Janet (j4) wrote,

Thinking outside the box

We don't have a TV.

If you think this is quite a boring thing to talk about, then you're right. I think about not-having-a-TV about as much as I think about not-playing-golf, with about as much interest. Recently, however, I was forced to think about it a lot more because I had a spate of people getting at me for not owning a TV and not having a TV licence. I hate wasting time justifying myself to idiots, but I thought I'd share my thoughts about the issues anyway.

Part of the problem is that there are three linked but not entirely identical issues here:
  1. owning a TV set
  2. having a TV licence
  3. watching TV programmes
At the moment you need a TV licence if you own equipment capable of receiving a TV signal. The definition of this equipment is somewhat confused and no two people from TV Licensing seem to agree on it, but it does not currently include computers capable of using iPlayer[*]. You do, however, require a licence if you want to use that computer to watch live TV through iPlayer or the web. (It's not clear how — or whether — this is policed, but I'm not looking for ways to evade the law here!)

[*] I notice they say "the number of homes that currently have no television licence, but that do have broadband subscription is currently estimated to be infinitesimally small. The chances are if you want to watch BBC TV programmes via catch-up over the web, you are also watching some BBC programmes at other times, live or time-shifted, via a TV set, and will already have a TV licence." For what it's worth, we use broadband for lots of things that don't involve watching TV; we don't watch TV programmes via a TV set, because we don't have one (we just watch on the laptop); and we don't watch them very often if at all anyway.

So, I don't watch live TV, because I don't have a TV licence. I watch very little TV at all, live or otherwise; last year I watched Glee (via 4oD), but I really can't think of a single other thing I watched at home. (addedentry reminds me that while we were staying at my parents' house over Christmas I also watched the new dramatisation of "Murder on the Orient Express". My parents have a TV and pay a TV licence, their situation is uncomplicated, so let's leave them out of the equation.) It's just not something I'm in the habit of doing. I love Glee, but I often forget about watching even that until someone reminds me.

I don't regard this as a moral stance, any more than any of the other things I don't do: I don't play golf, as mentioned; I rarely go to live comedy shows or dance shows; I don't read the Financial Times; I don't go horse-riding; I've never been to a football match; I don't tend to listen to opera (though I've heard the odd bit here and there since switching to R3 for our morning radio alarm). There are lots of things out there which lots of people find interesting, inspiring, fun, relaxing, or otherwise a good way to spend their time. I don't have a problem with how people spend their time so long as they're not messing things up for other people in the process. It's just a matter of personal taste. I used to have a TV (and a TV licence, of course) but even then I very rarely watched it, to the extent that it was starting to seem a bit silly paying £150 a year for something I didn't use. If you were paying for a magazine subscription and you realised you never actually read the magazine, you'd probably cancel it, right?

I don't think the TV licence is a waste of money per se: I just think it's a waste of money for me. There's no legal obligation for me to have one because I don't have a TV set and don't watch live TV; I don't feel any moral obligation to pay it when I so very rarely watch catch-up TV (I'd almost certainly just give up watching catch-up TV if that also required the licence). I suppose it's possible that I might feel differently about the moral obligation if I watched things on iPlayer all the time; but I don't. Other people can do their own cost/benefit analysis for their own situation. (For what it's worth, I pay a comparable amount for Spotify premium service, so I can get streaming music without adverts; I use that all the time, it feels like good value, as for the cost of a CD a month I get to listen to a gazillion CDs without any of them taking up space in our house.)

The flak I've been getting for not having a TV has focused on a) calling me a licence-evading freeloader, and b) quibbling about what "counts" as watching TV. Of course, the question about what "counts" is irrelevant to the legal question of the licence (though not the hypothetical moral obligation mentioned above). I am only "evading" a licence in the sense that I've decided not to do either of the things that requires the licence (that is, own a TV set or watch live TV). That's like saying I'm evading the duty on alcohol by not drinking. The "freeloading" question is slightly more contentful, slightly more worthy of consideration; I am using some of the BBC's services (I listen to BBC radio, and use the BBC website). Does that make me a freeloader? Possibly; but in that case, what should I be doing: getting a licence for a thing I don't have? Making regular donations to the BBC? If there was a BBC Licence, I might pay it... or I might decide that since this was equivalent to putting the whole of the BBC behind a paywall, the BBC was no longer something I wanted to support. I don't honestly know.

