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This may seem absurd to those of you that are not familiar with it, but in Britain you must have a license to own a tv set. Shocked? You should be! You also can't just get around this problem by getting a tv enabled pc, you need a license for them too!

Now a TV license may cover every TV and TV-enabled PC in your house but these babies aren't cheap. A standard license costs no less than £104 a year and a black and white TV license (yes, some people still have them) costs £34.50 a year. However, if you are blind you get them for half price, which is fair enough considering you are only getting half the output. Also form the 1st of November 2000 anyone over the age of 75 will receive a TV license for free.

Note: Over-75s still need to have a license, they just receive it courtesy of the British government.

The British licensing authority have over 22 million people registered as TV owners. Now that's a lot of money! So where is it all going? Officially it goes into funding BBC TV and radio (in the olden days you need a radio license but that proved too hard to enforce) but personally, considering the quality of the BBC these days, I don’t think that can be true.

It would seem that actually all your licensing money is going to the authority itself and they are using it to keep up their big, scary image. Everyday there are adverts on posters and on TV about how they're going to get you and what they're going to do when they find you've been running a TV set without a license. The fine is pretty steep actually, £1,000! and apparently they catch 1,000 people a day, with their patrol teams, which apparently can detect a working TV set from up to 30m. Think about it though, £1,000 x 1000 people x 365 days a year is... well you do the math, but it's a lot of money.

All I can say is this a pretty rich scary organisation you're messing with and they don't accept any phony baloney excuses, like the ones I found on their website:

  • My cat was sick on the TV and now it doesn't work
  • I thought my wife had sorted that out
  • I don't live here

So beware, their spies are everywhere and they wont take no for an answer, so you better make sure you have your TV license.

The television license (which is, in fact, a form of human rights abuse - in as much as it uses an arbitrary and profit-driven framework to infringe on people's freedom, privacy, livelihood, property rights and access to information) was initially conceived as the Wireless License around about the 1920's. Its purpose was to fund government-run radio broadcasting, and effectively act as a barrier to entry for commercial broadcasting endeavours (which it still excels at today).

Due to legislative inertia, voter apathy and political conniving (and greed), it is now deeply entrenched in UK law. Supposedly, the TV license is required to fund the free-to-air TV and Radio services in the UK (namely BBC1, BBC2, Radio 1 though 5, regional radio stations and the World Service), although in reality the BBC is largely funded by a hefty chunk of public money and its enormously lucrative and publicly unaccountable commercial ventures (which it advertises on its own channels exclusively - there are no other adverts).

The license money is also poured into the BBC's inept cable channels, some of which are also free to air, but are so astonishingly amateurish as to be a flagrant insult to the fee-payer. The BBC uses its (pompous, wretched) free-to-air services as an excuse to demand more and more money each year from every television owner (who has no choice in the matter). Idiotically, they have even stated that to view live webcasts on the BBC internet site you need a TV license (to which the only fitting reply is of course, "fuck you.").

The task of administrating the TV License has long been farmed out to a private company. They use the cover of public information laws to produce print, billboard and TV ads based wholly around intimidation, something that would be illegal for any private company to do. The entire body of their threats (note they only have threats: there are no remotely valid arguments as to why the TV license fee must be paid) revolve around the mythical "detector vans". These vans can apparently detect the electromagnetic interference caused by an active CRT (or a washing machine or microwave, stupidly. But not a flat screen). In reality, the TVLA* detection method involves knocking on every door whose address isn't on their list of licence holders and entrapping the occupant into paying (as they have no powers to search). They did this to me (yes, me, who has never owned a TV) by serving a court warning on the spot. Charming bunch of guys, eh?

Some methods of avoiding payment : remove the plug from your television. Use a television that has an integral power supply. (e.g. a portable TV) Hide your television. Use a TV tuner card / plasma monitor / projector. Deny you have a television. Pretend you aren't in. Carry your television to a next-door neighbours.

Or do what I do : go without. Fuck them and their lowest common denominator, politically skewed, non-interactive audiovisual excrement. TV is dead.

For more information, visit : http://www.cal.org.uk/

*Whose slogan used to be, ironically : "It's not fair, it's not right, and it's against the law." Damn right.

Since I wrote the above rant, digital terrestrial television services have launched in the UK. There is no longer any technical obstacle preventing the BBC's content from being 'opt-in' (encrypted) instead of free-to-air. The BBC's charter comes up for review in 2006.

