In broadcasting, the watershed is the time of day after which programming aimed towards mature or adult audiences is permitted.
In the same way that a geological watershed divides two drainage basins, a broadcasting watershed serves as a dividing line in a schedule between family-oriented programs, and programs aimed at or suitable for a more adult audience, such as those containing objectionable content (including graphic violence, profane language, and sexual intercourse, or strong references to those themes, even if they are not shown explicitly).
In some countries, watersheds are enforced by broadcasting laws. Cultural differences around the world allow those watershed times to vary. For instance, in Australia, the watershed time is 19:30 (7:30 p.m.), and in Italy it is 22:30 (10:30 p.m.). In some countries, the schedule is divided into multiple periods with progressively fewer restrictions. In addition, some countries are more lenient towards subscription television and radio or pay-per-view channels than towards free-to-air channels.
In Argentina, any programmes broadcast between 06:00 or 07:00 and 22:00 or 22:30 must be suitable for all ages. There are also three other ratings, SAM 13, SAM 16, and SAM 18, which may be broadcast only during the broadcast time that is not covered by any programme suitable for family viewing.
Starting in September 2010, it is compulsory for broadcasters to show the notices "Comienza el horario apto para todo público" (English: Start time of suitable for all age schedule) and "Finaliza el horario apto para todo público" (English: End time of suitable for all age schedule) at 6:00 a.m. or 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. or 10:30 p.m. respectively. In addition, the notice "Atención: Contenido no apto para niños, niñas y adolescentes" (English: Warning: Content not suitable for children and adolescents) are shown before news broadcasts.
On Australian television, programmes are restricted to certain times based on their rating. Since December 2015, PG-rated programmes can be shown at any time of day, M-rated programmes from 19:30, and MA15+ programmes from 20:30. M-rated programmes can also be shown from 12:00 to 15:00 on school days.
Complications with Australian time zones allow that to vary slightly in some areas. For example, when daylight saving time is in effect in New South Wales, NSW-based stations broadcasting to the Gold Coast, Queensland, would effectively push the broadcast watersheds an hour earlier, as Queensland does not observe DST; however, complaints by Gold Coast residents have forced those stations to delay prime-time programming by one hour to compensate.
With the exception of subscription narrowcast channels, anything rated R18+ must not be shown on Australian television at any time, and must be edited to fit within MA15+ or AV15+ guidelines. Even on subscription narrowcast channels, the owner of the channel must ensure that its content is restricted to access by those with appropriate disabling devices.
There is no legally binding watershed in Austria. However, according to its regulations, the public service broadcaster's channels do not air content that might harm the physical, mental or moral development of minors before 8:15 p.m. and when fictional programmes "not suitable for children" or "only for adults" are aired an X or O, respectively, is added to the digital on-screen graphic.
The Code of Ethics and the Violence Code of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters specify that broadcasters may not air programming that contains violence, sexually explicit material, or coarse or offensive language intended for adult audiences outside of the "late viewing period," which is defined as programming beginning at 9:00 p.m., and ending at 5:30 a.m. Programs that begin before 9:00 p.m. are considered pre-watershed even if they run into this time period. In regards to time zones, the watershed is based on the time zone from which the signal originates. There is no watershed for radio broadcasting; stations are forbidden from broadcasting content that glorifies violence, undue coarse language, or undue sexually explicit material.
The Violence Code does provide some leniency for scheduling programs pre-watershed in order to exercise a terrestrial broadcaster's simsub rights (noting that viewers would have access to content advisories also mandated by the code). However, in any case, no broadcaster may air material that contains "gratuitous violence in any form or which sanctions, promotes or glamourizes violence."
In the Czech Republic, only programmes that "can be watched by children" can be aired until 22:00. After 22:00, adult-oriented programmes may be aired.
In Finland, all the major television companies (Yle, MTV Media, Nelonen Media, SBS Finland and Fox International) have agreed not to show 16-rated content before 21:00 and 18-rated content before 23:00. Television channels use their own discretion to decide the ratings. Before airing a programme, the channel must provide the related rating information to the governmental bureau Finnish Centre for Media Education and Audiovisual Media, which replaced the now-defunct Finnish Board of Film Classification in that capacity in early 2012.
In France, -12 rated programmes/films are not allowed before 22:00, and -16/-18 rated programmes/films are not allowed before 22:30 and 00:00 respectively. -18 rated programmes/films may air only via satellite and cable. The period in which programmes with any ratings are permitted finishes at 06:00 except for -18 programmes, which may not be issued after 05:00.
There is also one additional rating that is not used in films; -10. -10 rated programmes signifies content less intense than -12 rated programmes. All programmes and films must display the respective icon on-screen for the duration of the programme. Before December 2012, -10 rated programmes had to display the respective icon on-screen at the start and in regular intervals.
