The TV and broadcasting worlds have changed considerably in recent years. Many of us sit for hours to watch live broadcasts on Twitch, as well as on YouTube and other live video platforms, so the question arises – do you need a TV licence for those live online broadcasts?
The question has been roaming the internet for years, and the answer isn’t as clear cut as one might think. So much so, that if you dig through social media and online forums, conflicting answers have sometimes been given – even by official representatives.
Following questions from our readers, I decided to dig in a little deeper, and get an official answer from the BBC and the TV Licensing body.
So, do you need a TV licence for Twitch or YouTube Live? the short answer is No. But the full answer is a bit more complicated – as it depends on exactly what you’re watching on those platforms.
Who Needs To Pay The UK TV Licence?
We have a long article on TV licensing in the UK, and on how to pay it. But to recap:
The TV Licence fee is used to fund the BBC, and currently stands at £159/year. Anyone who watches the BBC live, or via BBC iPlayer (on a TV or any other device), has to pay it.
In addition, if you watch any type of live TV from any TV broadcaster (even an international one, while you’re in the UK), you also need to pay the fee.
Failure to pay the TV licence fee is a criminal offence, and evaders can end up paying a fine of up to £1,000 or, in rare cases, even go to jail.
However, if you only watch streaming TV like Netflix or Disney+, and you never watch anything live, then you don’t need a TV licence – but you should inform the licensing body of that, otherwise they may keep sending you notices or inspectors.
What About Twitch And Other Live Streamers?
This is where things get complicated. When TV Licence laws were first set, BBC iPlayer and streaming TV in general didn’t exist.
So for a time, there was a loophole where people who watched the BBC online via BBC iPlayer, did not need a TV licence – but that loophole was fixed in 2016.
But what about services like Twitch, where individuals (or companies) broadcast themselves live to the world? This is true for a number of services:
- YouTube Live (as opposed to on-demand, recorded content on YouTube)
- Facebook Live
- Instagram Live
And the list goes on and on. A reader even sent us a question regarding live video streams of Church services – do you need a TV licence to watch those live?
The official TV Licensing website says, regarding YouTube, that “any programme which is part of a TV channel, broadcast or transmitted for everyone to watch at the same time” needs a TV licence.
Furthermore, “Online-only TV channels still count as live TV, so you need a TV Licence if you’re watching or recording their programmes.”
With the wording being a bit vague, it’s no wonder some think Twitch and other live streams from individuals do need a TV Licence.
We took this question to the BBC, where a spokesperson told us that – No, the Twitch scenario (and the live Church broadcast) would not require a TV Licence.
But then, how does one tell the difference between a live broadcast (on Twitch, for example) that DOESN’T need a TV licence, and a live broadcast (live news coverage from Sky News on YouTube, for example) that DOES need a TV Licence?
In the past, the official answer was that anything that is ALSO available on a linear broadcast channel (on TV) – would require a licence if you’re watching it live on a different medium.
But, again, with many TV “channels” now only existing on online platforms – that answer is no longer relevant.
So I queried the BBC further, and was told that “For a service to require a licence to watch” [even if you’re watching it streamed online], “it must be a ‘television programme service'”.
The TV Licensing body would have to make that distinction, however. Some of the factors that would be taken into account when considering this are:
- Whether a service has a regular schedule of programmes
- How continuous a service is
- Editorial control and consistency
- The quality of production and editorial values.
Therefore, since most Twitch (and similar) live streams don’t come from a body that resembles a “television programme service” – you would not need a TV licence for them.