‘Auntie’ is getting more than a makeover. Over ninety years since its foundation, the way that the BBC, the world’s oldest national broadcaster, is run is going to change fundamentally. It is hard to tell whether this is for the better – already strong opinions are flying in every direction. I just hope that these changes are better thought-out than one concomitant claim made during their announcement.
The claim, made by John Whittingdale, the UK’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, is that the BBC will “close the ‘iPlayer loophole’ so those watching online pay licence fee”.
iPlayer is the BBC’s free online viewing service, which is probably the last very major service still to rely almost completely on Adobe Flash (HTML5 is being introduced painfully slowly). If you are outside the UK, you will know that iPlayer is geographically limited: the service is available on subscription in some European countries, but those outside are blocked on the basis of their IP address. This of course deprives those who do pay their UK television licence of being able to use iPlayer when they are outside the UK.
Under UK law, there is no requirement that you must pay a TV licence in order to be able to watch BBC programmes using iPlayer. To describe this feature as a “loophole” is a barefaced lie.
A TV licence is a requirement for a UK user to watch live TV using iPlayer, though. Currently, if you are in the UK, you can access iPlayer’s live service simply by clicking on a button that says “Watch now”, rather than one which admits that you don’t have a TV licence. Even that is not a loophole: it accepts and underlines the difficulty of limiting the service to those who do have a TV licence.
So what will the BBC have to do to enforce John Whittingdale’s brave claim, and limit the use of iPlayer to those who have paid their TV licence?
The UK TV licence is far more complex than regular online subscriptions to streaming media, as it is derived from the original Radio Reception Licence. Without a complete change in the licence, which would have very complicated side-effects, it would appear to be both very difficult and complex to limit iPlayer use to those with a UK TV licence.
UK TV Licences are not personal (although issued in the name of an individual), but apply to premises. Our house has a licence, which allows any member of the household to use a TV within the premises, when touring away from home (e.g. in a touring caravan), and when temporarily resident elsewhere (e.g. students at university during term-time) provided that the TV does not use mains power or a fitted aerial. If you have a town house and a country cottage, you have to pay a licence for each, assuming that each has mains-powered TVs.
This means, for example, that at one time our one TV licence covered two adults and two children living here, plus our oldest child when she was away, provided she was using truly portable equipment, plus all our mobile phones and devices (for access to live streamed programmes). Ironically, we now pay the same licence, but we neither have a TV nor do we watch live streamed services from the BBC.
Trying to implement a paywall for iPlayer services on that basis is clearly untenable.
In practice, the only enforceable way of preventing those who do not pay their TV licence from watching iPlayer, is to change the current licensing system from its focus on premises, to a personal subscription service; that is something which the same Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has said that he has no plans to do. Any subscription-based system would inevitably increase the cost to larger households, and increase the rate of licence evasion.
Amazingly, and for many years, only around 5-6% of UK households are believed to evade paying the current licence fee. Enforcement, which is currently simply based on identifying properties for which there is no licence, will become almost impossible. And without effective enforcement, the percentage of those watching TVs without a licence can only increase.
Watch for this proud political boast to gradually roll out into the long grass with all those other ideas that seemed good at the time, but had not been thought through.