In Germany, content suitable for ages 16 and older is permitted between 22:00 and 06:00 and content suitable for adults (18 and older) is permitted between 23:00 and 06:00. Programmes marked "Keine Jugendfreigabe" (not approved for minors) by the ratings organization FSK may thus be shown only after 23:00. Blacklisted movies may not be aired at any time. Some content rated 12 and older is permitted between 20:00 and 06:00, but there is no general watershed for such content.
If a commercial broadcaster wants to air a programme not rated by the FSK, the programme's watershed is rated by the FSF (Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle Fernsehen: Voluntary Self Regulation for TV) instead. A programme with neither rating is not usually aired by commercial broadcasters since the KJM (Kommission für Jugendmedienschutz: Commission for the Protection of Minors in the Media) may charge a fine if it finds the content inappropriate. To avoid the original watershed for a programme or to air a blacklisted movie, commercial broadcasters may ask the FSF to tell them how to cut the movie for another rating.
Greece uses a triple-tier watershed, along with a five-tier colour-coded decal scheme, displayed at the beginning and at regular intervals during all broadcasts except for news bulletins.
The colour-coded ratings are mandatorily displayed and verbally announced at the beginning of each broadcast. The provisions are enforced by the National Radio and Television Council (ESR), an independent authority, whose executive members are appointed by the leaders of all parliamentary parties, preferably by unanimous consent and in extremis by an 80% supermajority.
Hungary uses a two-tier watershed.
Hungarian television prime time ends about 23:30.
For more information about the two ratings' meaning, see Television content rating systems § Hungary.
India does not have a watershed. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is responsible for regulating television programming. The law permits only material rated with a U (Universal) certificate to be broadcast on television, but the law is regularly disobeyed. The government has, at times, ordered individual programmes and films to be broadcast between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. There have been several proposals in the past to introduce a watershed between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., when programming rated 'A' (Adults Only) can be broadcast, but all have been rejected by the government.
As many Indian households have only one television, nearly the entire broadcast day is positioned by broadcasters as being suitable for family viewing. Self-censorship of foreign series (particularly from the U.S.) is common in order to meet more conservative content standards, and the period between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. is typically treated as a de facto watershed (with some channels, such as Zee Café, openly promoting programming blocks within the hours featuring "uncut" programming with fewer edits).
In Ireland, there is no statutory requirement for a watershed. The Code of Programme Standards of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) requires television and radio broadcasters to use at least one of three methods to advise viewers of content, namely: an explicit watershed for adult-oriented programmes; prior warnings before potentially offensive programming; and/or a descriptive classification system. A 2005 survey for the drafters of the Code found that 83% of viewers thought a watershed was a good idea, and only 39% knew the pre-existing watershed was 21:00; 52% felt it should be 22:00 or 23:00. The 2007 Code specifies that broadcasters using a watershed must regularly promote it, and its start and end times, for viewers' awareness.
RTÉ Television implements a watershed of 21:00, as well as an onscreen classification system. Programmes with the MA ("mature audience") classification are shown only after the watershed. Programmes running through the watershed are treated as pre-watershed. RTÉ's guidelines state, "A cornerstone of our contract with television viewers is the watershed and the understanding that prior to 21.00 material broadcast should be suitable for a family audience. ... The immediately post 21.00 broadcast period should be regarded as a graduation period towards more adult material and due allowance must be made for the potential presence of children in the audience". More nuanced limits may also be applied; for example, RTÉ cleared a trailer for horror film Paranormal Activity for broadcast after 19:00, except during the Saturday evening film which many children watch. Virgin Media One operates what it calls "the internationally accepted watershed" of 21:00. Radio broadcasting does not apply a watershed.
In 2005, all television broadcasters operated a main watershed starting at 21:00. In the case of RTÉ, it ended at 06:30, while for Virgin Media One and TG4, which then had shorter broadcast hours, it ended at nighttime closedown. RTÉ Radio did not use a watershed. TG4 claimed it had "a number of different watersheds coming into effect throughout the day", while all stations had a second, less formal watershed at 22:00 for "material which is decidedly over 18". Quinn notes that the period from 18:00 to 21:00 attracts most viewer complaints, as "audience expectations of what should be shown often differ greatly".
The BAI's code regarding advertising and children states, "In general terms, programmes broadcast after 9 p.m. are not regarded as children's programmes. After this time, the primary responsibility for what a child is watching is seen to lie with the parents/guardians. The Code recognises, however, that children's viewing does not end abruptly at 9 p.m. and so the Code will offer some protection in the hour between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m."
According to Codice TV e minori (Code for Children and Television, 2002), all the channels must broadcast "general audience" programmes from 07:00 to 22:30. After 22:30, +14 programmes can be aired, while +18 programmes are prohibited from television altogether except for satellite, cable, and OTT premium adult channels.
