Pressing questions on the iPlayer tax

The BBC has announced that, from September 1st, the “iPlayer loophole” will be closed and access to the BBC’s iPlayer will require payment of the licence fee. Of course, there was never a loophole; the licence fee is meant to apply only to live television broadcasts.

Of course, the blame cannot be put at the BBC’s feet. The BBC has been forced to make severe budget cuts leading to the scaling back of services that cost relatively little such as Radio 6 and BBC Three – services disproportionately used by people aged 18-34, while at the same time having to shoulder £750 million per year for concessionary licences for over 75s: the biggest cost to the BBC after BBC One. Indeed, TV Licensing emphasises the disproportionate effect on students, who increasingly exclusively use on-demand services.

This course of action, of course, is not surprising for a government that is incredibly hostile to the BBC and its political independence, and is scared of losing a large proportion of older voters to UKIP.

It should be obvious that we should continue to oppose the government’s attacks on the BBC, including what amounts to a tax on younger people already affected disproportionately by politically-motivated budget cuts to both the BBC and the public purse. The iPlayer tax raises more questions than it answers – questions that must be answered.

  1. How much will be raised by the iPlayer tax? Only 2% of people exclusively watch catchup services – many of those students – which amounts to a maximum extra income of less than £50 million.
  2. Why does the iPlayer tax only apply to BBC programming? As a television licence is required for live programming even on commercial networks, it stands to reason that the imposition of a tax for only one public-service broadcaster will give preferential market treatment to its competitors, and other video-on-demand providers ought to be under the same level playing field.
  3. Will a TV licence be required to purchase BBC programming on DVD or, indeed, from the BBC Store? Will a TV licence be required to continue watching DVDs? Will a TV licence be required to watch BBC programming from other VoD services, such as Netflix?
  4. If the iPlayer tax only applies to the iPlayer service, how will it be enforced? Obviously, the mythical detector vans – if they ever existed – would be unable to differentiate the difference between online services or different media formats. If it’s through analysis of browsing history, where is the primary legislation authorising the expansion of surveillance powers to be used by a completely unaccountable quango? If it’s through licence-payer authentication, how does that deal with the fact that licences are provided for households, not individual people?
  5. What will be defined as a television receiver under the new rules? Will it be any TV or laptop? Will it be the internet browser used to access iPlayer? Will it be the internet connection? How does this balance with what’s increasingly seen as a human right to internet access?

I, and I hope you, will passionately await answers from either the government and the BBC, but I suspect these will be a long time coming.

* Sarah Noble is an activist in Calderdale. Alongside her role on the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats executive, she shares a keen interest in devolution and transport policy.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Barry Snelson 4th Aug '16 - 8:49am

    It’s not just the government which is hostile to the BBC. Many of us private citizens are happy to choose, and pay for, our own choice of media and resent being compelled to fund somebody else’s version of entertainment.
    This iPlayer tax is a welcome inevitability and will bring the BBC millions more enemies as this defunct anachronism moves ever closer to its ineviable extinction.

  • Richard Underhill 4th Aug '16 - 9:21am

    Owners of Video Cassette Recorders connected to an aerial or equivalent cable have always been liable to pay the licence fee. Unconnected VCRs used for training, sales etcetera exempt. What the BBC is doing is really about enforcement.

  • These aren’t pressing questions. Certain largely foreign owned media organisations would love to see the BBC killed off. They have been encouraging people not to pay the license fee on the basis of an utterly spurious loophole. The loophole has been closed, which will limit the damage they do.

    The quality of media in this country is very very poor and the BBC, although not without its faults, is an absolute beacon of quality which should be defended. The alternative is an endless diet of Murdoch rubbish.

  • I no longer watch TV and have never used iPlayer. Most TV is and always was junk. More and more people are realising it. That’s the BBCs real problem.

  • Presumably the approach to be adopted will be they will produce a code attached to the TV licence that will be used as a log in to i-player, the system will need to move to functioning like a subscription service, and in the mean time it will take the hit in non-payment with ad-hoc enforcement.

    I am always surprised by how wedded so many LibDems are to the current model of the BBC, ignoring that changes will kill it if it doesn’t get it together.

