Monday, January 24, 2005


Having just returned to America after living in England for the past five years, I want to share something that not many Americans realize about our British cousins.

We all know the stereotypes …. Bad teeth, worse weather, tea addiction, driving on the wrong side of the road, horrible “cuisine”, etc.

But the thing that baffled me most, the entire time I was there was that every single British person is required by law to pay for a license …to watch television!

The cost is roughly ₤109 (about $200 US Dollars) a year. But if you fail to pay it and they are very good at intimidating you … the fine can be ₤1,000 (approx $1,840), plus they’ll embarrass you by publishing your name on the non-license-payers list.

There are some (bizarre) exemptions. Firstly if a person is 75 years old (or older), it is free, Well not really free; the government (IE, the tax payer, who already pays his own TV license) subsidizes each and every one of these seniors (“Old Age Pensioners” or “OAPs”).

Life expectancy in Britain is about 76 years for women and 71 years for men.

The most laughable exemption though is for the blind. If you are blind and live in Britain you only have to pay 50% of the cost. How nice. If you are blind, your TV is a f***ing radio!

The one man who could change this and give the blind a full 100% discount? Well that would be the Home Secretary David Blunkett who is himself, blind!

There are no exemptions for the deaf. Though if you are deaf AND blind, you’re TV is a f***ing table!

So before you start stockpiling canned goods and rifle shells because you think the American government is too intrusive, stop and consider what’s been going on in the U.K. since ..Well since the invention of television.

The British government, under the auspices of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), has been requiring licenses even before television. That’s right, before television, listeners of radio were required to be licensed.

In fact the radio license continued long after the advent of television and was only abolished in 1971. Keep in mind that until the early 1970s, Britain did not have commercial radio stations to compete with the various BBC radio stations.

Now don’t go panicking if you’re planning a vacation to London. Your hotel or rented accommodation is responsible for having the license. The rule of thumb is that every TV that is used must be licensed. I say “used” because in theory, you could own a TV but not watch it, or it could be broken, and you would not have to pay for that one.

In most cases, it is the owner of the TV that must pay for the license. However that is not always the case. One nice thing about Britain is that a very high percentage of rented houses and apartments (flats) that are pre-furnished. This does not always include a TV. But the first flat I rented in London did have a TV; however the lease clearly stated that I was the one legally responsible to pay for the TV license.

The cost of the license is not back breaking. But still, the principle of the matter … having to pay to watch regular, “through-the-air” TV goes against everything we as Americans believe in …the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And what brings more happiness to more Americans than television?

A single license can cover a household if you have more than one television set. And there is no test required to get your license….though it would be fun if they had one. …

Question 17) Who played Manuel, the clueless Spanish waiter, on Fawlty Towers?

a) Andrew Sachs
b) Peter Cooke
c) Lawrence Olivier
d) Nicholas Lyndhurst

Here is the rub. All the money raised by these licensing fees goes to the BBC, regardless of whether you watch the BBC or not. British television is almost exclusively national. There are very few regional stations, and even fewer regional television viewers.

Until the 1970s, there were only TWO ...count ‘em … TWO television stations in Britain. They were BBC1 and BBC2. To this day, you might hear an Englishman ask, “what’s on the other side?” This question means, “what else is on?” but goes back to when there were just a pair of British Channels (not counting the non-television one that idiots attempt to swim across every once in a while).

Since then, they have added BBC3 and BBC 4, which are digital and therefore not received by the vast majority of “terrestrial” viewers. There are three main independent (national) stations which receive no funding from the TV licensing. They are known as ITV (Independent TV), Channel 4, and (launched about 8 years ago) Channel 5.

Being charged whether you watch the BBC or not, just because you own a TV would be the same as … well let’s say you did away with toll roads but instead just charged everyone who owned a car a “road tax” regardless of whether they used their car every day on the motorways (the main thoroughfares – that should be toll roads) or whether they just kept their car in the garage and ventured out on the back roads once a week to get the groceries.

Oh wait …the British do that too. They call it, “the road tax.”

Incidentally, there is talk of adding tolls on those motorways, in addition to collecting the road tax. Perhaps some things never change; as this American’s single biggest grievance with the British was the tax burden I faced. Unlike in America, where the practice is to put prices on items that do not include the sales tax, the British (and most European countries) include the tax on the price sticker of everything.

At first it seems like a good idea; makes it easier to calculate a more exact running total of items purchased. However, it serves to hide the fact that the price includes a whopping 17.5% sales tax (called the VAT, or value added tax). To be fair, all of Western Europe uses some form of VAT and in Scandinavia for example, the VAT is more in the neighborhood of 25%!

I couldn’t vote in their elections while I was there of course. So for me, it was “taxation without representation.”

Many Brits refer to the TV licensing fee as the “TV tax.”

While I was living in England, I subscribed to a digital satellite service called SKY TV. SKY is immensely popular, offering the five main channels plus a host of sports and other channels (MTV Europe for example). Most of these channels, as in America, serve to prove that more channels thins the talent pool of writers and director and actors and original thoughts. So they are filled by cookery, house make-overs, people make-overs, and a ton of “reality” crap.

But my license fee was not covered as part of my Sky subscription. Oh no. I still had to pay that.

By the way, in many cases we can blame the British for the (perceived) popularity of this mindless drivel of (non)reality programming. They were the ones behind American Idol, which started in Britain as “Pop Idol” and they have there own versions of “Survivor”, “Big Brother” etc.