Department of Radio, Television and Film (Mexico) regulates television programming in Mexico. Any programmes shown on Mexican television must be classified A (suitable for all ages) for broadcast between 05:00 to 20:00. Broadcast for programmes classified as B, B-15, C and/or D can be broadcast at certain times only.
The number in the age rating indicates the lowest age for which it is suitable.
As of May 1st 2020, the new classification rating system for television has been implemented. Here are the changes from now on:
Sports programming and news bulletins are exempt from the system altogether but still carry warnings before certain stories with graphic content or objectionable material.
Peru has adult time from 22:00 to 6:00. During the rest of the time, nevertheless, some +14 programming signs may be posted on the screen. As of 2015, there have been complaints that adult time is not enforced (either from the TV channels or the authorities) since some programs such as "Combate", "Esto es Guerra", "Amor Amor Amor" and "Al fondo hay sitio" have broadcast violence, or sexually suggestive material, during "unrestricted" time.
In Poland, the Czas chroniony ("Protected time") rules specify that programmes with a "12" rating or higher are not allowed to be aired during scheduling blocks intended for children, programmes with a "16" rating are not allowed to be aired before 20:00 on mainstream channels, and programmes with an "18" rating may not be aired before 23:00 on mainstream channels.
Open channel terrestrial television stations (RTP, SIC and TVI) can broadcast programmes and films rated 16 only between 22:30 and 06:00 with a permanent visual identification and red circle in right top on the tv screen. There are no legal restrictions on pay television, but those channels usually follow the same rules as open television, for example, the red circle on the top right (or top left ). Pornography may be aired only on encrypted channels.
The national broadcaster RTV Slovenija uses two watersheds: between 21:00 and 05:00 programmes rated 12+ and 15+ can be shown and between 00:00 and 05:00 18+ content can be shown. Children's programmes have to be screened until 19:00.
A warning has to be broadcast before airing a programme with an age restriction. The rating symbol is shown accompanied by a voice that says: "Opozorilo! Predvajane programske vsebine vključujejo prizore, ki so primerni samo za ..." (The following programmes include scenes appropriate only for ...) followed by "otroke v spremstvu in pod vodstvom staršev ali skrbnikov/otroke nad 12 letom starosti/mladoletne nad 15 letom starosti/odrasle" (children accompanied and under guidance of parents or guardians/children older than 12/teenagers older than 15/adults).
The ratings used are:
The respective rating symbol has to be shown for the duration of the programme.
South Africa takes a very hands-on approach when it comes to what children are allowed to see on television, and the parents or guardians of the child may be fined if they are caught not following the rules. The ratings used are:
In Spain, the watershed is simpler than a lot of other countries since there is only one watershed time, but there is a quadruple-tier age rating system that is used alongside it. The ratings used in Spain are "All", "7", "12", "16" and "18". However, only 18-rated programmes are restricted. 18-rated programmes are allowed only between 22:00 and 06:00 and must broadcast a warning sound before it is shown.
In 2015, the Serbian broadcasting regulator, the REM (Regulatory body for Electronic Media) introduced a two-tier watershed. The watershed is based on the new TV rating system.
Programmes marked "16" are allowed to be shown only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and may contain coarse language and mild references to gambling, drugs and sex.
Programmes marked "18" are allowed to be shown only between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. and may contain extensive scenes of drugs and sex.
Switzerland has no watershed. However, broadcasters are required by law to avoid any confrontation of minors with unsuitable programming through the choice of transmission time.
According to Ofcom, the watershed on free-to-air television in the UK is between 21:00 (9:00 p.m.) and 05:30 (5:30 a.m.), while premium or pay-per-view services are allowed to start the watershed at 20:00 (8:00 p.m.). Until 1 October 2011, the watershed ended at 05:30 for premium channels as it still does for the free-to-air channels. On 1 October 2011, the watershed rules for the premium channels were relaxed, now ending at 06:00. Programmes that are rated 15 cannot be shown outside that period. However, some 12-rated shows can be shown before 21:00, such as The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, Doctor Who, Atlantis, Only Fools and Horses and Futurama. There is no watershed on PIN-protected channels (such as Sky Cinema). On that type of channel, trying to view adult material before 20:00 requires a PIN.
There should be a gentle transition to adult material, and 18-rated content must not air until 22:00 (10:00pm) on most channels that are without PIN protection. However, channels that are dedicated to airing adult content such as Horror Channel may be allowed to start 18-rated content at 21:00 without PIN protection.
A notable breach of the watershed was in 1976, during a live interview on Bill Grundy's Today show, when members of the Sex Pistols uttered profanities at Grundy.
