Broadband gives BBC licence to worry about its future fund

Whether people who do not own a television but download programmes off the internet require a TV licence is unclear, but it is an issue that the BBC will have to address sooner rather than later

As I reported last week, Ofcom chief operating officer Ed Richards says satellite, cable and terrestrial TV will soon face real competition from TV via broadband. It is already available in five per cent of UK homes. He calls it the “one to watch” in the next year or two, and says its growth could have major implications for the future of the licence fee and the income of the BBC.

Richards told me he doesn’t believe it’s an immediate problem: “Most people are going to have a TV for many years to come, and even if they’re watching through a broadband connection that’s still most likely to be via a traditional TV.”

But he admitted: “In the longer term, there may well be a problem that the Government and the BBC need to look at in due course.”

In the Green Paper on BBC Charter Renewal, the Government acknowledged that the question would have to be tackled, but only beyond the next charter in 2016: “If a large number of people are downloading audiovisual content from the internet, and watching it on their computers or mobile phones, different funding models may have to be considered. If the licence fee was to be retained, the means of collecting it might have to be changed – so that it became, for example, either a compulsory levy on all households or even on ownership of PCs as well as TVs.”

The Times portrayed the threat as more immediate: “The BBC faces losing hundreds of thousands of pounds in licence fees because of a legal loophole that allows viewers to watch TV on the internet for free. Soaring take-up of broadband and technological developments are making internet-streamed TV a reality.”

So could people avoid paying the licence fee now, on the basis that they watch programmes only on their computer, not on a TV set?

TV Licensing, the body which collects the licence fee, doesn’t accept there’s a loophole. On its website it states: “If you use a TV or any other device to receive or record TV programmes (for example, a VCR, set-top box, DVD recorder or PC with a broadcast card) – you need a TV licence.”

That seems clear enough – and seems to tally with the Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations 2004. These define a TV receiver as “any apparatus installed or used for the purpose of receiving (whether by means of wireless telegraphy or otherwise) any TV programme service, whether or not it is installed or used for any other purpose.”

But then comes a tricky bit. It says the programme service includes any programme “where that programme is received at the same time (or virtually the same time) as it is received by members of the public by virtue of its being broadcast or distributed as part of that service.”

What if viewers don’t watch the programmes at the time they’re broadcast? What if they restrict their viewing to “TV on demand”, downloading the ever-increasing amount of material being made available online by the BBC, Channel 4 and others?

Next month, 5,000 viewers will become guinea pigs in the trial of the BBC’s Interactive Media Player (iMP). It will let them choose from about 190 hours of TV programmes up to seven days after they were broadcast.

BBC director of new media and technology Ashley Highfield has compared it with Apple’s iTunes. He says: “iMP could just be the iTunes for the broadcast industry, enabling our audience to access our TV and radio programmes on their terms – any time, any place, any how – Martini media.”

In a world in which on-demand TV is increasingly popular, whether via Sky Plus, the cable companies or Home Choice, the internet option could catch on. But what if viewers only watch programmes on their computers and choose not to watch them live? Do they have to pay the licence fee?

You might say this is unlikely – that they’re bound to have a TV set as well. But what about students, who are strapped for cash and living space? They might happily do without live broadcasts and a TV if they could download programmes onto their PC. I asked TV Licensing for a clear ruling. “Our experience to date shows that people using PCs to watch TV are likely to already be covered by their existing TV licence,” says a spokesman. “However, if you watch programmes via a PC which aren’t being broadcast ‘live’, you do not need a TV licence.” Perhaps TV Licensing should update its website to make this clear.

But be warned: TV Licensing says its vans can tell if you’re watching live broadcasts, however you receive them.v

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