Online viewing licence fee loophole may be closed

Law may be changed to future-proof public media funding beyond ‘traditional’ TV set

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten is looking at the TV licence fee  options. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten is looking at the TV licence fee options. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

People who don’t have a television set but watch RTÉ programmes online may be obliged to buy a television licence in future, Minister for Communications Denis Naughten has signalled.

Mr Naughten said there had been a rise this year in the number of households signing a declaration to say they have no television set. “We’re looking at the legal definition of that, because a lot of those people use the content.”

In the UK, a loophole that enabled people to watch BBC content via its catch-up service iPlayer without being charged a licence fee was closed in September. This was known as the “iPlayer loophole”.

Mr Naughten said he had “looked at what they’re doing in the UK” and it was one of the options available to his department.

The officially abandoned household broadcasting charge, proposed as a replacement for the licence fee, would not have the required support of the Dáil, the Minister said.

However, the technological rationale for the charge remains. In a recent letter to the Oireachtas communications committee, Mr Naughten refers to the “rapid changes in technology” that are “altering the ‘traditional’ way in which television is watched”.

His comments, alongside the UK move, suggest it is not necessary to devise a brand new charge in order to future-proof public broadcasting funding at a time when a small but growing cohort are choosing to watch television only through computers and mobile devices.

Evasion

In 2015, some 8 per cent of households claimed they did not possess a television set and it is understood that proportion has increased to date this year.

The estimated evasion rate among eligible households is 14 per cent, resulting in a loss of up to €40 million to the Irish broadcasting sector. Although RTÉ will benefit from an additional €6 million in public funding as a result of measures in Budget 2017, the organisation has been hit by a tough advertising market and pressure on licence fee income.

Any push to crack down on evasion could see the enforcement of licence fee collection handed to an organisation other than An Post.

“If we were to do that, as far as I am concerned you would still be paying your TV licence through the local post office. But that is an option for us,” Mr Naughten said.

A proposal to oblige pay-TV providers such as Sky, Virgin Media and Eir to share subscriber data with the licence fee enforcement agency is also not off the agenda.

“That’s part of the whole issue,” he said. “There’s a number of options there that can improve the whole funding streams that are available, not just to RTÉ, but to TV3, UTV and TG4 as well. They can all benefit.”

Most if not all of these measures would require revisions to existing legislation.

“Television set” is defined under the Broadcasting Act 2009 as “any electronic apparatus capable of receiving and exhibiting television broadcasting services broadcast for general reception”. However, video-on-demand and services provided over the internet are not included in the definition of “broadcasting service”.