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iPlayer Doesn't Require A TV Licence... Yet

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Ashley Highfield | 15:20 UK time, Wednesday, 9 January 2008

A question I often get asked is whether you need a TV licence to watch BBC programmes over the internet.

At the moment, the legal position is that you don't need a licence to watch TV purely on-demand, but you do if you are watching TV live (through any receiving device in the home).

So a live simulcast over the web from the BBC - of, say, the Beijing Olympics - will require a TV licence, but watching an on-demand (non-live) stream or download through the BBC iPlayer will not.

The Help section for the iPlayer confirms the position under "Will I need a TV licence to watch programmes on BBC iPlayer?" It states that:

You do not need a television licence to watch television programmes on the current version of the BBC iPlayer. You will need to be covered by a TV licence if and when the BBC provides a feature that enables you to watch 'live' TV programmes on any later version of the BBC iPlayer which has this option... A 'live' TV programme is a programme which is watched or recorded at the same time (or virtually the same time) as it is being broadcast... [etc]

This raises the next question: "so is the iPlayer undermining the licence fee?".


Well, the number of homes that currently have no television licence, but that do have broadband subscription is currently estimated to be infinitesimally small. The chances are if you want to watch BBC TV programmes via catch-up over the web, you are also watching some BBC programmes at other times, live or time-shifted, via a TV set, and will already have a TV licence.

If we saw, over time, that some people stopped receiving live broadcasts at all, stopped paying their licence fee, but continued to consume televison programmes, solely on-demand through the iPlayer (or other players), then we might have to consider talking to the Government about Part 4 of the Communications Act 2003 and the Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations 2004, so that they can then consider whether on-demand tv viewing might be brought within its aegis.

See this document [pdf] for more details.

So it's an interesting point, but it's not causing our finance director sleepless nights.

Ashley Highfield is Director, BBC Future Media and Technology.


  1. At 05:24 PM on 09 Jan 2008, Michael Walsh wrote:

    Hee, hee - glad to see you're not quoting any figures in this post!

    Once bitten,...

    Although I can't see that many outraged commenters appearing from the woodwork, bitterly complaining that they have two houses and a son in college all of which are broadband enabled and non-licence fee paying, thank you very much!

  2. At 07:24 PM on 09 Jan 2008, Alan wrote:

    Couldn't the terms and conditions of use for the iPlayer simply set out that you must have a TV licence to use it? Of course, this wouldn't cover other broadcasters' on-demand content, but it would be a quick and hassle-free remedy, surely...?

  3. At 08:26 PM on 09 Jan 2008, Jon wrote:

    Thanks for the clarification Ashley.

    I'll hold my hand up and confess (for the benefit of any other readers) that I work for the BBC. I had original thought that when I started working for the BBC I'd lose interest in it's output.

    I'm pleased to say I haven't lost interest even if a lot more of my time is taken up working there instead of sitting in front of the TV/PC or having the radio on.

    What I'm struck by is the fact that even if I did only listen to or watch BBC content via catch-up services, I'd still *want* to pay a licence fee.

    And no .. that's not because the licence fee pays my wages.

  4. At 02:15 PM on 10 Jan 2008, Steve wrote:

    Surely in these days of cross linked databases everywhere (I type in my reg on a tyre sales website and it tells me everything about my car!) it should be possible to use a number off the TV license as a password to access iPlayer. With a PC online, it could also check to see this wasn't being overused (on multiple IP addresses?).

  5. At 07:50 PM on 11 Jan 2008, John Devalle wrote:

    You speculate on making a tv licence required to watch vod on the net. How could it be determined that a net user ever accesses vod?

  6. At 02:17 PM on 13 Jan 2008, Robert Carnegie wrote:

    Obviously the iPlayer could be made to require registration with your television licence number and home address. This would be compared with your Internet network address so you couldn't pass around one licence to all of your friends, the BBC would notice it was being shared. Also, a limit on iPlayer PCs per TV licence could be imposed. Of course the BBC doesn't hold TV licence information(?) and Data Protection law makes the exercise more complicated, but it's do-able: you would use your licence to generate unlocking codes for individual iPlayer PCs.

