If there’s a topic which divides opinion, sparks debate and causes confusion it’s the TV Licence.


Is it value for money?  Why should we have to pay for a licence?  And, the biggest question of all; do we actually need a licence to watch TV?

Before we try to answer those questions let's backtrack just a little.


When did the TV licence become a thing?

The TV licence was introduced in 1946 following the end of the Second World War as a way of financing the BBC and their fledgling TV broadcasting service.  The cost was £2 which seems an absolute bargain when compared to the £147 we pay today. 

But, when you consider there was only one channel and that £2 in 1946 is equivalent to around £75 today it doesn't seem such a good deal after all.

It is also interesting to note that the licence fee was introduced as a service charge whereas it is now classed as a tax.


How much revenue does the BBC generate from the licence fee?

If we fast forward to the present day, or least to last year, the BBC's total income from licence fees alone was around £3.7 billion

Of course, this instantly begs another question.....


What do they spend the money on?

Apart from the fact we have to pay a fee in the first place (we'll discuss this more shortly) the one thing which winds some people up about the licence fee is exactly how the BBC spends its money. 

The wages paid to the presenters, actors and crew in BBC productions are paid by this fee which doesn’t sit well with everyone. The BBC always defends its stance on wages saying they need to pay the market rate for the best people.

However, when individuals such as Graham Norton can earn £2.5 million in a year from a universal tax, it does spark debate.

It isn't just the wages paid to the presenters, over £50 million is spent on senior management.

In broader terms around £2.4 billion is spent on television broadcasting while over £650 million is allocated to radio.


Why do we pay a TV Licence fee?

The TV Licensing website says the income generated by our licence fees, "Means all licence payers can enjoy an ever-wider choice of BBC shows and services, free at the point of use, on a range of platforms (and) also allows the BBC's UK services to remain ad-free and independent."

No matter what your opinion is on BBC programming there’s no doubt it delivers its brief.  It provides a diverse range of services including TV, radio and online across different media and you don't have to pay to access the content or watch adverts.

The main issue many people have though is choice.  You have no choice about paying the licence fee even if you don't watch BBC programmes.  And people sometimes wonder why they should pay for a service they don't use?

The other major bone of content is cost.  Whilst BBC services are absolutely free at the point of use we’re still paying for the content anyway through the licence fee.


Do I need a licence to watch TV?

There are any number of barrack room lawyers out there who will tell you that you don't need a licence to watch online, or if you only watch DVDs or if you don't watch any BBC programmes.  There is a lot of misinformation out there but we'll try and make sense of it all.

In a nutshell, you must have a licence to watch or record 'live' TV programmes or to watch any BBC programmes on iPlayer.

One of the most important points to make is that the licence fee is not a subscription to watch the BBC. 

The licence gives you the legal right to watch or record live TV programmes regardless of which channel you are watching or which device you are watching it on.  This is why the old argument of 'I don't watch the BBC' simply doesn't matter.


What is live TV?

This confuses many of us.  The official definition from the TV Licensing website says it is any programme, on any channel or online service which you watch or record while it is being shown live.  This includes sport, soap operas, movies or any other type of programme on any channel.

Yet there is a slight ambiguity here and why so many of us are confused about whether we need a TV licence or not.  Live TV includes programmes which have been pre-recorded which covers the vast majority of programming on all channels.


What you can watch without a TV licence

Only if, you watch online subscription services such as Netflix or Amazon to watch on demand programming or catch up services you don't need a TV licence.  This doesn't apply to the BBC iPlayer. 

Figures suggest only 2% of us would be able to legally claim we don't need a TV licence using this criteria.


Should the licence fee be scrapped?

Opponents to the licence fee seem to be very vocal and there’s a lot of pressure being applied to get the fee scrapped.

As we mentioned earlier, the issue here is choice.  The argument is, 'If I don't watch the BBC why should I pay for it?'

But as persuasive as the argument might be, it’s unlikely there’ll be any changes to the TV license fee.

An independent public broadcaster is seen as essential to maintain a balance of providing programming for everyone regardless of commercial value. And, importantly to present a news service which is impartial and free from business or government bias.

An impartial news service is the cornerstone of the BBC and the argument put forward by many as to why we should retain the licence fee. 

Of course in any straw poll you’ll probably find an equal number of people who are steadfast in their opinion that the BBC news is in no way impartial and unbiased.  But, that’s a debate for another day.


It's here to stay then?

It’s fair to say that no matter what your views on the TV licence fee there is, at the moment, little or no chance of it being scrapped. 

However, TV programming is increasingly moving online and viewers are able to stream to different devices.  You can watch live sport on your phone or a movie no matter where you are. More of us are paying to subscribe to services such as Netflix or Sky.


A final thought

If you’re in any doubt whether you need a TV licence - you probably do.  Remember, not having a valid licence is a criminal offence and could land you with a £1000 fine.  You need to be very sure of your ground if you decide to cancel your current licence.