Many may be surprised to discover that Britain is not alone in issuing licences, in fact 2/3 of European countries have a similar system in place (including Germany, France, Austria and Denmark), as do half the countries in Asia and Africa.
So how did the TV licence begin in Britain?
In 1922, the British Broadcasting Company was founded by John Reith to broadcast radio throughout the UK with the guiding motto “Independent British broadcaster able to educate, inform and entertain the whole nation, free from political interference and commercial pressure.”
Radios were becoming increasing popular and the question was arising of how to pay for programs being produced. In the United States, the answer was through advertising, and those advertisers had an influence on what was broadcast. In the USSR, a state ran radio station had been created, which, as you might imagine, lacked objectivity.
The British government decided that the newly formed BBC would be funded by a compulsory radio license (and radio only licenses existed up until 1971- when most people who owned radios also had television sets.) The intent behind charging for a licence was, and indeed still is, to keep broadcasting completely free from the need for advertisers and as a result, avoid bias in its programming.
The British Broadcasting Company started daily transmissions on November 14th 1922, by which over one million ten-shilling (50p) licences had been issued. (Licences were sold in Post Offices.) This was a big number when you consider that owning a radio was still very much a luxury at the time. In 1923, the BBC published a magazine to promote the radio station- aptly called the Radio Times.
In 1927, the company was restructured as a public corporation, the BBC that we know today, but by this time an even newer technology was on the horizon -television. By the 1930’s, as television sets were starting to appear in stores and in homes and the BBC had already begun to develop their television division.
The first mechanically scanned, 30-line television broadcasts began in 1929. Originally produced by John Logie Baird, they switched over to BBC One in 1932. The BBC began broadcasting regularly scheduled electronically scanned television from Alexandra Palace in London on 2 November 1936 with the first programme broadcast on a dedicated TV channel called “Opening of the BBC Television Service.”
BBC television continued to operate until the outbreak of WWII in 1939, but returned to broadcasting on 7 June 1946. After the war ended, television increased in popularity and the licence fee increased accordingly as more shows were being produced to meet demand.
One event in the 1950’s spurred more Britons to purchase television sets than any other – the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In 1953, 2,142,452 licences were issued, up from 1,457,000 from the previous year. It is estimated that 20 million viewers alone in the U.K watched this historical event. Television- and its licence fee- were here to stay.
What everyone was watching:
In 1955, a competing television channel came along, Independent Television, now commonly known as ITV. They paid for their programming using commercials and sponsors.
British television has changed considerably since those early days. Growing up in the sixties and seventies we only had three channels to choose from; BBC 1, BBC 2 (which began in 1964) and ITV and that is how it remained until 1982 when a fourth channel was started, appropriately called Channel Four.
These days there are as many channels available in the U.K. as there are in the States and various BBC ones including their latest offering BBC HD. Technology has also changed dramatically and many U.K. viewers opt to access their favorite BBC television and radio shows via the Internet and players like the BBC’s iPlayer and Channel 4’s 4OD (4 On Demand.)
How much is the licence fee today and what does it cover?
Currently it is £145.50 for a color television and £49 for a black and white. (Yes, 11,000 thousand homes still use one in the UK!) It breaks down to £12.13 per month or just under 40p per day. That fee has been locked in until 2016.
The break down for the color licence is as follows:
Television- £7.69 per month per household
Radio- £2.08 per month per household
Internet- £0.55 per month per household.
Other fees- £1. 82
For more information see www.tvlicencing.co.uk.
It is per household and not per actual set, so you can have and watch as many televisions as you want in your home with just a single licence. In my opinion it is worth the fee, and I believe that the BBC consistently puts out great television shows as a result (and, yes, they also produce many bland and uninspired series also). A huge chunk of its income these days is as a result of selling their shows to foreign countries, and in fact many BBC shows are amongst the most popular in the world.
In the United States, most viewers do indeed pay for their television these days also, as they pay a cable or satellite provider to connect to the national networks. The days of rabbit ears and roof antennas are long behind us. Many networks- such as HBO and SHOWTIME- come at a premium, and as a result are producing some of the best American television ever created, in my opinion.
So how do you feel about the TV licence? Do you think it’s fair or that the quality of the BBC’s programming is worth the fee? I look forward to reading your comments.
Paul Gifford is an English born full time writer who has called California home for many years. He writes under the name P.S. Gifford. He has had several dozen stories published in print and on-line magazine, been included in anthologies and has several collections of his works available at all good on-line book sellers. You can find his website here.