BBC admits that TV detector vans only work because Britons believe they do

Britain's ad-free BBC, renowned for the quality of its news and television broadcasting, is funded by an annual fee on television use. But it's also famous for its sinister TV Detector Vans, which legend has it can tell if unlicensed televisions are in operation behind closed doors. The beeb's secret sauce will remain secret, however, as Britain's Information Commissioner has swatted down a Freedom of Information request for information on the size of the BBC's van fleet and the technology used. The grounds given for the refusal, however, are telling enough: "if [the BBC] did so it would damage the public's perception of the effectiveness of TV detector vans," the report says. "... It relies on the public perception that the vans could be used at any time to catch evaders." Revealing technical information would result in the loss of the "deterrent effect," and, hence, "a significant number of people would decide not to pay their licence fee." Brits will be hard-pressed to suppress a guffaw at the nature of the disclosure and its rather obvious implications. The request posed several questions, asking for confirmation of hand-held TV-detecting gadgets, how operators are trained to use them, how often they are deployed, technical specifications, and whether there really exists a "fleet" of detection vans at all. In response, the BBC refused to disclose the extent of its operation, how often TV detector technology is used, and the details of how the technology works. Here's an excerpt from the ruling:
The BBC explained that the number of detector vans in operation, the location of their deployment and the frequency is not common knowledge. It relies on the public perception that the vans could be used at any time to catch evaders. This perception has built up since the first van was launched in 1952 and has been a key cost effective method in deterring people from evading their licence fee. The BBC state that to release information which relates to the number of detection devices and how often they are used will change the public’s perception of their effectiveness. If the deterrent effect is lost, the BBC believes that a significant number of people would decide not to pay their licence fee, knowing how the deployment and effectiveness of vans and other equipment will affect their chances of success in avoiding detection.
While it's technologically possible to detect emissions from television sets, some believe that the switch to LCD-based hardware, and the omnipresence of non-televisual computer monitors, has now made effective detection logistically unlikely–if there was ever a serious detection program in the first place. The report even states that the BBC provided details of the technology to it, but reported that its disclosure would "open the possibility of people analysing them to find weaknesses to evade detection equipment." Ruling (PDF) [ICO via The Register]

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43 Responses to BBC admits that TV detector vans only work because Britons believe they do

  1. cybergibbons says:

    And given that you’re supposed to pay if you own anything capable of playing iplayer content (Wii, Laptop, ipods etc) there’s pretty much nobody who doesn’t have to pay.

    This isn’t true. The BBC has stated that you don’t need a license to watch iPlayer. It’s a TV License, not a BBC subscription.

  2. igpajo says:

    I’m fairly ignorant of how the BBC TV works so pardon if this is a dumb question but are we talking about Cable TV or is this over the air broadcasting?

    I’m just thinking if it’s Cable TV, what the vans could be doing is searching for specific frequencies that are only present in the cable signals. I work for a Cable company and we have detection “guns” that search for a specific frequency that is only present for the purpose of helping detect signal leakage. It’s very important we keep our fittings and connections tight not only to stop what’s called ingress, which is where broadcast signal leaks into the customers cable signal and mucks up the digital signal or causes ghosting in the analog, but it’s also important to stop what’s called “egress” which is where our signal escapes our system into the ‘ether’ where certain frequencies, if strong enough, can interfere with everything from police scanners to air traffic control. So when we’re searching for leaking signal, we use these ‘guns’ with antennas that stick out horizontally (looking a lot like the ghost detector in Ghost Busters) and basically wave it around and it will guide you into within a few feet of the leak. Helps find faulty equipment, broken cables, bad fittings, etc. So these vans in Britain could be looking for a certain signature in the BBC signal, but if they’re using the same equipment, it would only work if it’s a closed cable system and if there’s a leak in the customers cabling. The only way I could see this working to detect unlicensed TV was if an unlicensed TV leaked a bit of TV signal for the purpose of being detected. But that would only be possible if they installed something on to your TV, or uninstalled something, when you got your TV licensed. I doubt they make you bring you TV in someplace to get it licensed though, so I may just be conjecturing for naught.