I say “perceived” because the only reason these programs, which pander to the lowest common denominator are watched is that that is what is offered. I don’t hold that people would watch German Opera if that’s all that was on, but surely the country that gave is Monty Python, Benny Hill, Fawlty Towers, and The Office etc. could produce something a tad more intellectual than “Wife Swap,” which is not as titillating as it sounds. It’s just one poor sod living with someone else’s nag machine for a week.

And I say “non-reality” because I hold that nobody acts the same as they do IN reality when they know there is a camera on them and when they are chosen for, and being goaded to be, outrageous, loud, brash and ‘naughty’.

But you know what? Reality television could be the topic of several future blogs, so I will leave it there for now.

So the BBC does not air commercials (other than its own promos for its own programming – aired between programs) and has no need to since it’s cash cow, the TV license does not seem to be going away any time soon.

Commercials are left for the independent and satellite/cable/digital stations. And speaking of which, in a few years time, ALL British television will be broadcast in digital mode only, making analog sets obsolete. So in essence, you will have to soon (and are encouraged now by the British Government) purchase either a digital TV or digital receiver box, or subscribe to a digital service (like SKY) in order to see any television at all in the future.

This means that our British friends are being forced to invest in digital, and as a by-product, in getting more choices than just the BBC, yet at the same time, continue to pay for the license which still goes just to the BBC coffers. And those coffers are huge.

High-ranking BBC executives, often with “Lord” or “Sir” before their names, are paid enormous sums of money. These upper tier executives are allowed and encouraged to take a sabbatical in which they take a paying job outside the BBC in any field of their choice and receive their BBC salary at the same time. So Johnny Britain is paying these execs, through their licensing fees, while they are also earning an income as teachers, plumbers, UN weapons inspectors, whatever. The “thinking” (?) behind this is to bring new experiences into the creative realm of the BBC. Why don’t they just hire plumbers and teachers and weapons inspectors in the first place?

The BBC’s (strong) arm, The “TV Licensing Agency … the TVLA,” uses whatever means at its disposal necessary to keep the coffers filled … most of which involve intimidation and threats.

They cite a database of over 28 million home and business addresses, telling them which have TV Licenses.

“All of our enforcement officers have access to this database and will check whether or not you have a license. If you are using a TV and are unlicensed, you could face prosecution and a hefty fine.”-- TVLA

But of course, the TVLA’s greatest threat remains the “TV Detector Van.” The debate on whether these vans are a product of science fiction or real … perhaps developed by “Q - Division” … remains to this day a divided question.

“We have a fleet of detector vans, plus, our enforcement officers have access to hand-held detection devices capable of detecting a magnetic field when a TV is switched on. In fact, we catch an average of over 1,000 people watching TV without a license every day.” – TVLA

The BBC / TVLA utilizes the LATEST science to catch illegal viewers.

EVEN if these things actually worked, I suggest that those least likley to pay the fee are those who can’t afford it. And those would include people who live in council blocks (Public Housing Towers) where a couple of hundred families with a couple hundred TVs might be living on top of, below, and all around each other. Good luck with that.

Too bad the British can’t invent an illegal alien detector van … or extremist/terrorist detector van …two things for which the British people would have greater need and appreciation.

So why do people pay this ridiculous fee?

Because everyone else does I guess. There are various small and vocal subversive groups who realize that if EVERYONE just refused to pay it, the government and the BBC would have no recourse. But so far, they’ve never been able to successfully enlist a significant number of rebel-minded viewers.

[The Following is From:]

"We can detect a TV in use, in any area. That's because every TV contains a component called the 'local oscillator', which emits a signal when the television is switched on. It's this signal that the external aerials on our vans pick up." It also states that hand-held scanner are used to locate television sets in hard to reach places.” -- TVLA

In addition to the “real” detector vans there are a number of deceptor vans, making people feel guilty and to have them buy a TV licence when they spot the van.

Despite all of the expensive gadgets developed by BBC R&D detection of TV Licence evasion depends heavily on an address based system [database called "Lassy"], so if you're not on their supposedly exhaustive list, they nip round, listen really carefully at the door and bust you if they hear Anne Robinson's voice.

Another way of telling someone has got a TV is by aerial spotting. Apparently there is this story about a tv detector man claiming someone had a tv because of the aerial, the man then replied "just cos' I've got milk on me door step doesn't mean I've got a cow."

In addition to the Lassy database, the TVLA/Capita has a database called the Campaign Management Data Warehouse [CMDW]. The CMDW holds records of recent "customer" contacts and demographic information on Postcodes, obtained from third parties. This information is held and used for the purpose of segmentation of mailing activity. For example if a certain postcode is likely to contain student residences, then a special targeted letter, might be mailed to address in the postcode area.

Then again...

The National Audit Office Report of May 2002 states the following on detector vans: "the BBC is introducing new detector vans with enhanced capabilities to detect when a television is in use. This will make it easier for enquiry officers to establish that an offence is likely to be taking place, although they will still need to secure further evidence for successful prosecution. Detection equipment has been used in conjunction with targeted advertising to act as a visible deterrent."In other words: detection-evidence only is not good enough for conviction.

If ANYONE who reads this knows from personal experience, ANYONE who has been caught by one of these hi-tech marvels, I’d like to hear about it … so please feel free to comment with your story.