The Best Arguments For and Against the TV Licence Fee

By James O Malley on at

Bad news for BBC iPlayer users who are used to getting a free ride on using the iPlayer. The Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has announced plans to tighten up the rules to remove any loopholes that let people watch online for free, by enforcing the need to have a TV licence to use all of iPlayer.

This has provoked a lot of debate since announcement, so to add fuel to the fire, here's what we consider the best arguments for and against forcing iPlayer users to pay up.



Watching TV shows at the time they are scheduled is so 10 years ago. Why should it matter whether you catch up with Doctor Who at the time it is broadcast or on demand? You’re still getting the same thing.

The BBC needs its funding to not rely on a specific transmission mechanism

Similarly, watching TV by receiving the pictures via an aerial on your roof is an increasingly archaic method. Why should paying the BBC mean relying on people doing it this way? It’d be like expecting free train tickets because you’re not driving a car.

The BBC does powerful and unique work, and we must protect it

You might not care what is happening in Burkina Faso, but you can sure as hell bet there is someone at the BBC World Service who does. And while you might not tune in daily to find out the latest from Ouagadougou, you can at least appreciate the value in someone keeping track of what is going on there.

Won't someone please think of The Great Interior Design Challenge? Image via the Guardian/Alun Callender

The BBC, especially in its news and factual divisions provides a valuable service where the market would otherwise fail. Even in its mainstream content, it will take risks on new talent and new ideas, enriching our culture in the process. BBC Three, before it went online only, was a hotbed of new comedians, actors and performers who would later go on to find mainstream success. Would ITV or Sky really have taken a chance on reviving Doctor Who in 2005? We need the BBC to do this, and we need the BBC to have the cash to do it.

People who pretend the the iPlayer is a magic loophole are stupid

Until this announcement, everyone has had a slightly different theory on how using the iPlayer gets around having the TV licence. Is your laptop plugged into the wall? Are you only watching on demand instead of a live stream? Whatever keeps your conscience clean, folks.

Grow up. How do you think the BBC pays for its programmes? The BBC can’t operate one of the most expansive global news operations and turn out consistently high quality programming for free. Sure, the BBC isn’t perfect but it is still overall a force for good in the world: it is promoting British values and British culture to a global audience, and everyone should help protect it.

So you should really just get over it and pay for it.


In the modern world, it’s possible to avoid the BBC completely

Sure, the Licence Fee might have made sense in an age when there were only four TV channels which everyone watched, but in the modern media landscape it is perfectly possible to never consume BBC material. YouTube, Netflix and Amazon work fine. Why should we be forced to pay for a specific set of programmes and services?

Can't it just use adverts?

The BBC has always used the Licence Fee, but people in the modern world are more than used to adverts. So why can't the BBC make the switch and fund itself the same way as YouTube?

How will the BBC know who is watching?

One of the great boogeymen of the 20th century was “TV Detector” vans, that would supposedly drive around and detect people who were watching TV without a licence. Though unsurprisingly, it is unlikely that they ever existed beyond promotional material designed to scare people into stumping up the cash.

One of the mythical magical TV Licence detector vans in its natural state (i.e doing nothing). Image via Wikimedia Commons

The real way it worked was by comparing a list of households with licences to a list of all households, with the TV Licensing body then attempting to shake down anyone who was on one list but not the other. This was predicated on the assumption that virtually no one doesn’t have a TV.

In the iPlayer era, it isn’t clear how detection would work. Either the BBC would have to build a system to hook up BBC IDs with TV Licensing data (which are technically two different organisations), have the Home Secretary let them monitor our internet usage, or just continue with inaccurate shakedowns. And as described above, if someone owns a computer, phone or a tablet, unlike TV ownership used to be, it is no guarantee that they watch BBC content.

The BBC is a bloated anachronism

Let’s face it: the BBC has long had imperial ambitions. Does it really need to do everything that it does? Why does it need a website full of written material when the private sector will do that? Why does it need to make video, when the private sector can adequately do that too?

Entirely necessary groundbreaking reporting paid for by extension by the Licence Fee. Screenshot via BBC News

The switch online opens up the TV market to truly global competition, with no limitations on the number of providers that can operate side by side.

As we move online, perhaps it is time to retire the Licence Fee and let the BBC sink or swim on its own merits, as a private subscription service that will either sink or swim against its rivals. The necessary protection racket created by limited traditional TV bandwidth is dead, so let’s not reinforce it in the 21st century.

Read More: Is the BBC Doomed?

Full disclosure: James O'Malley is a contributor for BBC Asian Network's technology show

Top image credit: man on laptop from shutterstock/guteksk7; BBC iplayer Logo via BBC; prohibition logo from shutterstock/balein; TV Licensing logo via TV Licensing