Irish people will spend more time in front of their televisions this month than at any other as that heady mix of dire weather and festivities will see the nation almost entirely housebound with nothing to do but watch Christmas specials and year-in-review programmes or fight with relatives.
While the Christmas schedules are as predictable as ever, how rather than what we watch has changed substantially. Not long ago Friday nights meant either The Late Late Show, Jonathan Ross or a DVD but today – with players, downloads and streaming – the choices are endless.
But what does this change in our viewing habits mean when it comes to television licences? If we’re not watching the State broadcaster do we really have to pay for it? And how much does it cost to collect that licence fee anyway?
According to a report published in the UK this year, about 400,000 people do not need a TV licence because they are watching television programmes exclusively on catch-up services such as BBC’s iPlayer and Channel 4’s 4OD. And if they only watched DVDs on their television or used it for their Xbox they would also find themselves outside of the licence net.
However, before you get excited that this might apply to you, it doesn't. Not even remotely. According to An Post, which is charged with collecting the fee, if you have a television, you must have a television licence – even if you don't actually watch what is termed "television" on it. So it doesn't matter whether you sit down every day to watch the Six O'Clock News or only watch DVDs or Netflix or pre-recorded material on it – you must have a licence.
But if you forgo your television, and instead opt to get your entertainment fix on a laptop or desktop computer, or even your iPad, using any of the aforementioned methods then you may find yourself complying with the law if you don’t have a licence. At least for now. However Pat Rabbitte, as the Minister for Communications, is hell-bent on making everyone pay.
So, how much does An Post pay to make us pay? In 2012, RTÉ received €180.9 million in television licence revenue but more than €220 million was actually collected that year. So where did the rest go?
Well, with a typical licence costing €160, €127.13 goes to RTÉ; €23.08 goes to a broadcasting fund and TG4, and €9.79 of each and every licence goes to An Post to cover the costs of collecting the fee.
Refuses to disclose
While An Post disclosed that it sold some 1,412,000 licences last year (down from 1,426,000 in 2011), some of this comes from free licences granted by the Department of Social Protection, so it's hard to get an exact take on it as it refuses to disclose either how much it earns from the collection of licences – or how much it spends collecting the funds – as this is "commercially-sensitive information".
However, a figure of about €12 million has been put on An Post’s collection costs by the Department of Communications, which is a hefty chunk of money to spend on just collecting a tax. This money goes on paying inspectors to call to properties, advertising on television and radio, and bringing people to court. In 2012, some 11,500 people were taken to court, while 272 of those ended up in jail.
There is most likely a cheaper way to collect the tax but we would have to wave farewell to those friendly inspectors and the magical mystery TV licence detector van that is actively seeking out non-compliant homes all around the country.
The van is as real as the tooth fairy. There is a lot of myth surrounding TV licences and the collection of the fees. One caller to a radio station recently found themselves called out of their apartment by the urgent sound of the fire alarm. When they emerged from the building they found themselves, and everyone else outside the building, faced with a TV licence inspector. Coincidence?
Another annoyance can be when you have a licence but you still get that knock on the door. While An Post says it has no relationship with TV providers such as Sky or UPC, it does keep its own database of licensed and unlicensed properties. You might wonder, then, why, if your property has a licence, you still get inspectors calling. According to An Post, this sometimes happens, “especially in unnumbered housing areas or if a person has moved premises and hasn’t advised us that they had done so”. Hmmm.
There's no getting around it. The TV licence is an intrusive tax. While we were asked to pony up multiples of €160 in the recent local property tax, there isn't an army of inspectors travelling around the country ensuring that people adequately valued their property.
While An Post won’t say how many people it has appointed to inspect properties, there is always the possibility that you will get the knock on the door some evening.
And under the Broadcasting Act 2009 they have the right to enter “at any reasonable time any premises or specified place for the purposes of ascertaining whether there is a television set there”.
The Government is moving to introduce something else. From January 1st, 2015, a new “broadcasting charge” is expected to replace the TV licence, which would bring everyone who has an entertainment device into the net – be it a television, computer, telephone or some future invention.
It’s said the rate will remain at the current level – €160 – and it’s hoped that a new approach might stop the high levels of evasion – at about 16 per cent – currently experienced with the TV licence. This high evasion rate has been estimated to translate into missed revenue of more than €25 million a year. Whether An Post remains charged with its collection remains to be seen.
EXCUSES, EXCUSES: TV LICENCE DODGES
“Apparently my dog, which is a corgi, was related to the queen’s dog so I didn’t think I needed a TV licence.”
“Why would I need a TV licence for a TV I stole? Nobody knows I’ve got it.”
“Only my three-year- old son watches the TV. Can you take it out of the family allowance I receive for him? He watches it so he should pay.”
“I had not paid as I received a lethal injection.”
“I don’t want to pay for a licence for a full year. Knowing my luck I’ll be dead in six months and won’t get value for money.”
“I have lost weight recently and had to buy new clothes. That’s why I could not afford to buy a TV licence.”
Source: The UK TV Licen