The (TV) Taxman Cometh

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A few weeks ago, my husband got us a digital cable box, despite the fact that we don't have a television.

The reasoning behind the cable box is that should we ever decide to get a television, using it would somehow be free, with our cable plan. But one of the reasons we don't have a television has to with the fact that watching broadcast television, like many other things in this fair country, comes with a yearly tax; in 2008 to 2009, that tax was around £140. Not a ton of money, but more than I, an American who assumes that television should be free, want to pay.

Now, we'd heard about this TV tax well before we even moved here. But I'll be honest, I didn't really know exactly what it was or how it was collected.

It's simply a tax on any device, including laptops and mobile phones, that is used to receive a television program at the same time its being watched or broadcast to other members of the public. It's set annually by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sports, the BBC has the right to collect the tax, and the money goes to pay for their broadcasts. All well and good "“ the BBC does some great programming and while they make most things available on iPlayer, their web-based radio and television streaming program, it's not all there.

But the question is, how do they determine whether there is a television on the premises, and that it's being used for watching broadcast TV, not just DVDs and video games?

The answer: They have surveillance vans.

TV-licensingFor decades, TV-tax dodgers have been foiled by the TV licensing patrols "“ essentially, vans with large antennae atop them sniffing out TV signals. And if they, the licensing patrols, determine that someone is using a television unlawfully, they can levy a fine of up to £1,000. The first such vans hit the streets in 1926, trying to catch radio listeners who were dodging the obligatory 10-shilling license fee. The invention of TV brought a new generation of vans, but it's only been in the last 17 years or so that the vans have really been effective, able to not only determine if there's a television receiver in use, but to cross reference the information with an on-board database of TV license holders as well. In 2007, the TV licensing department unveiled a new weapon in the fight against TV-tax dodgers: A handheld device that can detect if a television is on within a radius of 29 feet.

The larger triumph of the vans, however, isn't so much in catching dodgers outright, but in the fear they're able to conjure. Even televised public service announcements warning potential TV-tax dodgers were designed to strike a note of paranoia in TV viewers:

In this one, from 1970, a TV license patrolman says, "Yes, there's a TV set on at No 5. It's in the front room "“ and they are watching Columbo." It is no surprise that George Orwell was British.

Despite the fact that the TV tax is ingrained in British media culture, there have been some rumors of revolt lately "“ in the last few years, polls have shown that people would like to see the BBC funded in some other way, or to do away with the tax all together. At the same time, watching television programs on the internet, specifically those that have already been broadcast to the TV viewing audience, is a bit of what media watchdog group OfCom considers a TV-tax grey area and one that, as people continue to rely on the internet and digital cable recording for TV, will need to be figured out.

As of now, we haven't decided what to do with the digital cable box, which remains in its box, unopened, in our spare room. And though the BBC does air some great shows, programs like Clever v. Stupid and Strictly Come Dancing are making me wonder "“ what exactly are 25 million Brits paying for?

[Image courtesy of TV Licensing.]

October 8, 2009 - 6:20am
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