• Mark Pentler

What is 'Live TV' anyway?

Updated: Jan 29, 2019

Before Christmas an interesting series of tweets featuring Twitter user and skeptic @nullifidian - one of our followers - caught my eye:

As a tech nerd with a focus on a audio/video and broadcasting I found this topic very interesting. Before this came up I’d always assumed that you needed a TV Licence for watching TV as broadcast on satellite, cable, or over-the-air, and that you also needed one to watch live streams of those channels over the internet.

The position of TV Licensing (TVL) is that as well as the above any stream of a live event is also licensable if they are also being broadcast on live TV. It is under this clause that TVL presumably thinks that live streams of parliamentary proceedings on the internet require a TV Licence to watch.

From the point of view of the Society, while there are many things that we should be - and, in some cases, are - fighting against there a whole host of other minor issues that we aren’t looking at. It could be argued that open access to information should be a goal of skepticism. It allows people to hear evidence before making decisions and having opinions and it also introduces people to what is happening in their country. This is especially important during what could be charitably described as “this chaotic time”.

The relative quality of the evidence of parliamentary and committee proceedings is left as an exercise to the reader, of course.

It is with this in mind that I decided to team up with @nullifidian to take on the challenge of trying to get to the bottom of this. It started with a little bit of research, mostly to clarify the TVL position by checking their website:

'Live TV means any programme you watch or record as it’s being shown on TV or live on an online TV service. It’s not just live events like sport, news and music. It also covers soaps, series, documentaries and even movies.

You need to be covered by a TV Licence if you watch live TV on any channel or device.'

The definition of "programme" here is interesting, for reasons that will be come clear later on. There's also a clear signpost here: "as it's being shown live" - clearly SOME parliamentary business is live, but an awful lot is not. I think I'd be ok to watch a committee proceeding that wasn't being shown on TV, but it'd be nice to get a more concrete answer.

So the two of us wrote to our local MPs (Ian Murray and Joanna Cherry QC) to see if either of them could clarify this area of the law with us.

Responses were received by offices of both MPs, with a understandable slight delay from Cherry’s (who took part in our general election hustings event in 2015) due to all things Brexit.

The response from Cherry’s office was particularly interesting. They had gone to the trouble of contacting TVL to clarify the matter.

I contacted TV Licensing today to find an answer to your enquiry about whether or not it is necessary to have a TV licence to watch parliamentary proceedings on

They told me that a TV licence is required to watch parliamentary proceedings live on any platform, including on, because such transmissions are "TV-like" live broadcasts which are being shown on other channels at the same time. This means that it is covered by the same regulations as traditional live TV.

The response from them did go some way to making their position clearer, but I’d like to argue in a little more detail that there’s still a small nuance here being missed. If they are saying that a stream of a live sports or event feed that is also being shown on TV requires a licence for that, then I can see their point and it does tally up well with what was stated on their website.

The distinction I’d make, however, is that such streams are usually a “produced” feed. Graphics, sound effects, presenters. That sort of thing. Broadcasters can take these feeds and put their own stuff around it for onwards transmission. A clock here. A news ticker there.

It then becomes a production by a proper, Ofcom-authorised channel and is broadcast. Watching this would obviously come under the definition of licensable content. But ultimately the product before that can be quite close to the end result on a telly at home, and sometimes no extras are added at all.

ParliamentLive.TV is, by comparison, an entirely raw feed of cameras and sound that is a “bare minimum” service. I am essentially arguing that parliament’s feed is no different than a feed from a conference in a hotel venue, or a Facebook live from your living room. The fact that somebody may be showing it live on TV at the same time shouldn’t necessarily dictate whether it requires a licence to watch.

There’s also the argument that - by definition - the licence requirement would only apply to those proceedings being aired on TV at the time. Many committees and some parliamentary business is not seen live - do we need a licence for this content? I intend to ask TVL about this.

Incidentally, non-live archived content does NOT require a licence to watch, something which does not require much analysis to confirm.

The definition of “live TV” has blurred over the years and there is obvious evidence that there is confusion over what counts and what doesn’t, and Cherry’s aide made this point directly to them. A lovely bonus. We saw in our earlier research that most MPs thought that parliamentary proceedings were not licensable, the complete opposite position to TVL.

And what happens in the future? What if the meaning warps so much that we start thinking of all live streams as media content that requires a licence to watch? (lol slippery slope argument).

One thing is certain, however: the laws surrounding broadcasting are not necessarily fit for purpose in the current climate. If the people who make the laws can’t interpret them for us, then what chance do *we* have?

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