As expected, the government have decided that the BBC should meet the cost of providing free TV Licences for over-75s. Also as expected, to soften the blow of an effective £600m a year cut in revenue, the BBC has been promised a change in legislation to allow the TV Licence to cover the BBC iPlayer. Leaving aside the rights or wrongs of making the neutral BBC pay for a government policy that exists for political reasons, I would like to focus on the practicalities of licensing the iPlayer.
It seems fair enough to close the loophole, which exists only because catch-up TV services such as iPlayer did not exist when the law was drafted. Extending the law to cover catch-up TV isn’t straightforward, however. It’s important to remember that a TV Licence is required to watch any broadcast TV, not just BBC channels. Even if a viewer has subscription-based pay TV and never watches the BBC, a licence is required in order to stay within the law. Extending the same principle to catch-up TV throws up the question of which sites would be covered. If it only applied to the BBC’s iPlayer, that would be a departure from the principle of universality: that the BBC is free to everyone at the point of consumption, and that there is no specific subscription charge for watching the BBC. But if the law is to encompass other catch-up sites, the line between catch-up TV and other online video is rather blurred. It seems clear that ITVPlayer should be covered, but what about the BT Sport app? How about videos on a newspaper’s website? What about video sharing websites such as Youtube, which sometimes show TV episodes on a pay-per-view basis? And what about shows from foreign TV stations that are available online?
Across the different news sources, there seem to be a range of suggestions as to what the new law could cover. Some suggest only the iPlayer; others that servies such as ITVPlayer would be included. There have been suggestions that iPlayer would be offered on a subscription basis, with TV Licence holders entering a code to watch for free, or that there would be a cheaper “digital only” TV Licence that would cover iPlayer use. At the moment, there are actually no details of the proposals, so all these are speculation. Let’s look at what the minister, John Whittingdale, actually said:
As part of these new arrangements, the Government will ensure that the BBC can adapt to a changing media landscape. The Government will therefore bring forward legislation in the next year to modernise the licence fee to cover public service broadcast catch-up TV.
The key phrase is “public service broadcast catch-up TV”. This doesn’t necessarily only apply to the BBC. I believe ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 all to varying degrees have public service requirements as conditions of their licences to broadcast: for example to broadcast news, children’s programmes and the arts. It seems likely that a change in the law would therefore also cover, ITVPlayer, 4oD and Demand5. It presumably wouldn’t cover Sky, BT Sport or Youtube as these can’t really be construed as public service broadcasters. That would be a slightly narrower coverage than the Licence as applied to broadcast TV. However, trying to make it broader could open a can of worms, as it could then apply to all manner of online video that few people would consider television at all.
The final question is whether the new licence requirements would be enforced by the BBC by requiring a licence number to be entered before watching programmes via the iPlayer website or apps. Technically, this should be fairly simple to implement. However, the BBC may not want to go down a road that could form the basis of a subscription model were the BBC’s Charter not to be renewed at some point in the future.
While the whole saga has been prompted by the funding arrangements for over-75s, it may be worth noting that one group of people who would be hit hardest by a licence for iPlayer would be university students. Students have always been required to buy a TV Licence for their individual rooms in university accommodation, but many now avoid this by using iPlayer to watch only catch-up TV. Given the huge increase in university tuition fees in recent years, students may resent having to pay more money out of their student loans in order to watch television, while wealthy over-75s all receive a non-means tested free licence. We therefore are back to where we started, with the question of whether making the BBC fund free TV Licences is really fair in the first place.