Advertisements also have to comply with the same set of rules, and can be restricted when shown outside the watershed (such as those for junk food, bingo, alcohol and condoms). Advertisements that may have an adult-related context, such as bingo, are less likely to be allowed on child-oriented channels. Some advertisements, often those for 18-rated films and video games, are not allowed before the watershed at all.
Although ratings do not have to be displayed on-screen, the channel is legally required to broadcast a verbal advisory before shows that may be unsuitable for children. Failure to do so may result in the broadcaster being given a fine.
See also: The Ofcom Broadcasting Code – Section 1
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has the right to regulate the broadcast of "indecent" material on free-to-air terrestrial television and radio, because it is broadcast on publicly-owned airwaves that are licensed to broadcasters. It presently enforces a watershed of between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. The FCC's jurisdiction in regards to content applies only to terrestrial television. Cable channels may be more permissive in their content, depending on their target audience and the standards of their advertisers, while premium channels and over-the-top streaming services are often the most permissive because they are funded primarily by their subscribers, and not commercial advertising.
In the 1975–1976 television season, the FCC attempted to enforce a "Family Viewing Hour" policy, in which the Big Three television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) agreed to devote the first hour of primetime to family-friendly programming. In 1976, the rule was overturned as unconstitutional following a lawsuit by the Writers Guild of America.
In 1978, the Supreme Court case FCC v. Pacifica Foundation (dealing with a broadcast of the George Carlin routine "Filthy Words" by WBAI radio) upheld the ability for the FCC to regulate the broadcast of "indecent" material on free-to-air radio and television, citing the "uniquely pervasive presence" of broadcasting in society, and the likelihood that children could be exposed to such content by chance. From then on, the FCC enforced a safe harbor on the broadcast of indecent material between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.
In 1987, the FCC introduced a stricter definition of indecency, defined as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs". The FCC also removed the previous 10:00 p.m. watershed and stated that the prohibition would apply during any time that there "is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience". In 1988, as directed by the United States Congress, the FCC announced that it would ban the broadcast of indecent material entirely, with no safe harbor. In 1991, the FCC's proposed 24-hour ban was struck down by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals as unconstitutional. The Telecommunications Act of 1992 re-established a safe harbor period for indecent content between midnight and 6:00 a.m. The period was lengthened back to 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. following further D.C. Circuit rulings.
Some American television scenes famous for "pushing the envelope" (such as limited nudity on NYPD Blue) were aired in the 10:00 to 11:00 p.m. hour; however, the broadcasts were before the safe harbor in the Central and Mountain time zones, where programming scheduled for 10:00 p.m. Eastern would typically be broadcast starting at 9:00 p.m. (using a one-hour delay in Mountain Time broadcast areas). Because each U.S. time zone enters safe harbor separately (at 10:00 p.m. local time), it is possible for not all network affiliates that air an "indecent" program at the same moment to face the same penalties. Such was the case with CBS, whose affiliates faced a proposed fine of US$3.63 million for a repeat of the episode "Our Sons and Daughters" of Without a Trace in December 2004. The program was flagged for depicting an orgy involving teenagers. It was televised at 10:00 p.m. in the Eastern and Pacific time zones (within the safe harbor), but at 9:00 p.m. in Central and Mountain times (outside the safe harbor). The FCC split its fine among the 111 CBS affiliates covering those time zones. After a court settlement, the network agreed to pay US$300,000 in fines.
Even though the watershed period begins during the prime time hour of 10:00 p.m., broadcast networks have since avoided indecent content to avoid reprimands from their affiliates and advertisers, and because of the constant fluctuation of indecency standards to account for changes in acceptance and FCC enforcement. In 2011 and 2012, courts overturned fines regarding a brief scene of male nudity in a 2003 NYPD Blue episode, as well as fines over fleeting expletives in a live awards show broadcast in 2002 by Fox, ruling that the FCC's basis for the fines was too vague.
In Venezuela, the watershed begins at 23:00 and ends at 05:00 and is called "Adult time" according to Article 7 of the Law on Social Responsibility on Radio, Television and Electronic Media. During that block, adult-oriented programs may be transmitted as long as they do not contain hardcore pornography, political or religious intolerance, racism or xenophobia.
Here is a list of watershed times in each country, starting with the earliest and ending with the latest. The table includes only the last phase to start of the watershed (for example, in Australia, MA15+ and AV15+ shows are not allowed until 20:30. The one for AV15+ shows would be the only one included in the table). Similarly, the table includes only the first phase of the watershed to end. Some countries may share the same last phase watershed time, and the conflicting boxes is then sorted by the end time.
A green box in either the start or end time means it has multiple phases of the respective event.
The main part of the watershed is not in place.
The main part of the watershed is in place.
It is worth noting that in Ireland the watershed operates as an informal arrangement and is not contained in any codes, rules or law.
With regard to a watershed, such practice is only applicable to television broadcasting.