However, Radiotjänst, the private corporation that is responsible for collecting the fees on behalf of the broadcasters, emphasises that viewers and listeners get a lot more than just public programming when they contribute to the country’s public broadcasters through their fees.
“It is not a subscription fee. You are not paying to get something, but paying to fund a system that still has an impact on society. It is the same logic as paying taxes for prison even if you hopefully don’t end up there,” Radiotjänst communications director Per Leander explains.
Radiotjänst i Kiruna is Sweden’s television licencing body. The private corporation was formed 22 years ago and is based in Kiruna in northern Sweden. The company is a subsidiary of Sweden’s three public service broadcasters: Sveriges Television (SVT), Sveriges Radio (SR) and Sveriges Utbildningsradio (UR).
Under Swedish law, every household with a television set is required to pay the licence fee, currently 2,076 kronor ($300) per year. The fee is collected by Radiotjänst, but administered by the Swedish National Debt Office (Riksgäldskontoret), a government body, by means of a special account.
Outside of the fees that Radiotjänst collects, the public broadcasters also receive small income streams from sales of paraphernalia such as those sold by children’s television programme Bolibompa.
“Seven billion kronor is delivered to these companies every year, that’s all they get. Ninety-nine percent of what they spend comes from TV licences,” says Leander.
Sixty percent of the collected fees are allocated to SVT, 35 percent to SR and 5 percent to UR, although those who do not own radios are technically not obliged to pay.
Leander explains that revenues are not collected through taxes partly to minimise government influence on public broadcasters’ programmes and partly to ensure that their funding remains consistent every year.
“They are not state radio or TV, but independent public services placed as far away from the politicians as possible. There is no fear of the consequences in terms of funding. If we went to a tax-based system, there is always the danger that the funding would get cut in a budget the following year,” says Leander of the system currently in place.
Leander cited the example of the Netherlands, which switched to a tax revenue system 10 years ago and has since faced budget cuts under a new government.
Free from the need to satisfy advertiser demands for viewer and listener numbers, the public broadcasters are at liberty to deliver programming that commercial broadcaster would be less likely to air, such as operas and documentaries.
The ad-free format also allows public broadcasters to develop a loyal following, such as in sports programming, where SVT is the most popular sports channel, and attracting top talent without worrying about commercial obligations.
In addition, Leander points out that public broadcasters serve as a reputable watchdog in both the commercial and political spheres, a role less easily served by commercial outlets.
Nine out of 10 or 3.5 million Swedish households pay the fees every year out of 3.9 million, although Leander points out that no one really knows the actual number of households with televisions.
“I am surprised we get those kinds of numbers. I am confident of that number after asking lots of people,” says Leander.
Leander believes Radiotjänst’s success in getting Swedish viewers and listeners to pay is in part because of the positive advertising it uses in spots thanking the audience for its support, unlike in the UK, which adopts a more aggressive tone toward fee evaders.
Among those who refuse to pay, the most common excuse is that they do not own a TV. Strictly speaking, the licence fee applies only to TVs, so watching SVT content and and listening to SR programmes online are permitted without paying the licence fee.
“It is the law to pay. One can be taken to court for evasion, but it is not that common. Most European countries have licence fees, but many grant exceptions. We do not. Whether you are blind, deaf, a student, on assistance, old or young, you have to pay if you own a TV. If you encounter temporary problems, we offer generous plans,” says Leander.
Although Radiotjänst only dates back to 1988, the system for collecting broadcasting fees in Sweden has been in place for over 70 years, emulating the system in place in the UK, explains Leander.
“We are working constantly to be more effective. It’s not perfect, but it’s working, growing and gaining more acceptance. It would be kind of stupid to change it. Why fix something that is working?” asks Leander.
Prior to Radiotjänst, Telia and its predecessor, Televerket, collected the fees for decades. Deciding that it no longer wanted the TV licence fee to appear on the telephone bill, it decided to spin off the division and “looked back on the shelf,” as Leander puts it, for its name: the moniker Sveriges Radio went by until 1957.
Radiotjänst employs around 100 people, most of whom are located in Kiruna in northern Sweden and engaged in customer service, such as address changes and payment arrangements. Others are licensing inspectors stationed around the country. An additional 100 inspectors are employed on freelance basis.