There has been a fair amount of coverage in the news recently about the closing of what’s been called the ‘iPlayer loophole.’
This was a gap in the rules for the TV licence that said that you only needed to pay for one if you received live television, including over the internet. So, if you watch via cable, satellite, or an aerial, you need a licence. And, if you watch in real time, via the internet, you need a licence too.
The loophole? If you use the non-live functionality of iPlayer, you didn’t need a licence. So, you could just watch everything a little bit later, and you wouldn’t need to pay the annual fee. Some estimates of the cost of this put the annual figure as high as £150 million, which is obviously a good chunk of a budget that’s already being squeezed by a hostile government.
The Telegraph has done a charmingly wacky story about how updated TV detector vans will work out who’s using iPlayer, which is more amusingly debunked over at The Register.
The real solution to enforcement is, more than likely, going to be simply sending a letter to every house that doesn’t have a TV licence.
Why TV makers make this hard
Why do I think this has anything to do with TV makers? Because they’re a big block to one of the most obvious solutions – adding a simple option in iPlayer that lets you enter your TV licence number to authorise a device.
That would, on the face of it, be a great way to ensure that iPlayer is only accessible to those who have paid for it. It might also open up the possibility of access to some material for people from abroad (though the tangled mess of rights will also interfere with that).
And, it’s also an option that the BBC would be very reluctant to consider, because most TV makers render it pretty much impossible.
Over the years, we’ve seen various generations of smart TV. We’ve seen sets that were sold on the basis that they had YouTube or other services built in carelessly obsoleted as services have upgraded, and the TV makers have shrugged and said “No, we won’t be updating the firmware for that model.”
Most TVs are ‘smart’ these days. Many of them have iPlayer, and for a lot of people who aren’t that tech savvy, it’s a great way to access the service, without hooking up a computer. There are also DVD players and set top boxes too.
The sad reality is that, for most of the makers of these, adding things like iPlayer was just a box to tick for the UK version of a particular model, and they really don’t care if it still works. With many smart sets, you’ll be lucky if you ever get an update, frankly.
So, although it might seem like adding some sort of login or licence fee entry to iPlayer is the simplest and easiest way to solve the problem, it won’t happen. Because the iPlayer clients on lots of TVs would stop working and – regardless of the blame being with makers who can’t be bothered to update software – the perception of many ordinary users would be “The BBC broke my TV.”
It’s also worth noting, prompted by some comments from my esteemed fellow writer Chris Bidmead, that there is a precedent set in closing this loophole that may yet come back to haunt the BBC.
Though the corporation is the sole recipient of funding from the licence fee amongst the major UK broadcasters, the legal position is that a licence is required to operate a television receiver. In other words, you’re paying for the right to use the equipment, regardless of what you watch.
So, in the past, you have been able to argue that you only watch pre-recorded videos on a set that’s not tuned in, and that’s fine. But if you say “I only watch ITV” you still need a licence, because you’re receiving television broadcasts. Similarly, if you only watched satellite TV, you’d need the licence, regardless of channels watched.
In closing the iPlayer loophole, the government has for the first time explicitly linked the licence fee to BBC services. If you don’t use iPlayer, you can still watch ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5 via their catch up services, over the internet, without having to have a licence.
That may seem fair on the face of it. However, the precedent set may yet ultimately lead to a situation akin to a subscription BBC, where no fees need be paid to watch other broadcasters at all.
After all, if after 2030 or so, terrestrial transmitters are turned off, and most people consume TV via the internet, the changes that come in from September this year will mean that, effectively, a licence will only be needed for BBC programmes.
Whether you want that to happen or not is a legitimate subject for debate. As things stand, we haven’t had that debate – even though the first step has been taken down the road.