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UK.gov pledges licence fee 'rethink' over heavy catch-up use

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The government has pledged to 'rethink' the licence fee because so much television is watched via catch-up services on computers, which does not require the payment of the licence fee.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has ruled out introducing a licence fee for PCs but has said that his administration will need to find a way to stop people consuming material paid for by the licence fee for free.

"What we've said very clearly is that we accept the principle of the licence fee, the idea of a household tax to fund broadcasting that is ring-fenced," culture secretary Jeremy Hunt told the Andrew Marr Show on BBC television yesterday. "We think that one of the reasons we have some of the best TV and broadcasting in the world in this country is because we have these different streams of income including the licence, including subscription income and including advertising.

"The way we collect it may have to be rethought because technology is changing, a lot of people are watching it on their PCs," said Hunt. "We're not going to introduce a PC licence fee and that is something that I do need to have discussions with the BBC to see what their ideas are."

The BBC's governing body the BBC Trust expressed concern last year about the increasing number of viewers watching catch-up services and said that rules on licences should be clearer.

"The technological advances of recent years have seen significant developments in the ways in which people may choose to access television content, not least the BBC’s own iPlayer. In the immediate term, there needs to be clearer communication on the legal requirements for a TV," it said in a review of licence fee collection.

The Trust said that while there was no immediate danger to the BBC's income, changing viewing patterns could become a threat in the future.

"Some commentators have ... predicted the licence fee will be undermined by new technology," it said. "The licence fee collection is currently heavily reliant on the fact that almost 98% of households still use television sets (although this number has declined very slightly in the last year from 97.61% to 97.37%) and that viewing on new technologies tends to be supplementary to viewing on television.

"It is not yet clear whether households are likely to switch to internet streaming as the sole method of watching television, avoiding the use of a dedicated television set. It is clear, however, that this is happening in some segments – research for the BBC Executive shows that 40% of students in halls of residence use a laptop as their main way to watch TV," it said.

"Legislative change is likely to be required in order to reflect technology changes in the licence fee regulations and the Trust has therefore not explored this further within this review," said the Trust last year.

Television watchers must have a TV licence if they watch live television, whether on broadcast networks or streamed over the internet. A home licence covers users for any watching on a wireless device. If that device is plugged into the mains electricity then the premises must have a licence or the viewer is committing an offence, the TV Licensing Authority has previously said.

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OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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