Brian's Blog

…one man's contribution to the Weeeeerly Wild World

iPlayer and your TV Licence

Another month and another threat from the TV Licensing agency.


I’ve had my own place for over two years and every month since I moved in I’ve received a love letter telling me how I need a TV licence to (legally) watch TV, and that they’ve “opened an investigation” at my address. I’ve not spoken to them once but they keep writing to “The Legal Occupier”. Now their tune has changed and everyone in the UK without a TV licence needs to take note. In some ways it’s a shame I’m still opening their letters because I could have pleaded ignorance to this change, but I’m always thankful of an opportunity to have a rant here.

As of 1 September 2016, a change in the law means you need to be covered by a TV Licence to download or watch BBC programmes on demand – including catch up TV – on BBC iPlayer. This applies to all devices… TV or… computer…

When I moved into my own home I couldn’t see the point in paying £100+ a year to watch a TV when for the few BBC programmes I did watch I could watch/download them later via the BBC iPlayer website. This was perfectly legal, which some people didn’t/don’t realise. And there really were only a few programmes, one of which included the F1, but the BBC bailed out of that and sold it off to Channel 4 (whose website requested I sign in with Facebook or something, and I couldn’t be bothered to jump through their hoops, so this year was my first year in a number of years when I haven’t watched any races).

I therefore can’t actually remember what I last watched on BBC iPlayer; maybe it was Doctor Who, or The Sky at Night/Stargazing Live, or Top Gear before the Clarkson team were sacked/moved off to pastures new. With all of this I lose track of what is on when; without watching regular TV (because I have a stack of books to read instead and endless videos of cats on Youtube to watch) you don’t get all the adverts for things that are “Coming soon…” so it’s easy to miss things. I like Doctor Who and the thought of missing it is a concern, but I can always just buy it on DVD and then resell it when I’ve finished watching it – saving myself a significant portion of the cost of a TV Licence.


But this change in the law still bothers me for a number of reasons and imaginary scenarios I can think of:

How will they police it?

How do they define “TV”, or Live TV? I could host a show on my website called ‘Brian’s World’. How is this different from something on a modern internet-enabled smart TV that receives all it’s content via the internet rather than having a TV aerial plugged into it?

In the pre-internet days the TV Licensing agency apparently employed detector vans and gadgets that could, from being outside your property, detect if you were watching TV or not. I wondered if they could wrongly detect a defunct TV I use as a computer monitor, or pick up the fact that I had a TV card installed in my computer but whose software wasn’t.

Then when the BBC chose to upload TV programmes to their website in the form of BBC iPlayer, and provide software of the same name to freely download that content, they made it clear to me (but not everyone it seems) that I could visit their website at my leisure and watch stuff without having a TV Licence, providing it wasn’t something that was currently being aired; one click away to one of those programmes and you would be breaking the law.

And that’s the thing; it’s always ‘one click away’. I’ve never tried to watch a ‘currently being aired’ programme so I don’t know what kind of warnings, steps or safeguards are in place, if any, but with the new change will they be incorporating any (more)? Will UK residents still be able to visit the BBC iPlayer website and technically be able to watch anything there, whilst unwittingly (or otherwise) breaking the law?

It is my view that the TV Licensing system and the BBC iPlayer service that has enabled those (and seemingly will continue to do so) with internet access to watch BBC TV programmes online, has been long due for an overhaul. What other online service makes its content freely available while at the same time demands/expects a fee to be willingly paid? Calling/making it a law or not is just stupid, or bad business. Any other online service would require users to sign up for an account which they would have to pay for and sign in to in order to use; something the TV Licensing agency has yet to implement, although I’m sure they must have considered it; perhaps that will be their next step. I suspect the Licensing agency is keeping an eye on the numbers of Licence fee payers, and they are implementing these steps as subscriber figures drop below certain thresholds, and figures are dropping because not only are people realising (until now) they could watch BBC stuff online, but that there is a plethora of other visual entertainment available online.

Having said that, laws do not physically stop people from owning and firing a gun, or owning and driving a car on public roads, it’s just most people know that doing these things are illegal without the relevant licence. But when it’s made illegal to watch a BBC TV programme online without paying for a TV Licence, it’s going to label people as a criminal, and people who watch already illegal content are labelled as such too (when caught).


With the case of a TV Licence I’ve always wondered, where do you draw the line? If I’d have moved into my own home during the pre-internet era and chosen not to pay for a TV Licence, could I have asked my mum to video stuff for me watch? Now in the BBC iPlayer era, can I go round to someone else’s house with my laptop, and assuming they have a TV Licence and I don’t, legally download BBC programmes to watch later? If I take my laptop home and watch the programmes there, am I then breaking the law? What if I use someone else’s internet access and download BBC programmes, and watch them there without them owning a TV Licence, am I causing them to break the law?

What if, in this scenario I have a TV Licence but I don’t have very fast internet so I take my laptop somewhere to download the programmes to later watch them at home, but that place where I download them from doesn’t have a TV Licence?

How will the TV Licensing agency know? “Detector vans” will surely be of little use, but maybe the TV Licensing agency will gain access to Internet Service Provider (ISP) information in order to cross-check premises accessing the BBC iPlayer systems with those that don’t hold a TV Licence.

