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BBC iPlayer: is it worth splashing out on a licence?

The recent introduction of a TV licence requirement to watch BBC iPlayer is described as a measure to prevent those catching up on TV programmes from having a “free ride”. Although the measure makes sense in the wider context of the BBC’s funding structure, the rise of other subscription-based services independent of the UK TV licence brings into question whether it really makes sense to make the purchase.

The TV licencing scheme is government supported and essential to the BBC’s financial running. The BBC itself is a statutory corporation set up by the Royal Charter, running its programmes in agreement with the Ministry of Culture, Media and Sport. It has a series of channels dealing with a variety of topics – news, travel, business, culture, and entertainment. Most importantly, to support its functions, the BBC relies on the TV licence fees, the cost of which is decided by the government. It therefore is logical that the BBC wants to extend the requirement of a TV licence to iPlayer, which was created with the funding from the licence fees.

Access to BBC iPlayer adds to the list of reasons why people should purchase TV licences. The regulation closes the loophole exploited by those who watched BBC programmes online, but did not pay for the service through a TV licence. Some have argued that the TV licence arrangement has given the BBC a distortedly dominant position on the entertainment market. Whilst this may be true, the BBC is a well-managed corporation providing access to the daily news cycle as well as culture and entertainment. Although no media source can claim to be “unbiased”, the BBC does make a considerable effort to report news in a balanced manner. It also has a representational function in conveying what it is like ‘to be British’; it is to many a source of national pride. To a certain extent, it also unites the country by broadcasting both national and regional TV and radio stations.

If a licence is now required for all BBC services as well other live TV service providers, is the purchase worth it? Other on-demand services, such as 4oD or ITV Player, do not require TV licences, and subscription-based services like Netflix and Amazon Prime also fall outside the scope of the TV licence. The problem is that the subscription fees demanded by these other services can fall anywhere between £70-£100 a year. Paying for both a TV licence and Netflix would result in a cost of up to £240 per year for media entertainment. For some, this forces a choice between a TV licence and an ancillary streaming service like Netflix. The TV licence clearly has more live content, with both the BBC channels and the option to purchase additional live TV programs such as Sky or Virgin. On the other hand, Netflix has some of the more appealing and popular films and TV series. An ideal solution would be to construct a combination package of Netflix-type services and the TV licence, but this option remains unexplored.

The decision to purchase a TV licence depends on individual budget, entertainment preferences and daily habits. For many, the BBC is a part of everyday life, so the requirement of a TV licence for BBC iPlayer will be an obvious reason to purchase a licence. Others prefer the more popular shows available on Netflix and may stop watching BBC iPlayer altogether. One can only hope that increasing regulations and subscription fees will not lead the more budget-conscious students to ignore TV licencing regulations entirely or stream movies from third party websites.

Image: Elliott Brown

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