4. License to Watch
In the United
Kingdom, owning a television set means paying something called a
television licensing fee. In many other countries, viewers pay to access
television signals from particular stations but in the United Kingdom,
the license is for the television itself. The money collected from this
licensing fee funds the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) even
though there are a whole heap of other stations which receive none of
this license money at all. Failing to have a licence whilst owning a TV
set isn't just a 'smack on the wrist' offense either; it can even result
in imprisonment and often does!
The idea of using a television tax to pay for television programming
isn’t a bad one, but the television license has recently come under a
lot of scrutiny. That’s partially due to the fact that the license fee
increases every year, which makes folks wonder if the BBC is really
delivering good value, particularly in view of the astronomical wages it
pays to certain presentersof doubtful talent, and bearing in mind that
the other stations seem to get along fine without it. The criticism also
has a great deal to do with how the license fee is enforced.
The BBC goes to great lengths to collect their money. Currently, one in
twenty households does not pay the television licensing fee. That number
stands to increase as more people “sneak” television on their computers
and mobile phones. In 2003, inspectors caught an average of 1,200 people
per day who were watching television without a license.
To combat noncompliance, the BBC erects billboards in neighborhoods that
say things like, “There are three homes in Wood Lane S6 without a TV
license.” Instead of shaming their neighbors to fess up, these
billboards are often the target of creative graffiti.
It gets even worse for households that don’t own television sets at all.
The BBC sends agents to inspect these homes to make sure they’re being
honest about their non-possession. Assuming compliance with agents,
these inspections happen on a yearly basis. For many households, this
feels like an intrusion.
The law gets trickier for folks who own a television to watch DVDs or
VHS tapes but have no desire to watch broadcast television. The BBC
assumes anyone owning a television is a viewer and tries to collect the
license fee anyway. Public sentiment toward this crazy law is quickly
eroding, and many British citizens are calling for reform.
To demonstrate rising resentment, the BBC show The Young Ones famously
had an episode in which they were caught not paying the television
license fee. When the inspector comes, the character Vyvyan eats the
television to avoid having to pay the fine; whilst most British viewers
would stop short of such an extreme act, they understand the sentiment.
Coupled with public disquiet over huge salaries paid to controversial
entertainers (out of the licence fee they are forced to pay) a number of
senior political figures are now openly questioning whether or not the
BBC is an anachronism which should be dismantled; the licence fee could
yet prove to be the destroyer, not the saviour, of the British