One of the many technological things I don’t understand is, how come I’m paying to watch television?
I know why I used to pay. I used to switch on a box in the corner of the room and marvel at the choice of three quite interesting programmes and something slightly racy on Channel 4. It was all reassuringly underwhelming, with everyone doing as well as could be expected given the circumstances. The cardboard sets on a lot of the shows wobbled and we were happier for it, one could argue.
There was an obvious balance of earnestly attempted light entertainment and archly presented informative content and I for one didn’t mind paying a fee to the BBC for this arrangement because the BBC was providing precisely 50 per cent of it.
At some point, however, all of this changed. The channels multiplied into a seemingly infinite number and I managed to get myself into a situation whereby Sky started charging me £39.99 a month for most of them, rising inexplicably to nearly £100 a month a few years later. I began ringing an 0800 number every six months to try to cancel, only to be informed that I might like to watch more football, and have the opportunity to view major boxing matches that might happen at any moment, because it wouldn’t do to miss out on anything, would it? And I was saying yes to all of this, in spite of myself, and then never watching any of it.
In fact, I had gone from watching a bit of everything on four channels to watching precisely nothing on 604 channels.
Concurrently, I was becoming aware that the BBC had evolved from broadcasting gentle chat shows hosted by Terry Wogan to telling me, through the medium of every programme it put out, that I, Tory-voting, faithful payer of the fee that was feeding it, should be ashamed of myself for existing. Before I knew what was happening I was switching on the news to find an angry presenter berating the President of the United States for suggesting he was upset by people slagging off America.
But the absolute last straw was when Bob Harris Country was moved from its 7 p.m. slot on Radio 2 to 9–10 p.m., as though country music were a niche pursuit.
Radio 3 was still all right, I suppose, but Classic FM was also all right and didn’t seem to mind if I voted Tory or liked America, so I stuck to that.
And then, just when I thought it couldn’t get any stranger, something amazing happened.
I finally got rid of Sky when I moved house. My tech man Andy came round one night to help me with my laptop and found me attempting to entertain myself by reading a book. Appalled, he hooked me up with Netflix on my iPad. For five pounds a month I could stream content that was more exciting to me than anything on Sky or the BBC.
He also somehow made more than 100 channels of Freeview come out of the dead television where Sky had been.
Now I had limitless movies and shows for as good as free, and hundreds of boring channels for absolutely nothing.
So I could watch the latest movie, or I could empty my head with Escape From the Country, Baking On Ice, Britain’s Got Supervets, Sarah Beeny’s Dripping Bathroom Tap Nightmare, Salvage Hunters: The Morris Minor Restorers or Big Bangers: Inside the Celebrity Sausage Factory (USA!). And I never had to go anywhere near the first two channels or their spin-offs or the iPlayer, which was just as well, because I was in really bad odour with the Beeb since hearing a Radio 4 newscaster, the day after the EU referendum, asking, ‘So what can we do about this result?’
It was a huge relief that I never had to watch or listen to a bunch of people who didn’t like me ever again, and could take refuge in folks whose only interest was whether they could get a team of celebrities to tart up their chateau in time for a Morris Minor rally to raise money for a cake-baking expedition to the outback.
But I still had to pay the BBC £154.50 a year for the right to watch these other channels.
Every now and then, some bright spark claims there is a way to watch Freeview while legally not paying the licence fee.
But the only way I can see to reduce the amount I pay within the law would be to opt for a black and white licence costing £52. I would be more than happy to watch all broadcast television in glorious monochrome. I just have to work out how to go back in time and purchase a black and white telly.