The missing step with TV Licensing


I got this letter in the mail yesterday from TV Licensing. I could tell from the envelope and the red ink that it was likely not good news which was confirmed the instant I opened it and read the contents.

That big bold paragraph mentioning “our Enforcement Division” conjures up an image of a stealth SWAT team busting down the front door, chucking in a couple of stun grenades and spraying the place with machine-gun fire.

Wild imagination from watching too many American TV shows on the PVR!

No, this is far less life-threatening but, nevertheless, as equally troubling.

As everyone who lives in the UK knows, you have to have an annual license to watch TV that’s tied to your address. It’s the law. I do have a license, valid for another year, which was auto-renewed on October 1. Of course, I was moving house at around that time but I did tell them my new address on October 7.

One thing that impresses me about central government agencies like TV Licensing is the smart use of the latest technology that provides citizens like me with the means to easily take care of providing information myself, usually by visiting a place on the web or by phoning and interacting with a voice response system.

The trouble is, there is a lot of assumed trust by all parties that is fragile as the means for the system not to work properly is high if my experience is an indicator.

So what happened on Oct 7 was that ‘the system’ acknowledged my change of address – I’d used the 0844 premium phone number and walked through the layered menus to get to the option where I could record my address change. (I’d used this route only because on that day, the website was down.)

I guess it hadn’t registered the address change, resulting in yesterday’s letter. So I called another 0844 number mentioned in the letter, and went through the process again.

But I was distinctly unhappy with the conclusion as it seems to me that the system didn’t get my details correctly. I even used the option where the voice response recorded me word for word and asked for my phone number so someone could call me to verify. But it concluded by saying all ok and no one would call.

tvlicensingtweetThat didn’t give me a lot of confidence. I twittered a frustration about how difficult (impossible, actually) I found it to get hold of a real human being at the TV Licensing office.

I didn’t twitter that for any particular reason, just thinking out loud, and sort of wondering if I’d hear from anyone who had had a similar experience as mine.

It did produce a reaction but not one I expected – a Twitter direct message from Chris Reed, one of my Twitter buddies.

Chris is head of the digital media team at Fishburn Hedges in London. One of the agency’s accounts is, you guessed it, TV Licensing.

It happened that Chris was monitoring mentions of TV Licensing on Twitter using the search tracking tool (what used to be known as Summize) – and my tweet showed up. So he got in touch.

After an exchange of Twitter DMs between Chris and I, I got a phone call yesterday afternoon from a kindly gent at TV Licensing who confirmed that my address change has been noted.

So I can relax a bit knowing that the SWAT team aren’t likely to be knocking down, er, on, my door.

A conclusion that benefits one individual. Hardly satisfactory in the overall scheme of things, though.

It seems to me that the pretty good self-service systems that TV Licensing have in place all come to naught when you the citizen/consumer/customer interact with those systems and your experience results in a doubt, a lack of trust, a feeling of no confidence, that it actually worked.

How difficult would it be to add one small concluding step – that of providing the citizen/consumer/customer with a receipt, proof that your transaction was concluded correctly?

The system has all my details including a valid email address – why not set up an auto-email with confirmation of the latest transaction? Or an SMS message to my mobile phone? Or give me choices in how I’d like to be communicated with. A Twitter DM – I’d accept that! Even a letter delivered via good old Royal Mail.

Other organizations routinely do email so it can’t be that complicated. And TV Licensing already does email – I get my renewed TV license from them each year by email.

A small step with big benefits.

One final thing to note. Take a look again at the photo I took of the letter. Plenty of code numbers and symbols. The one that especially caught my attention is the square block to the left of the date.

That looks just like a mobile barcode. Indeed, the barcode reader on my Nokia N95 8GB recognizes it as such, showing a numerical string when I scan it.

Wonder what that’s all about. Any ideas?

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Andrew

    Neville, that is a very interesting story – the PR/Customer Service implications of using Twitter are just beginning to materialize.

    The ‘Block Bar Code” on your letter is most likely used in auto-sorting/routing mail that is processed by folding and inserting machines.

  2. Craig McGinty

    HI Neville, I think your experiences also highlight the risks of the growing digital divide.

    You have a grasp on all this and are confident to question and challenge it, I wonder how many other people possess the technological skills and confidence to undertake the steps you took.

    In days gone by someone could have gone into their Post Office and shown they are in possession of a license , today finding a Post Office is turning into quite a challenge for some!

  3. Chris Reed

    Hi Neville

    Sorry I didn’t get back to you first thing, but I’ve been tied up in meetings.

    I just thought I’d let you know (and hopefully it won’t be a surprise) that TV Licensing are actively exploring the SMS route you suggest in your post.

    I don’t have a go-live date for it yet just yet, but can confirm that it’s in the pipeline.