    They will scrap the over 75s subsidy in a couple of years (it should never have been created anyway), so that problem will disappear. The key issue is that it is so mired in it’s internal group think in boring predictable way just hoping that it will hold on the licence fee indefinitely.

    Where are the ideas for enhancement from within the LibDems? None, just pure conservatism.

  • Chris

    “Certain largely foreign owned media organisations would love to see the BBC killed off”

    I don’t think they are worried, they can see that left to its own devices it will wither on the vine and will pose less and less of an issue for them.

    “BBC, although not without its faults, is an absolute beacon of quality”

    Well unless you know anything about the topic covered at which point you see that it is terrible quality, but the problem is not yet terminal, but another 5/10 years of the same attitude and it may well be.

    “The alternative is an endless diet of Murdoch rubbish”

    No there are a number of different options, the better of wich would have a much improved BBC, but no one is looking for that. The Tories will be comfortable for the gentle drift of the BBC decline.

  • simon mcgrath 4th Aug '16 - 12:37pm

    It seems odd for a government which is ‘incredibly hostile to the BBC’ to change the rules to give it more money.

  • jedibeeftrix 4th Aug '16 - 2:04pm

    Haven’t had a licence for ten years.
    Only thing I watched regularly on iplayer was top gear… oops, there’s another reason to pay gone.
    So, some good documentaries, an average of about two a week, for £140/year?
    I think not.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 4th Aug '16 - 4:10pm


    You raise important issues but do not pose answers , which is fine , if you merely raised the issues , but you do so with a strong attack on the government for being responsible for this new policy , which I do not feel is correct at all.


    You have it about right here , the current system is not sustainable and belongs to another era. Despite our party being a very sensible broad church , as I am developing a new cultural , arts and creative thinking grouping or project for the party , I have been surprised that , despite much support for my and others , wanting to , as a result, develop new thinking on the public broadcasting remit , some , older , lefter . Liberals , seem wedded to a no change equals radicalism model !

    I constantly feel I have to justify to a so called Liberal audience , why in 2016 or ever , imprisoning poor people , some , on benefits and with no work , much poorer even than any student , for not paying the draconian TVlicence , is NO LIBERALISM !

    But it falls on very cotton wool stuffed ears.

    There is a solution to all this in a policy I am developing. It is called genuine public service broadcasting . Therefore the BBC would not convince Sarah that it faced “attack ” or terrible “cuts ” to a budget of three billion pounds , because it would not be making populist commercial programmes out of a public service remit !

    I advocate the creation of BBC Public , that produces all the best of genuine public broadcasting for adults and children , funded as all our great culture that is subsidised is , from the Department of Culture. And with the rest called BBC Commercial , with a variety of market oriented popular programming , with adverts or sponserhip or subscription, or a mix , not our decision but theres !

  • David Allen 4th Aug '16 - 5:25pm

    “There is a solution … It is called genuine public service broadcasting . The BBC … would not be making populist commercial programmes out of a public service remit ! … I advocate the creation of BBC Public , that produces all the best of genuine public broadcasting … funded … from the Department of Culture.”

    That’s the US model. What happens in practice is that the public funding withers away. All the best people gravitate to the commercial providers, where the money is. Then the public funding withers away further, because the “public service” broadcasting becomes poorer and loses popularity. The Right are delighted, because politically biased reporting wins the day. Let’s not go there.

  • Richard Underhill 4th Aug '16 - 5:47pm

    The BBC was also asked to pay for the World Service, fortunately widely respected. They also played Beethoven Five to Germany in WW2, according to Richard Dimbleby and sons.

  • 32 of the most recalcitrant offenders jailed in England & Wales in 2013 …….., but none whatsoever in Scotland……. Why ? Because Holyrood had the wisdom to get rid of that particular law. Lib Dem MP’s could easily push for it to be the same down south.

    Of course John Stuart Mill would regard the imprisonment as fair do’s………………. and his pal Jeremy Bentham would be designing jails to put them in.

  • Ryan McAlister 4th Aug '16 - 7:11pm

    Nobody is imprisoned for not having a TV license. The Communications act sets a maximum penalty of a £1000 fine. You can be jailed for not paying the fine of course.

    That said, I agree with those who want to see this anachronistic, regressive tax repealed at the soonest possible convenience.