    As for a flight from broadcast TV... quite a lot of radio listeners commenting on BBC radio messageboards declare that they don't have a TV and don't miss it, or they only watch DVDs, but I don't think they're representative of the population. On the other hand, if Internet TV is available to the unlicensed, even hours after the "real" broadcast, who wants a licence? (I don't think that goodwill to the BBC is sufficient, and a lot of people mostly watch non-BBC programmes.) Money-saving advice columns in newspapers, especially you-know-which, would tell you to catch the wave of the future and ditch your TV licence for free Internet video. If the most or the best of the BBC -is- free online, they'd be right.

    So... I think that BBC and other content access must be -limited-, at least, for non-licence holders. Say, half an hour per night. If the BBC is to be paid for by viewers, not state or advertising funded - each of which rots the editorial quality - then all viewers must pay - if they can afford it.

  7. At 04:46 PM on 14 Jan 2008, Nick Reynolds (editor, BBC Internet Blog) wrote:

    While I'm no expert I think some of the things you are suggesting would require a change in the law (if I'm reading Ashley correctly).

    Far easier to incorporate live streaming of BBC TV channels into the iPlayer - then you'd be liable for a TV licence without the law having to be changed.

  8. At 07:57 PM on 14 Jan 2008, Keith wrote:

    Well, I can say that I ditched my TV because quite frankly, I find life much more interesting without it. Why would anyone (apart from being incapable) want to watch the goings on of other people's "lives" by watching soaps or reality TV, instead of living life for real!! You're missing out on your life! Go out, play sport, get a hobby or even listen to the radio.. Please don't watch crumby old TV where you watch what they want you to.

    The TV licensing authority still contact me for not having a license, even though I have informed them I have no way of watching it!!

  9. At 11:03 AM on 15 Jan 2008, jimmy wrote:

    I have fast broadband and NO Tv Licence - fair enough we are honest people and despite owning a large TV don't use it to watch TV programs at all. But the harassment and intimidation we receive from the BBC (I count TV Licensing as the beeb - same thing) is shocking.
    Over 4 years we've had somewhere between 30-40 letters, threatening everything from "we're watching you", to "you'll be interviewed under caution".

    The letters got so much that before we got settled into our new house properly we decided never to pay the licence fee again - and despite the good content I'd rather see the beeb go down the pan than help pay them to threaten old and vulnerable people who might not even have a TV.

    So, I'll enjoy watching the BBC for free online knowing that I didn't pay them to harass me, and that old dear down the road who never had a TV might one day be spared from paying the licence just to stop being threatened with a BBC home invasion.

  10. At 02:31 AM on 16 Jan 2008, John Devalle wrote:

    I must also ask, why was it that on Radio 5, when a listeners text message asked "do you need a tv licence to use the iPlayer" you replied 'yes'.

  11. At 12:53 PM on 28 Jan 2008, Alistair wrote:

    We're all coming out the woodwork now... I'm another broadband but no TV license. Our transmitter has gone digital (Whitehaven) and we haven't bought a digibox.
    I (now it works with Linux) watch the very occasional documentary (one since Christmas) over the internet. I fund BBC for this not by paying a TV license since I don't watch "at or about the same time as broadcast" but by buying the DVDs of good series eg Coast.
    As for incorportating live stream into iPlayer you would still only require the licence to watch that stream.

  12. At 01:30 AM on 11 Feb 2008, Ben wrote:

    Another broadband-but-no-TV-licence household here. I bet the number of people like us isn't as infinitessimally small as 'they' imagine.

    We've been trying the iPlayer for a few weeks now. It works well - I'm impressed - but we're becoming fairly bored of the programmes that are regularly available. If the law changes to require a licence for on-demand viewing then we're unlikely to take that step and will drop the iPlayer for the same reasons that we dropped TV.

    While the service is available we'll continue to use it, but I don't feel as though we have any moral right to access the programmes without paying a licence fee.

  13. At 03:55 PM on 20 Feb 2008, James_M wrote:

    Hey, I just came across this thread after finding using the iPlayer for the first time and wondering what the legal situation.