    All the best

    Chris Reed
    (on behalf of TV Licensing)

  4. neville

    Thanks, Chris, I very much appreciate your involvement in this. Thanks for the news re SMS. That would appeal to some people. How about examining other methods, in the context of what might appeal to the widest range of individuals?

    Re the barcode, Andrew, it’s definitely a mobile barcode, one that my mobile phone recognized, so I can’t see what role it plays in letter sorting., Seems to me to b e more to do with the licensing folk, maybe that ‘Enforcement Division’ :)

    I agree, Craig, re digital divide. hence the idea of enabling as wide a range of communication methods as (financially) feasible. SMS is a start.

  5. Rob Safuto

    I’m curious Neville. Other than the fact that the government requires it, why do people need a license to own a television? Who, besides the licensing division, gets funded by these fees? As an American it just seems a little ridiculous to me to have to pay the government to own a TV set. If you own two sets do you have to pay twice?

  6. Chris Reed

    Neville – I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    TV Licensing are always looking at developing ways of confirming automated transactions to customers – SMS is high on the list at the moment. Watch this space for more developments.

    Rob – The BBC’s domestic broadcasting services are paid for by the licence fee. For more information about the fee, and when people need a licence (typically it’s only one licence fee per household), I’d suggest the TV Licensing website, or Wikipedia

  7. neville

    That’s good to hear, Chris.

    Rob, I also happen to think that the license fee concept today is ridiculous. I can remember the day in this country when you also needed a license to receive radio. How ridiculous that seems now.

    I also recognize that TV licensing is a thorny topic over here, the notion that you have pay what is in effect a tax, originally designed to fund the BBC, to receive television programmes that now come from literally hundreds of different sources and which you can receive on devices that were unimaginable when the license concept was first designed.

    Will it change any time soon ? I don’t think so. Unless someone invents a better widget, you kind of just get used to it.

  8. MikeTheBee

    Your experience is the reason I find it impossible to persuade people to use methods other than the local office, postoffice or sanil-mail for such transactions. I agree with those who shirk premium rate telno’s to pay bills, as you pay an un-limited amount (not knowing how long or many calls will be needed) compared with a stamp, but no receipt means no confidence the process has worked.

    TV licensing used to be done via the any Post Office, now that service has been abolished, people have to wander the county looking for somewhere that will accept payzone or whatever the new service fulfillment company is called. Wealthy people can pay extra to have someone do it for them, but the reason this tax is so unpopular , is that it isn’t collected as a tax. Road Fund licensing is going the same way. This was not what people wanted when they voted for a change of Government all those years ago.

  9. MikeTheBee

    Rant:OFF// I noticed that you obscured the address, but although I haven’t got the tools to hand, reading that 2D or 3D barcode must give more info than that that is blurred. Given you can read the address and understand its significance, why did you not blur all such ID?

  10. neville

    “no receipt means no confidence the process has worked. ” That’s precisely my point, Mike – a transaction needs proof that it succeeded, if only for the customer’s peace of mind. An SMS as Chris noted would be one such proof. Assuming you have a device that can receive an SMS message.

    I’d prefer to see a menu of choices. So if you do something on the website, you can pick and choose a means to get that proof. Same if you use the voice response system.

    And re the unobscured barcode, well, I was more interested to obscure the obvious bit (address). If someone really wants to do something with those code numbers, etc, so be it. Not for the casual user though.

  11. Chris H

    There are two bar code symbols.

    The one on the left is a Royal Mail 4-State Customer Code, which identifies the delivery address, by encoding the post code, with a Delivery Point Suffix (which usually identifies the individual dwelling within the inward bound postcode); I think that the first part of your postcode is RG41.

    The second symbol looks like a Data Matrix symbol, but your image is too indistinct for me to confirm this.
    If it is using this symbology, it looks like it is a 22×22 size, which can encode up to 60 digits, or 43 alphanumeric characters, or a lesser number of other characters.

  12. Jacqui Caren

    Unlike the majority of UK households there are some like us who have decided to try a year without TV. When the TV died, we decided to try it to see if we would get some of the TODO items building up done. It worked so well the first few months we decided not replaced the then just expiring TV licence.

    Big mistake! TVL will not accept we do not have a TV. We continue to get threatening letters, attempts to force entry (we have two large rescue GSD’s that are being rehab’d so the enforcement officer who tried to push his way past me quickly changed his mind) and various conmen acting as if they are doing a survey.

    The hassle and verbal abuse we have suffered has made us decide to *never* replace the TV. Although we would probably like to do this, it would feel like giving in to the threats and abuse.

    Jacqui Caren

    p.s. I received another “threat of enforcement action” today :-/ Unlike some who simply take the machine generated threats and return them unopened to the post office I open and file them all.
    FWICR the only way to stop the letters is to take TVL to the small claims court!

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