. Fortunately, the government doesn't tax TV sets. Where the UK is home to 60 million people and 30.5 million television sets, the US has 280 million people and 219 million television sets. That would be a huge financial boost to the government should they decide to place an annual tax on owning a TV. However, there are a lot more firearms in the US and I can only dream of the possible violence that would ensue should a tax collector try and take away someone's TV.

The BBC and TVLA harassment and annual questioning of non-viewers is appalling. The BBC should find a way to place their usage taxes on the signal and not the device itself. In the UK, owning a TV set for watching VHS tapes and DVDs does not require a TV licence. However, the BBC argues that those sets have the potential of receiving a signal, so a tax is levied. The BBC should realize that non-viewers do exist and find a more modern way to place a tax on TV usage that does not burden those who don't watch TV with defending their position every year.

However, the bottom line is that in the UK, if you don't own a TV, you'll never have to pay the BBC. The TV Licence: just one more reason to kill your television.


© 2003 by Ron Kaufman