The fact that people are concentrating on what "counts" as TV suggests that for them it is a moral issue rather than a legal one, but I can't tell whether it's a genuine feeling on their part that I'm doing something immoral by making occasional use of the BBC's services without paying a TV licence, or a way of trying to justify the moral defensiveness that people seem to feel about their own TV-watching. If it's the former, then that's interesting, but I don't think I'm doing anything that is immoral in my book (I'm prepared to believe I could be convinced otherwise), and I'd rather stick to my own morals than try to second-guess other people. One colleague claimed that TV was a universal social good and therefore everybody ought to have a TV Licence; I can understand the viewpoint that TV is a Good Thing (I'm not convinced, but it's not a ridiculous opinion), but if that's generally agreed to be the case then I'd prefer to see it provided for out of general taxation rather than relying on the current system of licenses for bits of hardware. As for paying the licence fee voluntarily, even if TV is a universal social good there are lots of other social goods that would be much higher up my list of things to support if I found myself with spare cash.

If the reason behind the hassle is the more vague sense of moral defensiveness, though, there's even less I can do about it except keep reiterating that it's not a moral stance and I'm not judging them (which certainly isn't going to help if that's not their motivation, or if they don't realise that that's their subconscious motivation).

There are probably lots of things on TV that I would enjoy. Similarly, there's probably lots of opera that I'd enjoy, and horse-riding might be fun, and so on. But there are also lots of other things that I'd choose first. Nobody can do everything, everybody will miss something. I'm not (at least, I don't intend to be, and don't think I am) a snob about it: I will freely admit that there are individual TV programmes that I am snobbish about, but dismissing TV as a whole just because of Big Brother would be like dismissing novels because of Dan Brown. I'm not dismissing the validity or appeal of TV as a cultural medium: it just doesn't seem to do it for me, or at least it doesn't currently attract or appeal to me enough to change my cultural-consumption habits. (I do watch bits and pieces of things-that-are-like-TV-but-much-shorter on YouTube, but a) they're much shorter, which is part of the appeal, and b) they're usually more directly linked to something else I'm doing: they're linked from the blogs I enjoy, or they're linked to by people I like or respect or tend to agree with.)

I think part of the reason I don't tend to watch TV is that I do tend to have music on a lot of the time whatever else I'm doing. I know some people treat the TV in the same way, but if there's a TV on in the background I find it distracts me too much (and stops people talking), whereas music entertains me without interfering. I can listen to music while reading, or writing; I wouldn't want to have the TV on while doing either. (It seems slightly ironic that people claim TV reduces children's ability to concentrate, whereas part of the reason I don't have a TV is that I don't want to have to concentrate on just one thing at once.) I don't really watch films either, for some of the same reasons (much to addedentry's dismay — I think he'd happily go to the cinema at least once a day, whereas I'd average more like once a year). I've tried in the past to turn this into some kind of tossy media-literacy thing about not really having the right cultural reference points or not understanding the medium, but to be honest, it's just that — for whatever reason — I don't get enough fun out of it to make it feel like a worthwhile investment of time for me. (I think there are things I miss in films because I'm not that knowledgeable about films — deliberate references to other films, cinematic shorthand that probably doesn't 'work' for me in quite the same way — but I'm sure I miss references in books as well, and that doesn't bother me.) With the cinema, of course, there are other issues too: not wanting to pay £10 for a film I could get for £3 on DVD, not wanting to sit in a dark smelly room on an uncomfortable seat with a tall man's head blocking my view and people kicking me in the back... that sort of thing. But I put up with the uncomfortable seats and the antisocial people to go to the theatre (I probably spent more than the cost of a TV licence on theatre tickets last year) or to go to concerts, so clearly that isn't the whole story.

I don't think there's a moral or even a conclusion to draw from this, except that I'm quite happy with my situation, and I'm happy for other people to be happy with theirs.
Tags: television
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