    Like others who have already contributed I have broadband and yet haven't had a television for years. For me it's felt like a waste of time I could be using for something less passive - and also I've become intolerant of having to watch what the broadcasters choose exactly when they choose.

    However, clearly the iPlayer is going to give me a chance to catch up on the minority nof worthwhile programmes that my friends tell me I'm missing, but at a time convenient to me and so I welcome it.

  14. At 10:28 PM on 03 Mar 2008, Aidan wrote:

    I'm one of the "infinitesimally small" band. I have no TV licence because I havn't got a TV , and havn't had one for years. To keep up with language skills I have been streaming STV ( the Swedish broadcaster ) for a few years now. Have just got round to trying the Beeb - and was pleasantly surprised. However, immediately thought of the licence fee. Pleased to note Ashley Highfield's advise - will Carry on Streaming! Thanks.

  15. At 02:33 PM on 09 Mar 2008, Spike wrote:

    Al these posts amount to one thing.
    Licence payers are no doubt annoyed that 'others' can watch certain BBC programmes without paying a for licence! Shame, but 'typical' of Society today I guess.

  16. At 07:53 PM on 12 Mar 2008, Andrew wrote:

    I am so , so , so confused!
    Anyway, I bought a licence because I was constantly hassled by TV licensing and £100 is worth it to get them to just go away!
    They said they would check my home and when I told them I didn't have a TV they said they would come and check anyway to see that I didn't need a licence. Either way, the payment of £100 and whatever.. guaranteed my privacy from government snoopers for the whole year....

  17. At 09:48 PM on 27 Mar 2008, Ben C wrote:

    Another one of that "infinitesimally small" band-not sure we should all be owning up since it might change the Beebs mind! If the IPlayer required a license I'd stop using it. Whilst there's maybe (at tops) two shows a week I watch, they're often on in the background (so listening!) and not the highlight of my sad little life.
    A strongly worded letter that threatens the TVLO as much as they threaten you generally gets them off your back for a short while. Isn't it dreadful that an organisation is legally enables to harass people who aren't doing anything wrong.

  18. At 02:23 AM on 07 Apr 2008, John Smith wrote:

    Ha. Yes, I'm another iplayer user that doesn't have a TV license, because I don't have a TV.

    The BBC license fee is a glorified Poll Tax to fund a state run set of TV stations including a bias news station.

    I am particulary proud that I can watch the apprentice and not need a license, among other things.

    With todays modern technology there is no need to have the normal TV signal recieving equipment. The web is full of license free TV program / film viewing pleasure.

    It is about time the BBC TV became a subscription only service.

    The threatening letters that we all get from Capita are disgraceful.. If I sent anything like that to anyone i'd be arrested for all sorts of things. If the nation was less lethargic and more like the french, we'd bring rip-off taxes like the tv license, congestion charges and anything else we don't like crashing down. We should protest more like we did in the old days against the poll tax.

    I'm fed up of being ripped off and watching things on the iplayer is my little bit of victory :-p

  19. At 02:22 PM on 08 Apr 2008, R wrote:

    Definitely more such people than "infinitesimal". Myself included.

    I have not a slightest objection to BBC programmes being paid-for. I do however have a huge issue with requiring a BBC licence to receive any TV, including satellite from overseas broadcasters!

    There's no way I'm going to be required to pay a BBC "Internet" licence just to watch YouTube. Why does it work for non-internet TV that way then?...

    Fortunately it's possible to subscribe to broadband casts from many overseas channels that used to be satellite-only. So long, TV licence! I haven't needed you for two years!

    The way the BBC licence works is ridiculous. Make me pay for watching the paid channel, not for using a TV!

  20. At 12:57 PM on 09 Apr 2008, Tom wrote:

    So I pay the licence fee so other people can watch the same content for free? What kind of nonsense is that? I don't care about the extremely weak 'chances are...' arguement as the responses here have proved that a percentage of people do use broadband and do not own a t.v. Even if it is a small percentage it still doesn't change the fact. I object to not being treated equally to others. BBC content = T.V Licence. It should be as simple as that, no matter what format we choose to watch programmes on.

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