  3. Thad E Ginataom says:

    I forecast a big audience increase in the Ross-absence window!

  4. snej says:

    That’s not a TV detector van, it’s a terrorist detector van with the word “terrorist” crossed out and “TV” written in crayon!

  5. sammich says:

    The BBC is great, but the TV Licensing arm is sinister and relies on fear as a deterrent to non-compliance – as you can see from their current ads – .

    They rely on the fact that ~almost~ everyone these days has a telly, but it’s telling that they say “We collate our figures in terms of the percentage of households which do not hold a licence, which is called the EVASION RATE” ( ).

    In practice, if you don’t hold a licence, (or if you hold a black and white licence rather than a colour one), they ~will~ be knocking at your door – and if they can ~hear~ a telly when you open the door, it can be hard to deny that you have one…

    They like to ratchet the fear up to save money on the door-knockers.

  6. spazzm says:

    The TV detector vans are, in my opinion, a myth.
    This myth exists in other countries with licence-based free TV as well.

    It may be possible to detect the stray radiation from cathode-ray tubes, and distinguish TVs from computer monitors based on frequency, but the reliability of this would be questionable at best.
    Add to that the fact that the line between TV and computer monitors are being blurred, and the problem of detecting a weak, intermittent signal in an area where there are many similar sources and obscuring buildings.

    I rack my memory, but I have never even heard of anyone who knows anyone who have been caught by detector vans. I have seen plenty of dramatisations of it on TV, tough.

    Finally, the very idea of detector vans are being disseminated by those who stand to profit most from people believing it to be true – for many Britons the BBC used to be the only news source apart from newspapers.

    No, if the BBC did any licence-fee enforcement at all, they simply compared the registers of electricity/phone subscriptions to the licence subscriptions, and sent infringement fees to random addresses in areas where there was a larger than average discrepancy.
    If an offender got a letter, she was likely to pay up and tell his neighbours that the detector van must have spotted him.
    If an innocent got the letter the worst the BBC could expect was an angry phone call.

  7. sammich says:

    (oops – sorry for the long link)

  8. BastardNamban says:

    Here in Japan, just like #13 mentioned, the NHK is subsidized by individuals just like the UK.

    But here, they actually PHYSICALLY SEND PEOPLE DOOR TO DOOR to collect it!

    There are no “detector vans”, but the people who go door to door for the NHK are real. It’s something like 10$ US or so a year, I think. I have seen, in all my years here, one commercial asking people kindly to pay on TV maybe a week ago. They phrased like “there is this new online service that lets you pay the bill easily, so please use it, or pay the people door to door…”

    Here’s the fun part: A huge percentage of people here don’t pay. They think it’s just as ridiculous as the Brits & I do. I was even told this by my Japanese employer, and he told me it was up to me or not if I wanted to pay- his official position was I should pay, but he told me personally, I can do as I please, since many people refuse to pay. That’s Japan for you.

    P.S.- I don’t pay (well, they’ve never come to my house yet, and if they did, they’d probably do what most political/et al groups do when they see I’m a foreigner as I open the door- excuse themselves embarrassed and leave!)

  9. Anonymous says:

    The day after splitting from my wife and learning shes moving to another city with my baby son a letter had been posted through my door by 1 of these scabs. Id only wished id been in so i could have taken all my frustration out on his lifeless body afetr id chocked the bastard on the letter…

  10. themindfantastic says:

    I wonder if you use a computer to download BBC shows and watch them that way… (outside of BBC web presence I mean) you are not getting them via broadcast someone ELSE who paid the cost did, so therefore you might be okay, they probably want to throw you up against the wall for being a prick, but legally where would you stand? Hmmm

  11. A New Challenger says:

    I love it when a plan falls apart.

  12. stygyan says:

    I sincerely can’t think of britons don’t paying for TV.

    We don’t pay for it in Spain, really, we don’t have any kind of fee for the right to see public TV.

    And you know what the problem is? Our public broadcasting is SHIT.

