Are BBC TV licence fee numbers dropping off a cliff?

It has become noticeable  on Twitter of late that criticism of the BBC has intensified and become more widespread. My own television viewing stopped in 2012 and I have not since watched live television on any medium. My sole viewing is the odd clip of a political discussion or event on YouTube. So it begs the question as whether my own response to the often dire rubbish on television is an extreme one, or whether other people are taking similar action and getting rid of The Box and reverting instead to computer generated news and entertainment (or even reading books and talking to each other more).

The only objective way of measuring such a phenomenon, if it exists, is to check the discrepancy between the number of households in the UK against the number of TV licences issued, to see if the number of licences issued is falling. Licences are issued on the basis of one licence per household and this will cover any number of televisions within that household. Broadly speaking, the number of households who decline to pay for a TV licence will comprise two groups of people: those who are like me and have switched off altogether; and those who are continuing to watch television, but have declined to pay for the licence. In the parlance of TV Licensing, the official arm of the BBC which is responsible for collection of the television licence fees, these recalcitrants are termed ‘evaders’. Much is made by TV Licensing of their success in catching evaders (800 per day) and that their success in prosecutions is 99%. See their annual review for 2015/16 here.

In the figures below, the TV licences issued are matched against the number of households in the UK (data from ONS). TV Licensing figures for the number of UK households have not been used because their figures are not presented consistently and have been subjected to changes in methodology during the study period. By contrast, the Office for National Statistics figures have been gathered and presented consistently.

Figure 1 – Graph of increases in TV licenses issued and number of UK households, since 2008.



From this, we can see that the number of TV licenses issued (blue line) has risen in a very straight line since 2008. The average rate of increase has been an additional 100,000 licenses each year. This increase can be attributed to the efficiency of TV Licensing in locating and demanding payment from non-payers. It is also a function of the increase in UK households over the same period (red line). However, it can be seen that the two lines are diverging, with the number of households increasing at a faster rate than the number of licences issued. This suggests that the number of non-payers is increasing. This is confirmed in the following figure:

Figure 2 – Number of households not paying the TV licence.



In absolute terms, the number of UK households which declined to pay the TV licence fee have risen from 779,000 in 2007, to 1,394,000 in 2016 – an increase of 615,000. On average, that suggests that TV Licensing are losing an additional 61,500 households each year. The keen observer will notice that the number of non-payers actually fell in 2014 and 2015. This is because the number of additional licence fee payers increased almost uniformly, whilst the growth in the number of households was almost flat from 2013 to 2015. This might have been because of the stagnating housebuilding programme in those years. Whatever the demographic reason for a flattening out of the number of households, there was the illusion of TV Licensing actually managing to catch up for a while. However, in 2016 (actually 2015/16 financial year) this apparent improvement was reversed and the number of non-paying households rose sharply. The figures suggest that an additional 191,000 households did not pay the TV licence fee in that financial year.

This dramatic rise in non-payers is confirmed implicitly within the TV Licensing annual review for 2015/16 (linked to above) where they proclaim that they have caught 300,000 people not paying the licence fee. And yet for the same period, the total number of licence fee payers rose by a net figure of only 100,000. So that means that 200,000 are dropping off the other end. This increase in non-payers for 2015/16 is 3.1 times the historical increase in licence fee non-payers. In percentage terms, the non-payers have risen steadily from 3.1% of the total households in 2007, to 5.2% in 2015/16. It remains to be seen what happens in the next financial year.

The  reasons for this very obvious disaffection for the BBC and all its works are the subject of another debate, but it is clear that the disaffection is real and increasing. The market for entertainment and news is changing its preferences from a mid 20th Century means of delivery into much more technologically and socially diverse 21st Century delivery systems. The BBC is clinging on to the licence fee for dear life, but it will not be long before their life support system is taken away by sheer loss of customers.


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