LONDON (Reuters) - Pensioners in Britain who have watched television programs such as “Blue Planet” and “Doctor Who” for free will have to start paying after the publicly-funded BBC said it would scrap free licenses for people over 75 years old.
The BBC, which is funded by a tax on all television-watching households, said around 3.7 million pensioners who previously received a free TV license will have to pay when its new rules come into force in June 2020.
However. any household that receives a Pension Credit, a form of welfare to top up income for the poorest, will still be eligible for free access. The current annual license costs 154.50 pounds ($195.81) for a color TV.
The move is likely to prove unpopular. The broadcaster has a central presence in British cultural life, with its TV, radio and online content reaching 92 percent of the population each week.
“While research suggests pensioners are now better off than they were when the concession was first introduced nearly 20 years ago, the simple fact is that many are still in poverty - and many want the companionship the BBC can provide,” said BBC Chairman David Clementi.
The BBC agrees a funding settlement with the government. In 2015 it had to take over the cost of providing free licenses for over-75s by 2020 as part of its latest funding round.
It said on Monday its proposed scheme was the most cost effective way of helping the poorest retain a TV license without having to spend so much on the scheme it would lead to the closure of services.
The BBC said the funding available for British services is already 24 percent lower than if the license fee had gone up with inflation from 2010. It estimates the new scheme will cost it around 250 million pounds ($317 million) a year.
But a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said the government was “very disappointed” by the move.
“We’ve been clear that we expected the BBC to continue this concession. People across this country value television as a way to stay connected and we want the BBC to look again at ways to support older people,” the spokesman told reporters.
“Taxpayers want to see the BBC using its substantial license fee income in an appropriate way to ensure it delivers for UK audiences.”
($1 = 0.7890 pounds)
Reporting by Kate Holton and Elizabeth Piper; editing by Michael Holden and Ed Osmond