I got a letter!

I got a letter from the TV Licencing people (who, here in Britain, make you pay £104 for a licence to watch TV, except that only goes to the BBC) to tell me that I Do Not Have A TV Licence. And also that, should I continue to not own a TV licence, the next time I was to hear from them would be a request for a £2000 fine. Great.

Fine, even.

But the problem is, was, and forever shall be, this:

I Don't Own A TV.

The idea that somebody on the list of People Who Don't Own TV Licences would include Dangerous Deviants that don't own a TV (What! You don't want to watch EastEnders? Watchdog is passing you by? The only reason I would own a TV is The Simpsons and Channel 4, which doesn't get money if I do this anyway) simply hasn't occurred to them.

I tell a lie, it has. There is a subsection of the handy form they give you that says "If you don't have a TV, fill in this form".


I have to fill in a form for the TV licencing people to say I *don't* have a TV? But it's got nothing to do with them! Argh! No! Confusion!

The law in the UK states that a licence fee must be paid yearly by every household with a television. This is collected by the TV Licensing Authority (TVLA), a private proxy of the BBC, who use the money to fund their services. While the rights and wrongs of this are debatable, I will concentrate on how this affects the minority who don't watch TV.

From "About TV licensing" chapter 6. Item five.

5. What if I do not have a television?
We have a statutory responsibility to ensure that every
address in the UK where a TV Licence is required is
correctly licensed.

The government allows them to collect fees from all TV users. "Responsibility" and "duty" are words used to fend off every complaint about TV licensing policy. See, for example, the parlimentary committee debate linked below.

We do this by writing to people to
ask about their use or otherwise of television.
If people reply to our letters to the effect that no
television is used at their address, we place a stop
on further enquiry letters...

Some years ago the infamous TV detector vans were used to try to catch licence fee evaders. They have obviously figured out  that sending letters is cheaper. The letters are an odd mix of PR, information and intimidation. They obviously have never considered that sending unsolicited demands for information is, at best, very rude. Still, most people could live with ticking a box and returning a reply slip.

...and arrange for a Visiting
Officer to call upon them to verify the situation.
Visiting Officers should act professionally and
courteously at all times and their visit should take
only a matter of minutes.
They will seek permission to enter a person’s property
simply to take a brief view of the main living areas.

This is where things turn slightly Orwellian. The right to privacy and freedom is cherished in democratic countries, and even the police require judicial permission to search someone's home. Yet this private company expects that most people will waive their rights under pressure.

If the Officer verifies the fact that no television is used,
we will then cease all forms of enquiry to the named
person at their address for a period of 3 years.

It gets worse. They expect to search your home not once, but on a periodic basis.

The occupier is under no legal obligation to allow
entry but it does enable us to place the long-term
stop on further enquiries.

Of course it's not legal. The company expects to compensate for lack of legal powers with harassment and intimidation of the meek and ignorant.

The reason we have adopted this policy is that in 2003
alone one in three people who claimed not to have a
television were found to be using television when TV
Licensing checked the premises, which makes it
necessary to visit in order to verify their statements.

Ha. Imagine making this argument to a magistrate. "Your Honour, surveys show that one-third of the people on this housing estate take drugs, we'd like a search warrant for every house."

We appreciate that not everyone who claims ‘No TV’ is
a licence fee evader, but we feel that the fairest and
most consistent approach to the situation is to call on
everyone who makes a ‘No TV’ declaration.

This is the worst yet. They may appreciate that some people don't want TV, but they have no appreciation or respect for those people's rights.

Another favourite trick not mentioned above is to read the householder a legal caution to attempt to gather evidence for a court summons.

You do not have to say anything.
But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned
something which you later rely on in court.
Anything you do say may be given in evidence.
Do you understand?

Now the householder is being interrogated on his own doorstep by a corporate agent just because he doesn't have a TV. Only in Britain...

I'm not sure what they do when someone ignores their blathering letters and/or refuses to speak to their officers. They say they "look for external evidence" such as a TV aerial (because when someone moves house they always take the TV aerial with them) and then "think about using detection". Interestingly, the TVLA keeps secret the number of detector vans they have, probably because the number is embarrasingly small.

You can find on the internet horror stories about the TVLA being granted search warrants on the flimsiest of evidence, then breaking down people's doors. It's probably best to take this with a pinch of salt, but I wouldn't entirely put it past them.