The TV Licensing agency can threaten people all they like but unless they can prove someone is guilty (remember, “innocent until proven guilty”) you can’t be fined, which is why I’m not bothered by their persistent letters. Without ISPs to back them up with evidence it will remain to be seen what prosecutions are made solely on the basis of someone having illegally watched BBC programmes online; until then they are just blowing more hot air through my letterbox, but I do like a good read.

At the end of the day I wonder how many people who, like myself, have decided to adjust their TV viewing habits in order to not need a TV Licence, will they suddenly start paying up when they need to, or like me will adjust their life further so they don’t watch any TV at all?

Partly why I like books though is because you don’t have to watch an advert for 20 seconds before you can open it or turn a page, and the thought of the BBC being funded through commercial advertising bothers me, and I don’t even watch their channels any more, not on a TV, and not on the internet, nothing, bye bye BBC.

I still listen to your radio stations though… for now. I have learned that in Germany residence there also need a TV licence, it costs more than in the UK, and, they’re also not allowed to listen to the radio without it.


The day after I started writing this post I received another note through my letterbox… from a TV Licensing inspector, to say they had paid me a visit while I was out. I wonder if I will have to wait another couple of years for their next visit.


My previous post about TV Licensing:

There’s a good outline of the law and changes at the following link. One paragraph I found interesting was:

There’s a secondary rule applying to whether your “device” – that’s the TV Licensing lingo for tablet, phone or PC – is “powered by its own batteries” or plugged into the mains supply. If it’s battery-powered – like the portable set taken on a picnic – the licence from your home address covers it. If it’s plugged into the mains, the property needs the licence.

So, if I watch iPlayer on my laptop at my friend’s house I need a licence… but if then plug it in there, then they need a licence.

A TV Licensing spokesman previously said: “We don’t talk in detail about detection because we do not want to inadvertently aid people deliberately trying to evade the licence. But our processes enable us to identify whether live TV is being watched, regardless of the technology used.

Lie detector test perhaps?

TV Licensing says it is highly successful, claiming to net 1,000 offenders per day. It says that where viewers declare they only watch catch-up, and hence don’t need a licence, they may well receive an inspector’s visit.

There has been no information about how the new catch-up rule will be policed. Although the Department for Culture, Media and Sport told the Telegraph that this will be up to the BBC to decide.

Either there are some people being caught who flout the law, or worryingly, some people are being wrongly accused. “[It] will be up to the BBC to decide” sounds like they are a law unto themselves.


8 comments on “iPlayer and your TV Licence

  1. Sarada Gray
    9 August, 2016

    Totally agree. We are in the same position and at the moment it looks as if we’ll be going down the ‘no TV’ route rather than getting a licence. But it’s a system that has long needed overhaul. Obviously the BBC needs funding but as things stand the licence makes very little sense

    • Brian
      9 August, 2016

      I like the idea of being given the opportunity to opt out of advertising by way of paying a subscription – that’s how I see the licence fee.

      • Sarada Gray
        9 August, 2016

        Yes, I think subscription is probably teh way forward

  2. taskerdunham
    9 August, 2016

    Great post Brian. My own view is that the BBC should be funded directly out of taxes. “But that is subject to political interference” they say. Are they suggesting the licence fee isn’t? The other arguments are daft too. We don’t all use every service funded out of taxes.
    We do have a TV licence now, but in the past when I didn’t have either a licence or a TV, I answered the door to a man claiming to be conducting a viewing “survey”. I said I didn’t watch TV but he persisted – “what did I think about some particular character in a soap? how did I keep up with the news? and so on. When I told him I had no TV he started goading me “well that’s a bit eccentric, not to have a television, isn’t it? You must have one somewhere.” When he left he didn’t knock on any other doors.
    One paranoid thought about the new downloading law is that suspects could have their computers seized for investigation, to be returned to their financially ruined owner after a year or more in an unusable condition.
    Have fun with the Inspectors visit!

    • Brian
      9 August, 2016

      Thanks for your insights. When it comes to taxes, particularly Council Tax, I feel like I pay too much for what I get out of it. Maybe if I got free TV thrown in then I’d feel better… they’d also be de-criminalising something, and if they can do that with drugs, or make them available on the NHS (although that’s another viewpoint altogether), they might want to think about doing something similar with TV.

      As it stands I too find it hard to imagine there is no political interference.

      I also wonder how they conduct their investigations… a cold-caller wanting to conduct a survey wouldn’t surprise me as one tactic. I’ll point to my shelf of books 😉

  3. Jen
    10 August, 2016

    Every time you write about the TV license, I’m fascinated. I just can’t fathom having to pay for a license to watch TV. I mean, we have services like cable TV and satellite TV that cost money each month but if you don’t want to pay for those, we have free stations that everyone can watch. The whole idea of it being “illegal” to watch tv is so strange. People do so many more worse things that why would they waste resources on something so ridiculous?

    • Brian
      10 August, 2016

      Yeah, here we have cable and satellite TV too, but you also need a licence in addition to paying those subscriptions… and for some people who don’t watch anything on the BBC channels, feels like a rip-off.

      • Jen
        10 August, 2016

        It definitely sounds like a rip off! I don’t think I would watch TV if I had to have a license.

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This entry was posted on 9 August, 2016 by in Internet, Technology, TV & Video and tagged , , , , , .
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