  • Pay your share.

    Get over it.

    Programmes (even on iplayer) don’t make themselves!

    [Declaration of Interest. I used to write – freelance – for BBC Radio]

  • @Psi
    “I don’t think they are worried, they can see that left to its own devices it will wither on the vine and will pose less and less of an issue for them.”

    The opposite is happening – the BBC is increasing its audience share and its lead over the other broadcasters.

    This – plus the fact that the license fee supports not just the BBC but, directly and indirectly, large swathes of the rest of our media industry, much to the public good – is the reason why even our supposedly anti-BBC government could see no alternative but to kick the whole license fee issue (such as it is) in to the long grass until 2027.

  • crewegwyn

    “Pay your share.
    Get over it.”

    People paying their share is what those who want reform are advocating.

    Some of us are also interested in other improvements, but it starts from a better funding model.

  • the licence fee is meant to apply only to live television broadcasts.

    Err no, it was originally meant to apply to a “television receiver” ie. equipment necessary to receive and view the BBC’s output. At the time it was introduced, live viewing was the only way to access the BBC’s TV output…

    Over the years things have changed and what is regarded as a “television receiver” has changed, particularly with the rapid development of the Internet and the mass market availability of live streaming services. So all that is happening is that the BBC are moving with the times and changing the way it charges for it’s services.

    As for the disproportionate effect on students, that is to be expected, students never did have much money and hence tend to use free services. In my day only lucky students had a TV, the rest of us had radio and borrowed each other’s LP’s and cassettes. I suspect the BT broadband advert is very true of today’s students; those with digs that have decent broadband have lots of ‘mates’.

  • Barry Snelson 4th Aug '16 - 9:34pm

    I do pay my share. I pay it to Sky. I don’t ask you to pay for what I like and I, like millions of others, resent subsidising your personal taste (and source of employment).

    But, no matter, the only entertainment the BBC has provided me in years is now watching the slow death of this greedy bloated monster.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 4th Aug '16 - 10:58pm

    David Allen

    My wife is originally from America , a country I know well, I do not advocate the USA model. Alas , as with health , anyone critical of our system is always considered to be an advocate of the complete opposite , especially from the left , “look at the US option ” as though the only alternative. The American PBS network is excellent , but small , reliant on imports , often from this country , and on sponsors and donors . It does make some terrific programmes of its own , usually in the documentary field , check out Ken Burns , one of the greatest of them all in the media . I do not regard the comparison as an insult , but as inaccurate according to what I advance. The American innovation in television was as good or better than anything in this country as far as the origin of television as they got there with more money faster , and commercially. Just as the Republicans were more moderate then in the era of Ike , so the market was of greater quality. PBS was a later add on , with an ethos based on theatre and education. The BBC is established as a world class broadcaster , I feel that , it is because I believe in it , that I loathe its wanting to have a monopoly of public trust and money to increasingly make garbage as well as greatness !

  • This sounds like excellent news. Will I be able to pay per view and not pay £12 a month for an hour a week?

  • Stevan Rose 4th Aug '16 - 11:36pm

    It’s not a tax. It’s a poorly structured fee for entertainment and news with anachronisms built in such as criminal penalties for non-payment. The entertainment quality is questionable at times, forcing people to pay whether they consume or not is unfair, and the BBC has become bloated with unnecessary services no-one really uses. It could reduce by a third with no real effect on choice or quality. There are no perfect models or easy answers. In context £3 a week is the cost of a pint for a student for which they get a constant stream of Bargain Hunt in return. I wonder whether an answer might be you can buy a license to watch unlimited iPlayer or pay as you watch – £5 a weekly ticket. Or £1 restricted to Bargain Hunt and Homes Under The Hammer repeats only. Paves the way for a future subscription model.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 4th Aug '16 - 11:45pm

    Adding to above, it would be a good thing if we could stop seeing broadcasting as somehow unique amongst the mediums or ways of delivering art and entertainment.

    The British have excelled in theatre far longer than anything culturally . The subsidy for the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare company or the Polka Theatre for Children in Wimbledon , or the Roundabout childrens theatre in education , in Nottingham , do not interfere with or damage , our commercial theatre or vice versa.