    A Huge, big, steaming lump of shit. Nothing more.

    I, for one, would be very glad to pay for my TV if I had the kind of series and news they have in the UK.

    I mean, when BBC released the film-adaptation of The colour of Magic, our public TV was broadcasting some kind of shit about “famous” people learning to dance.

  13. AirPillo says:

    Why does the A-team van have a unicorn on it?

    B.A. would not approve of this at all.

  14. Anonymous says:

    The BBC dont care about you ive called them loads of times to complain about the terrible reception . All you get is a errr so kind of attitude if you can get to speak to anyone at all. Also anyone thinking about the switch over id advise not to use FREEVIEW but to go with FREESAT the freeview box is a load of rubbish in the last few months its got worse (sound keeps droppin on all channels for a few seconds every couple of mins & befor the techs reply with change the blah blah blah ive been through 2 TVs 7 Freeview and countless scart leads) Plus with Freesat you get more and BETTER channles including lots more FREE more music and movie channles

  15. pelrun says:

    TV detection is definitely possible, probably something related to MI5’s RAFTER technology:

    Since such a detector works by targeting the radio receiver in the tuner and not the screen, it wouldn’t matter if it was a LCD or a PC tuner, it could still be detected.

    It’s just like cops with speed cameras – it’s in their interest to keep secret how many there are and where they’re deployed, as the fear of them always being potentially nearby can be even more effective than their actual presence.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Pelrun – do you work for the BBC?
    Also – can such technology detect a tv when it’s switched off? I suspect not…
    However, I’m sufficiently freaked-out by tv licensing to comply – so they win!

  17. tw15 says:

    This site reckons there are 26, but that any evidence could never be used in court.

  18. tw15 says:

    I found a website that has a maps tracking the location of TV detector vans. It lists seven in the last 10 days, so it’s likely there are at least seven vans.

  19. Anonymous says:

    My father-in-law had a crt-with-vcr when he lived in Scotland. These devices existed for the express purpose of watching videos *without* paying the licence fee — therefore hearing or seeing the set is not good enough. An antenna, however, might be harder to explain, though still possible (“It’s for FM” or “I watch Spanish TV”)

  20. Rasmaestro says:

    We had the same thing in Denmark, 15 years ago.

    It has to be 5-10 years ago that the “technology” was debunked as practically useless – maybe broadly usable in lowly populated areas, but junk in any kind of urban residential area.

    Still, I think the myth was hard to kill. Probably because only nerds know anything about the technical constraints.

  21. Anonymous says:

    I’d just like to thank all the brits who do pay their tv tax. I’ve downloaded so many great documentaries over the past couple years. The best we get is pbs/Nova buying rights to old bbc4 docs and airing them as original programming, as much as a year or more after the original bbc airdate.

  22. scorzonera says:

    I lived in the UK for 4 or 5 years without a TV in the late ’80s/early ’90s and would get a threatening letter from the BBC every few months, not asking if I had a tv but assuming I had a tv and no license. After writing back several times I eventually wrote “NO TV” in bold black letters on a sheet of paper and wrapped it around their letter which I’d torn in half. Last I ever heard from them.

  23. Rob Beschizza says:

    It’s over-the-air. Used to be analog, now switched to digital with the old frequencies to go to other uses (same as here)

  24. beneditor says:

    No one in the UK has believed in detector vans for years (apart from the gullible fools above).

    This is why they now make no real mention of them in their ‘scare’ adverts, and instead use the perfectly logical ‘database’ approach – ie. if you do not have a TV set registered at any address, you must be lying – since everyone watches TV, right?

    Simple – just knock on the door of every house without a TV license, as that’s a pretty good indication you’re evading paying.

    Of course, in the days before computers, we had to invent detector vans….

  25. beneditor says:

    I would think that pretty much clears up the van issue, doesn’t it?

  26. Scary_UK says:

    #2 – The BBC doesn’t have a ‘TV Licensing Arm’ – it’s always been collected by a third party. From the 1920’s to a few years ago this was the Post Office, now it’s a company called Capita. They take out the cost of collecting it and then give the rest to the BBC.