Further reading:

The TV licence is the best thing that has happened to television, despite all the discourse mentioned in this node. There are many reasons for this, but the primary reason is quality.

If you have been in the USA recently, and watched the local news on just about any station, you have the presenters (big breasts and hot-looking, if they are women, or Clark Kent-replicas, if they are men) casually chatting about taking their cats to the vet, about how fast their kids are growing up, and occasionally remembering that there is the occasional news story to be presented. This situation is the result of a long and thorough process towards profitability: It is cheaper to have two geeks chat about random shit in a studio, rather than to send actual (*gasp*) journalists out in the field, to report on (*double gasp*) news stories. With all the disadvantages - not only the disadvantages to the news reporting as a whole, but also to the general dumbing down of society as a whole.

In contrast, take the UK and Norway - the two countries I am most familar with, and both countries have TV Licencing. The situation in Norway is well described by NordicFrost above, but the further implications are deeper: One of the strongest arguments against the TV licence, is that "I never watch BBC". However, there is strong evidence to suggest that even people who do not watch BBC (or other state-funded television stations) are advantaged by its existence.

The fact that BBC has high-quality programming - especially its news services, BBC Radio 4 and similar news outlets - means that the other news content providers in the UK (ITV, Granada and Channel 4 news, most notably) have something to compete against. While Channel 4 usually has a populistic slant on their news, and while ITV usually faff about too much for the news to have any deep-running quality, they always have the axe hanging over them: If the quality of the news becomes too low, people will watch the BBC news instead, which is bad for revenue, as fewer viewers means less advertising revenue etc.

Another advantage is that the BBC don't have to "defend" their spending to sponsors in the same way as, say, Channel 4. This means that they can produce series / programmes / documentaries that have a narrow field of interest, and still air them in or around prime-time. An action like this, which would be suicide to a commercial television station, makes perfect sense for BBC and other public service broadcasters; They know that competing with the populist drivel the other channels broadcast is futile: instead, they aim quality programming at the viewers who are sick and tired of that very same drivel, and want a slightly different approach.

Another reason why the licence fee is A Good Thing, is that there is only a limited amount of advertising money out there, and there is no evidence to suggest that advertisers are loyal. Advertisers know very well that the beeb has a huge amount of viewers, who will keep watching, TV licence or no TV Licence, advertising or no advertising. This means that the BBC will have less money to play with, but the beeb has one of the most thorough infrastructures of any media emporium in the UK, with relatively low running costs, compared to some of the other media production companies. If all TV channels in the UK were to go commercial, this means less money for everybody, but there is a good chance that the BBC would be able to take this punch a lot better than some of the other channels. Which, in turn, means that the BBC would still be better, but all the other channels would get even worse programming. The last thing we want.

I recently sent an email inquiry to TVL regarding the use of a freeview box*. Unfortunately I don't have a copy of the sent email but the gist of it was this:
  • The revenue generated by the TV Licence pays for free to air programming (i.e. the BBC).
  • It makes sense that the people who use the service pay for the service.
  • If you don't use the service, you shouldn't have to pay for the service.
To avoid paying the fee I proposed to detune all free to air channels on my freeview box and only use the included freeview channels. They were welcome to send an inspector around any time to watch TV and make sure I wasn't using BBC. In the letter I made it clear that I saw this as a sensible cost cutting exercise and that I wasn't trying to be a smart ass. The reply came two days later and predictably avoided the whole question, once again hiding behind the law instead of giving an actual reason. I have included it below.

Thank you for your e-mail enquiry.

Under the Communications Act 2003, a television licence is required if a person installs or uses a television receiver to receive or record television programme services.

A Freeview box is a television receiver and receives television programme signals in Colour. The installation and use of a Freeview box therefore needs to be covered by a Colour television licence, even when the box is used in conjunction with a black and white television set.

If the Freeview box were only used in conjunction with a radio, a television licence would not be required.

Yours sincerely
(name removed)

...And that's it. Whether you use the service or not, you will pay them for the cost of using consumer electronics in your own home. They have no need of a logical argument because it's the law.

As if they don't get enough money from speed cameras already...

* It's like a sky digital or Cable box except that you only have the upfront cost of purchasing the unit. The downside is that you don't get as many channels and what you do get is laden with advertising. Regular free to air channels are also picked up by default, as are digital radio broadcasts.

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