    Sir Cameron Mackintosh or Sonia Friedman , or the myriad of fine impressarios and producers in the west end and touring commercial theatre , do not feel threatened by , or are not a threat to , the subsidised theatre.

    The reverse is the case . Indeed it could be thus in broadcasting. A Broadcasting Council is what I call for , to distribute money to genuine public broadcasting , as the Arts Council does in the theatre.

  • A Broadcasting Council is what I call for , to distribute money to genuine public broadcasting , as the Arts Council does in the theatre.

    Dear me no. The Arts Council wastes a lot of taxpayer’s money subsidising a whole lot of politically correct rubbish. The last thing we need is another body distributing public money to unemployable right-on lefties.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 5th Aug '16 - 1:28am


    You are correct to criticise that which the Arts Council get wrong , and how true , but please see my comments for all the superb work they fund , and that broadcasting is not just the BBC , and such a new body could break the BBC monopoly to mean other genuine public broadcasting of quality gets support .

  • @Barry Snelson
    “I do pay my share. I pay it to Sky. I don’t ask you to pay for what I like”

    You may not ask, but this is in effect what happens. Non-Sky viewers are all subsidising Sky directly and indirectly, both by contributing to the income of companies which advertise on Sky, and more importantly by the fact that the BBC, through not competing for Sky’s advertising revenues and subscriptions, is keeping Sky’s income streams going. If the BBC funding model were changed tomorrow, your Sky subscriptions would certainly shoot up. (In fact Sky have done a good job of increasing charges even without this happening.)

    But, no matter, the only entertainment the BBC has provided me in years is now watching the slow death of this greedy bloated monster.

    The opposite is happening – the BBC’s audience share is increasing and it is the country’s most popular broadcaster by a very, very long way indeed. Many posters here seem to be operating on the principle that if you just keep on saying something is happening, even though the evidence shows it isn’t, then eventually it just might.

    As it happens I like the BBC, consider it good value for money, and so long as use of its services is near-universal (which it is) I see no reason in principle for the license fee not to continue. But even if none of those things were true, there are sound economic reasons for maintaining the status quo which would lead me to the same conclusion even if I didn’t like the BBC’s output myself. Reluctantly, the government has come to the same conclusion; they may object to the BBC on ideological grounds, and their rich media chums would love for them to emasculate the BBC, but the hard economic facts have made them realise there is no alternative to renewing the license fee for another 11 years.

  • Stuart

    “the BBC is increasing its audience share and its lead over the other broadcasters”

    Pig iron outpur up 10%!

  • As this is still linked on the top of LDV I though I would add one more point to those who think the BBC is still providing quality. I will refer back to an old thread discussing the BBC:
    “If I take one area where the BBC and I share a bias (which they seem unaware of their own bias) is immigration and membership of the EU both being positive. The effect of the BBC bias is that it has tended to dismiss the views who disagree with it. Often trying to “label” the motives of those who hold a different view; this in turn has prevented the topic getting a quality rationally discussed. The result is that many people in the country are suspicious of both, many not keen to express their opinions and lack an understanding of the detail of the arguments on both sides.”

    The BBC spent years attacking oponets of the EU and immigration, entirely removing the need for them to actually engage with the issues (why bother when your opponents are “racist”), when the referendum came they were completely out of their depth and did a terrible job, particularly with regards the nonsense of the Leave campaign who managed to face in several directions at once.

  • Richard Underhill 24th Aug '16 - 11:50am

    Although peak time events such as Mo Farah’s races and the later sets of Andy Murray’s final were in the small hours of the morning the BBC had record audiences. 11.1 million people watched Jason Kenny win cycling gold.
    45.24 million people watched BBC1.
    BBC2 and BBC4 also had record audiences.
    Although some sports have natural breaks, there were so many events occurring that something else was usually live.

  • Richard Underhill 24th Aug '16 - 6:53pm

    The obituaries of Sir Antony Jay show that Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister (currently repeated on BBC2) were about the serious issue of public choice.
    Politicians want to be re-elected, civil servants want to maximise their budgets, and the electorate gets “a free lunch”.

  • “the BBC is still providing quality.”