    Detector vans probably were effective in the 1960’s and 70’s butthe amount of EMF smog around these days would oblierate the signals.

    At least they don’t do it like they do in Japan where the ‘NHK Man’ comes round demanding money

  27. moebrook says:

    My friends call me right bleeding

  28. HarshLanguage says:

    #12 – Great photos at that link. But what if the detection technology is so advanced it’s miniaturized and built in to the van structure itself? Seriously though, I wonder what the effectiveness difference is between these vans, and, say, placing ads on sides of buses or similar, if the “belief” in the vans is so low (as #11 said).

    #7 – The unicorn is just cover, they’re trying to be discreet. I’m sure the areas that the A-Team polices for the BBC licensing efforts have, of course, 100% compliance. And a lot of busted doors.

    Overall, I’m reminded of Kip Hawley’s responses to questions about TSA’s methods, which often boil down to “it works, even though you have evidence it doesn’t, but the part that works is a secret.” Cue sly smile.

  29. zuzu says:

    At the end of 2005, I decided not to renew my television licence. I found that my television viewing consisted almost entirely of tapes of old programmes purchased off Ebay, and that my watching of broadcast television was less than an hour a week.

    I have therefore decided to stop watching broadcast television and spend the £139.50 saved from the TV licence fee on video tapes. It was a good decision; I now pay for what I watch, and not for what I don’t watch.

    The only fly in the ointment has been aggressive letters from TV Licensing (TVL), which collects the licence fee on behalf of the BBC. TVL/BBC sends millions of letters every year to people who do not watch broadcast television, demanding payment. For many people, these letters can be very frightening.

    But the letters are a bluff; they are computer-generated. TVL/BBC have none of the powers their letters imply and, with a little knowledge, people can stand up to the bullies. The purpose of this website is to share my TVL/BBC letters as I receive them, and to provide useful information for people who have no time for the BBC.

  30. Bugs says:

    You don’t need a tv license to use iplayer, as long as you just watch the on-demand stuff. Similarly, you don’t need a license if you only use your TV to watch videos or play console games. You only need a tv license if you’re watching _live_ broadcast TV (which can include live broadcasts over the internet).

    From the FAQ at

    You will not need a TV Licence to view video clips on the internet, as long as what you are viewing is not being shown on TV at the same time as you are viewing it.


    If you use the BBC iPlayer to watch TV programmes at the same time as they are being shown on TV (live) then you will need to be covered by a valid TV Licence.

    If you use the BBC iPlayer to watch BBC programmes after they have been broadcast – either to download, or via streaming ‘on demand’ you will not need a TV Licence.

    Following that logic — that you’re paying for a license to watch live TV, not to own the equipment — you don’t need any licence for a TV if you jut watch tapes or hook it up to your game console:

    You do not need a TV Licence if you only use your TV to watch videos and DVDs or as a monitor for your games console.

  31. ctiff says:

    I got my license from the man in the cat detector van.

  32. zuzu says:

    Dear Britons,

    I have some magic beans and/or distressed assets you might be interested in buying.

  33. thermidorthelobster says:

    They existed back in the 80s; they may or may not have been able to detect MF emissions from CRT sets. I’ve not seen one for many years though.

    As noted above, the current modus operandi is to use threatening advertising and write angry letters to anybody they think doesn’t have a license.

    #18: What have you got, and how much are you looking for?

  34. Nelson.C says:

    Proper TV detection van here. Not nearly as pretty.

  35. Anonymous says:

    Nobody believes in the vans – They just check up on anyone without a license. And given that you’re supposed to pay if you own anything capable of playing iplayer content (Wii, Laptop, ipods etc) there’s pretty much nobody who doesn’t have to pay.

    And I don’t mind – I’d pay just for the radio stations in my car and BBC news website, and I find it irritating when people suggest it’s not value for money.

  36. Nelson.C says:

    Oh, and a scary detector van ad here. I particularly like the way they all pour out of the van mob-handed when they discover an unlicenced TV watching Columbo.

