TCS Daily

The Scary Man with a Van...

By Amanda Oliver - April 28, 2004 12:00 AM

I used to believe they were part of an urban myth until I actually saw one ... a TV detector van. But officials do indeed roam Britain's streets in a fleet of specially equipped vehicles designed to pick up the local oscillator signal emitted from your television set when it is switched on. Who are these government agents hunting down? Unlicensed TV viewers.

The TV license is the main source of funding for the BBC, which provides national television channels, radio networks and an extensive website. Live in Britain, have a working television set in your home and you are obliged to pay -- whether you watch the BBC or not. And this month, the cost of securing a license rose to £121 a year.

If you are a legally blind person you pay only half the license fee. If you are aged over 75, the government kindly assumes on your behalf that your other entertainment options are limited and so your TV license comes free.

However, if you are a TV viewing offender you are on very dangerous turf. In fact, all TV viewing refuseniks are treated as guilty until proven innocent. If you don't own a TV set you'll have a hard time proving it, and you'll have to prove it time and time again.

Resistance is futile. The TV Licencingä website claims that their use of the latest technology means "there is now virtually no way to avoid detection." Viewing offenders are mercilessly tracked down, with 1,200 people caught a day.

Attempt to watch EastEnders in secret by living somewhere with no road access, then expect a visit from an enquiry officer with a handheld scanner - designed to measure both the direction and the strength of the signal and thus home in on your goggle box.

Enquiry officers enter your home and seek out your television. Their website gleefully reports some of the lamest excuses from householders that got caught out, the set's stand-by light was just switched on to keep out the damp, the set no longer works because the cat was sick over it...

Their website also claims a core element of their effectiveness is their exhaustive property database with more than 26 million UK addresses. Yet, practically every month, a fresh letter turns up on our communal doorstep threatening any unlicensed viewers at this address with a £1,000 fine. Mostly, these accusatorily worded missives come addressed to apartments that do not actually exist.

A friend recently died after a long struggle against illness; now a year after her passing, her relatives are still being harassed by licensing inspectors who regularly call round to see if there is anyone watching TV in her former home (the property is empty).

We're told that through the BBC we are getting high-quality, commercial-free television unfettered by political bias. But crediting the BBC in its entirety with providing impartial programming is simply risible.

When it comes to program quality, ever since BBC television locked itself in a ratings war with the commercial TV operators, programs have been dumbed down to offer an endless round of home makeovers and reality shows. How has this strategy been working out? This Easter week, BBC1 recorded its lowest viewing share in history with an audience of just 22.2 percent.

As for the absence of commercials, we may indeed be spared advertisements for soft drinks or toothpaste yet traditionally the BBC has abused its privileged status to compete with commercial rivals, promoting itself constantly and shamelessly on air - its books, magazines, digital channels and radio services, particularly those in local radio, much to the detriment of commercially run local operators. And unfortunately viewers can't help but notice that many commercials have much higher production values and provide significantly better entertainment than a host of TV shows we're treated to. Meanwhile, the BBC's commercial arm BBC Worldwide markets its own licensed brands of junk foods aimed at preschoolers.

Those in favor of the television license hark back to the golden days of broadcasting when British TV was the best in the world. Nowadays British broadcasters have a much tougher job selling UK shows on the international marketplace. The program runs are too short for most overseas buyers - we'll produce a sitcom run of six episodes, yet international schedulers want to be able to buy a block of 26. Worryingly, American TV buyers also report that the casts of UK TV dramas tend to also be too "ugly" and thereby offend US audiences' botoxed sensibilities. By contrast, we remain a world leader in wildlife documentaries...

The TV license is at best an anachronism. The "Wireless and Telegraph Act" was first introduced in 1949 when the BBC was the only broadcaster in Britain. At the time, there was no means by which the BBC could encrypt its signals but of course this technology is now available. Therefore it's possible to ensure that only people who choose to pay a subscription fee can access BBC services. Given the prices and comparable packages on offer via UK cable and satellite providers, a BBC subscription service could look like an extremely good deal for consumers. The BBC is touted by our culture secretary as Britain's best-loved institution, but I believe it should go and prove its popularity on the open marketplace. Compulsory taxation via a television license is in no way justified in a multi-channel world.


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