The (confusing) State of Streaming Video in England

Something really amazing happened to me the other night. Marina was brain-fried from a long day at school, and she said, “I wish I could just sit in front of the TV and zone out to TSI1 (Italian Switzerland’s public TV station)”. I said, let me see what I can find…

I searched on the net, and struck out pretty thouroughly finding a live stream for TSI1, but I did find some British TV on Zattoo. My laptop was booted in Linux at the time, so as I was grumbling about rebooting, I noticed they have a Linux player. So then I grumbled about how nothing ever works right in Linux while it downloaded and installed. It told me it wanted some more codecs, so I grumbled about how the state of video encoding is so complicated that nothing ever works without 1000 plugins while they automatically downloaded and installed with no intervention from me (save the grumbling).

Then it just worked.

I’m going to repeat that, since I don’t even believe it myself: We watched 1 hour of straming video on Linux (via wifi, no less) and it just worked. Even the commercials came through just fine. Thank you Zattoo!

Marina asked, “Why are there so many commercials? It’s not like this on Swiss TV.” And that made me start thinking about public TV, private TV, and TV licenses. When the threatening TV license renewal form came in the mail and accused me of commiting a serious crime (punishable but a GBP 1000 fine, no less) because I’d failed to renew my TV license, I just threw it away. The only BBC that Marina and I ever consume is BBC Leeds by FM radio, and a page or two on the Intarweb from time to time. I fail to see how I could possibly need a TV license for that.

But then I got paranoid. We were watching a TV stream that shall remain nameless, lest I incriminate myself. But I went and searched to find out if all those commercials Marina was complaining about meant that I didn’t need a TV license to watch this stream. And the answer that came back was completely nonsensical and useless. Go ahead, you go try and figure out the rules for watching streams in England.

What it boils down to is this… a TV license is required if you are watching a live stream (i.e. you cannot choose what’s on it when it starts). If you watch only video on demand, you don’t need a TV license. But the place I found that was on the BBC’s website. And it is not clear at all if that applies only to BBC content or to all British media. I used to think the TV license was simply a fee-based tax supporting the BBC. But it’s not. Because private broadcasters in England are subsidised using a part of the TV licensing revenue. Which means that probably the rules BBC clarified on their website apply to the commercial infested dreck we watched the other night. We won’t be doing that anymore… the commercials sucked, and I can’t afford the GBP 150 TV license, let alone the GBP 1000 fine.

What’s interesting is that, once again, I am on the forefront of lifestyle change caused by technology. I have not willingly* owned a land line since 2001. Now I haven’t had a TV since 2005. But the BBC’s website hilariously indicates that you don’t really need to worry about the specifics of licensing for online video since your home TV license (which you undoubtedly have) covers it anyway. When you walk through our poor neighborhood (poorest in Leeds!) and see a satellite dish on every single house, you realize that it really is true that everyone (else) must have a TV license.

Bread and circuses, indeed. All it takes to keep British subjects, er, subjugated, is an endless supply of chips and satellite TV 24×7.

* I have a phone line right now because England’s broadband market is so fucked up you cannot get cable Internet without having a BT land line. Let me repeat that: you cannot buy cable Internet unless your cable company pays the telephone monopoly for the right to not use their network. And of course, the cable company passes the fee right on to you. When I think about it, it makes me so pissed off, I want to leave the phone off hook (thereby consuming a port on the switch) just to spite BT. But then I would need to make a special curcuit to defeat the dialtone timeout they use to protect their switch from people like me.


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