    At the risk of going off-thread, it’s stuff like this that makes the talk of surveillance Britain difficult to take seriously. The UK government likes to talk itself up, but when it comes down to it, it isn’t actually all that threatening.

  37. george57l says:

    You should rip out any tuners in your TVs – as it is not a licence for watching, it is a licence for use of receiving equipment, and saying you do not use the receiving equipment you possess is no defence in law. Come the digital switch-over if you only have old analogue TVs you may be safer.

    I assume you are only watching legitimately published pre-recorded tapes. If you are buying other people’s off-air recordings (a) this is a civil offence, and (b) if in future you watch any such recordings of programmes that were produced or first broadcast AFTER you stopped paying your licence fee, then this would be the worst kind of hypocrisy.

    For those who persist in believing they get no value from the licence fee, I heartily recommend listening to this:–broadcasting/

  38. Outa_Spaceman says:

    The ‘detector’ van was always a myth as far as I know…
    Not mythic in any way is the barrage of threatening letters one gets if no T.V. license is registered at one’s domicile…
    I turned my face against ownership of a televisual simulacrumating device many years ago. Since then I’ve received more frightening letters/fake invoices/fake court summonses than I can comfortably count…
    I once rang the given number on one of the warnings, explained that I didn’t have a T.V., nor did intend to have one in the future…
    I requested that no further warnings be sent to my address (should be as simple as activating a flag on a database..) ‘Fine’ said the operative on the other end of the phone ‘and your name is..?’
    I pointed out that, in theory, it was the T.V. that needed to have the license not me so my identity was irrelevant…
    Not so apparently…
    They refused to stop sending the warnings…
    Also, if your home, whilst not having a T.V. in it, is equipped to receive a signal, say you live in a block of flats with a communal aerial, then you need a license…(don’t quote me, I could be wrong…)
    On a lighter note…
    I use all the warnings I get for my papier mâché constructions. So it’s and ill wind etc. etc…


  39. HarshLanguage says:

    #22 – That’s not Zuzu’s own web site in #16. Regardless, when I’ve read that site before (months ago) that person’s main point isn’t the legality of not paying the license. The site is about dealing with the reams of (apparently toothless) enforcement letters — and the rather absurd twists and turns they take over time as the computers that print them appear to change their minds, contradict themselves, and vary their ‘sales pitch’ dramatically.

    It hasn’t been updated for 10 months though. Perhaps they finally sent in the vans.

  40. Thad E Ginataom says:

    There certainly did used to be detector vans. I now wonder if those antennae actually did anything except scare people?

    There were also knocks at the door and demands to see. Happened to a friend of mine who wasn’t very polite about telling the guys he didn’t have a TV and didn’t want a TV.

    I think random letters to addresses in streets that aren’t registered is commonly used. All they need is a an address/post-code list.

    There used to be a licence fee for possession of receiving equipment, even for radios. You paid it when you bought the kit, and a little plate on the back said that it had been paid. I’m sure I remember a person being acquitted of licence evasion when the court accepted that he did not watch transmitted TV, only commercial VHS movies (Hmmm… maybe it was even in the pre-DVD era too).

  41. Thad E Ginataom says:

    And I meant to add that TV shops and dealers are supposed to record name and address when selling TV kit. I even had to give mine when buying a TV card for a PC at LIDL.

    Then if if no licence at that address in your name, you get a letter. I wrote back saying have licence for house under name abcde, we’re a family, so covered, ok? And it was Ok.

  42. joeposts says:

    interesting. Don’t have these fees where I live. I’d be a little peeved if we did, since I watch very little broadcast television.

    I wonder if having a “detector van,” whether it exists or not, just makes it easier to get people to cough up money for a silly cash-grab. Like, even if you don’t have a TV and are against paying for the license, the idea of waking up every morning and seeing a black van parked out front with some crazy radar thingie on top… well, it’s probably just easier to pay, right?

  43. Marcel says:

    O why bother with BBC Television at all when the real fun stuff is happening on BBC Radio nowadays?!

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