    Picking up on Richard Hill’s Olympics comment and Psi’s reference to quality, I suggest with their Olympic’s coverage the BBC demonstrated to a substantial audience both what is now possible using the standard TV and Internet channels and just how far their standards had slipped.

    So we were treated to the madness of channel hopping between BBC1, 2, 4, Red Button and sometimes back again just to follow one event, which included medal ceremonies (yes the medals were given out and then you had to switch channels to get the national anthem!). With some events channel hoping also extended to the Internet streaming service… But then many times they got their schedules and timings wrong so you lost continuity and even more irritatingly at times the channels were addressing two different audiences, so significant parts big events such as the mens road race were not transmitted (admittedly with respect to the cycling I am comparing the BBC here with ITV4’s coverage of all stages of the Tour de France…).

    This was even more frustrating given my understanding is that the BBC still control the transmission slots formerly used by BBC3 and BBC6, plus on Freeview/FreeSat there are other free slots (including an entire multiple that Ofcom will be handing over to the mobile operators in a few years time) that could have been brought into use, just as they used 2012 to launch the HD service which required people to buy both new equipment and/or retune to pick up the new channels…

    I think with some sensible forethought by both Ofcom, Freeview/Freesat and the BBC, a better coverage could of been delivered, along with greater ‘normal’ non-Olympic programming, because major events such as the Olypics, the World Cup etc. really fall outside of the narrower constraints of normal programming and channel allocations.

  • Richard Underhill 24th Aug '16 - 10:16pm

    Roland 24th Aug ’16 – 9:59pm Who is “Richard Hill”?

  • Richard Underhill – many apologies for my unintentional mistake.

  • Richard Underhill 25th Aug '16 - 7:19am

    Viewers could do their own “channel hopping” using the blue button, but please do not blame the messenger for the message. The Rio Olympics had organisational problems resulting from last minute building work (as did Athens Olympics) and funding problems partially solved by diverting money from the Paralympics. Timetabling problems were partially caused by the variable length of some events, such as tennis, as at Wimbledon. The organisers must have suffered some distraction from the issue of performance enhancing drugs, Russia and appeals.

  • Richard Underhill

    I think the Olympics demonstrates how poorly the BBC now does events. The fact that 11m people wanted to watch an event is not a reflection on the BBC an incredible medal tally was always going to pull in the viewers. It is like saying that water companies do a good job because households continue to use water, the service can be terrible but customers will use it regardless.

    The BBC could have learned from its rather logistical utilitarian approach that it used to deliver sport with decades ago. A number of the annoying aspects of some BBC programmes is that they have forgotten some of the ways certain programs used to be made trying to apply the modern approach which works in certain circumstances but not in others. In the case of documentaries many graphics to explain certain things have disappeared, in favour of having an not very knowledgeable presenter explain it in words, this seems to have been copied from Alvin Hall back in the 90s (who did it very well) but is not universally appropriate. Or in the case of sports the old “Grandstand” approach of packing in events in a standard location with the best sign posting possible and minimal filler has fallen by the way side when it would have worked much better for the Olympics.

    The BBC clearly has a serious group think issue, people normally only speak about it in terms of their current affairs coverage but it is there is other areas. They don’t see it but it doesn’t impact of programming. That is not to say there is not the very occasional programme that does break out of it, but they are rare.

  • Richard Underhill 31st Aug '16 - 5:35pm

    BBC sports journalist Jonathon Agnew was in Deodoro, near Rio, for the Olympics. He wrote “Our daily drive there was a good illustration of some of the challenges that confronted these Games. A brand new dual carriageway made the journey a breeze because no other cars were allowed on it. Either side were impoverished shanty towns, and the reason they are on both sides of the lovely new road is because the bulldozers razed to the ground everything that stood in their way. Thousands of people must have been displaced. Goodness knows where to. The discontent was tangible. While gun crime is a way of life in Rio, that still does not properly explain the bullets fired into our equestrian area . One came through the media centre wall, narrowly missing the New Zealand press attache. General Ramos of the Brazilian army was produced to provide an explanation, but he dug an even bigger hole for himself when he said the bullet simply ‘fell from the sky like a little stone.’ It was not reassuring.”

  • Richard Underhill 1st Sep '16 - 10:53am

    The ‘I-Player loophole’ ends today. Basically the BBC needs the money.

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