TV detector van

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A Leyland Sherpa television detector van

TV detector vans are vans, which, according to the BBC, contain equipment that can detect the presence of television sets in use.[1] The vans are operated by contractors working for the BBC, to enforce the television licensing system in the UK, the Channel Islands and on the Isle of Man.


Dodge SpaceVan equipped as detector van. Displayed at Science Museum, London. (As of January 2015)

When television broadcasts in the UK were resumed after a break because of the Second World War, it was decided to introduce a tax called the television licence fee to finance the service. When first introduced on 1 June 1946, the licence covering the monochrome-only single-channel BBC television service cost £2 (equivalent to £81.49 as of 2018).[2] The licence was originally issued by the General Post Office (GPO), which was then the regulator of public communications within the UK. Since it was not possible to stop people without a licence from buying and operating a TV, it was necessary to find ways of enforcing the TV licence system. One of the methods used to identify TV use without a licence was TV detection equipment mounted in a van.

The first TV detector van was demonstrated on 1 February 1952.[1] In the 1950s, the Post Office, which then administered the TV licensing system, ran converted Hillman Minx and Morris Oxford estate cars, which had large aerials attached to their roofs.[3] Subsequently, Commers were introduced. In the 1980s, vans were supplied by Dodge and Leyland. In the 1990s, Ford Transits were introduced. In 2003, TVL launched its 10th model of detector vans. It was stated that these vans had removable branding so that they could operate covertly.[4]

Although the operating principles of the TV detectors used in these vans were not revealed by the BBC, it was thought that they operated by detecting electromagnetic radiation given off by a TV.[5] The most common suggested method was the detection of a signal from the TV's local oscillator.[6]

In 2013, the Radio Times obtained a leaked internal document from the BBC giving a breakdown of prosecutions for TV licence evasion.[7] The 18-page document gave a breakdown of the number of people evading the charge, as well as mentioning the number of people employed to catch those who do not pay their television licence.[8] However, no mention was made of TV detector vans being used to catch such people, prompting media speculation over the truth of their existence. In response a BBC spokeswoman rejected claims that the vans are a hoax: "Detector vans are an important part of our enforcement of the licence fee. We don't go into detail about how many there are or how they work as this information might be useful to people trying to evade the fee."[7]


The BBC carries out its TV licensing activities under the trade name "TV Licensing", although most of the activities are performed by its contractors. Detector vans are operated by Capita Business Services Ltd, a contractor of the BBC.[9]

Some information regarding TV detection technology was revealed as part of a freedom of information request made to the BBC in 2013, which included details of a search warrant. The warrant revealed that a BBC contractor had used an "optical detector" to reveal the possible presence of a TV.[10] The warrant stated that: "the optical detector in the detector van uses a large lens to collect that light and focus it on to an especially sensitive device, which converts fluctuating light signals into electrical signals, which can be electronically analysed. If a receiver is being used to watch broadcast programmes then a positive reading is returned." [10] The BBC stated that this was strong evidence that a set was "receiving a possible broadcast".

According to The Comptroller and Auditor General of the National Audit Office, "where the BBC still suspects that an occupier is watching live television but not paying for a licence, it can send a detection van to check whether this is the case. TVL detection vans can identify viewing on a non‐TV device in the same way that they can detect viewing on a television set. BBC staff were able to demonstrate this to my staff in controlled conditions sufficient for us to be confident that they could detect viewing on a range of non‐TV devices."[11]

Regulation of use[edit]

TV detection is a form of covert surveillance and as such is regulated by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA). More specifically, the BBC's use of surveillance is defined by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (British Broadcasting Corporation) Order 2001.[12] Like other public bodies that undertake covert surveillance, the BBC is subject to the scrutiny of the Office of Surveillance Commissioners, which inspects the BBC every other year.[13] A number of official inspection reports on the BBC's detection methods have been made available following freedom-of-information requests.[14] These reports give an outline of the process of authorisation of the use of detection equipment. Briefly, applications for authorisation are made in the name of the Detection Manager. Correspondence between TV Licensing and the affected householder may be attached to the completed application forms, which pass through a quality-control "gatekeeper" to the authorising officers (AOs) at the BBC. In 2012 there were two designated AOs at the BBC. To be authorised, an application must be shown to be "necessary and proportionate". AOs sometimes reject applications. Once approved, the authorisation lasts for a duration of 8 weeks.

In popular culture[edit]

  • The "Fish Licence" sketch on Monty Python's Flying Circus, aired in 1970, mentions a "cat detector van", a parody of the TV detector van.
  • In The Young Ones episode 4 "Bomb" the boys are visited by a TV detector van worker, who questions Neil as to whether they have a TV. When Neil tries to evade the question, the representative shouts: "We know you've got one, we detected it".[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Test drive for TV detector vans". BBC On This Day. 1 February 1952. Archived from the original on 10 May 2009. Retrieved 19 May 2009.
  2. ^ UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved January 27, 2019.
  3. ^ "Are TV detector vans just a cunning con trick?". Daily Mail. Retrieved 20 May 2014.
  4. ^ "New generation of television detector vans hit the streets". BBC. Retrieved 3 June 2014.
  5. ^ "Deceptor vans". New Scientist. Archived from the original on 4 January 2013. Retrieved 19 May 2014.
  6. ^ Douglass, Ralph G. "Tuned signal detector for use with a radio frequency receiver – US Patent 5,404,161". Retrieved 17 November 2015.
  7. ^ a b Carter, Claire (27 September 2013). "Myth of the TV detector van?". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 27 September 2015.
  8. ^ Johnson, Robin (2 January 2014). "TV detector vans are out to catch Derbyshire licence dodgers". Derby Telegraph. Local World. Archived from the original on 4 January 2014. Retrieved 27 September 2015.
  9. ^ "Copy of contract with Capita Business Services Ltd – a Freedom of Information request to British Broadcasting Corporation". 21 December 2013. Retrieved 13 September 2016.
  10. ^ a b "Statements involving TV Detector evidence". Retrieved 18 December 2013.
  11. ^ "British Broadcasting Corporation Television Licence Fee Trust Statement for the Year Ending 31 March 2016" (PDF). Retrieved 18 August 2016.
  12. ^ "Home Office – The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (British Broadcasting Corporation) Order 2001". Government of the United Kingdom. 4 July 2011. Retrieved 12 July 2011.
  13. ^ "Annual Report of the Chief Surveillance Commissioner" (PDF). The Stationery Office. Retrieved 30 September 2013.
  14. ^ "Office of the Surveillance Commissioner's Report, 2008". Retrieved 12 January 2014.
  15. ^ "The Young Ones- TV Man". YouTube.