In broadcasting, watershed is the point in time after which programmes with adult content may be broadcast. In the same way that a watershed in British and Australian usage refers to "the ridge or crest line dividing two drainage basins", a broadcasting watershed serves as a dividing line. It divides the day into the overnight period where family-oriented programming suitable for children may be aired and where programming aimed at or suitable for a more adult audience is permitted, though not required. It may also mean the period of time during which programmes with adult content may be broadcast. Examples of adult content include, but are not limited to, graphic violence, horror, strong language, nudity, sexual intercourse, gambling, and drug use, or references to these themes without necessarily portraying them. In most countries, the same set of rules also apply to radio advertisements and television commercials, both for the content of the commercial and the nature of the product or service being advertised.
Watershed has other names in other countries; it is known as safe harbor in the United States (a reference to the shipping term of safe harbor, though in this case indicating the time when broadcasters are protected from penalties for airing indecent but not obscene material), and as adult time in Venezuela.
Due to cultural differences around the world, watershed times can vary. For instance, in New Zealand, the watershed time starts at 20:30 (8:30pm), and in Italy it starts at 22:30 (10:30pm). Some countries also have multiple watershed layers, where less-inappropriate content than others may be allowed at an earlier time of the evening, but may still be restricted. In addition, some countries are more lenient towards subscription TV and radio or pay-per-view channels than towards free-to-air channels and stations (see pervasiveness doctrine for the U.S. context of this).
Watersheds by country 
According to COMFER, the watershed starts at 22:00, and finishes at 08:00 the next morning.
On Australian television, programmes are restricted to certain times based on their rating. PG-rated programmes can be shown between 08:30 and 16:00, as well as later than 19:00, M-rated programmes can be shown from 20:30, and MA programmes from 21:00. As well as this, M-rated programmes can also be shown from 12:00 to 15:00 on school days.
AV15+ is a television specific variation of the MA15+ rating indicating the program contains "Adult Violence" and programs given this rating cannot be screened before 21:30. As such, most MA15+ programs generally begin after 21:30.
Due to complications with Australian time zones, this can vary slightly in some areas. For example, when daylight 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 force 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 formal watershed period, however according to the regulations for the public service broadcaster it should be ensured that content which might harm the physical, mental or moral development of minors is aired at a time when minors are typically not watching.
According with the new rules of the Ministry of Justice's Department of Justice, Rating, Titles and Qualification, 16-rated content is only allowed between 22:00 and 06:00, and 18-rated shows cannot be screened until 23:00. The ratings, however, are administered by the television networks themselves, which are responsible for rating their shows, which means that the department acts merely as content controller, acting after the inappropriate content for children has already been aired (as it happened with Rede Globo's Duas Caras). Self-censorship is not uncommon, such as when the head of Rede Record edited all sex scenes in the telenovela Poder Paralelo, which could air such scenes, once it was broadcast after 22:00. This generated controversy, since violent scenes remained untouched.
The watershed is between 21:00 (9:00 PM) and 06:00. Sexually explicit content, offensive language and other adult material is not allowed outside the watershed.
Czech Republic 
In Czech Republic, programmes that "can be watched by children" must air until 22:00. After 22:00, adult-orientated programmes may air.
In Finland, all the major television companies (Yle, MTV Media, Nelonen Media, SBS Finland and Fox International) have agreed not to show 12 rated content before 17:00, 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 this capacity in the beginning of 2012.
In France, -12 rated programs/films are not allowed before 20:00, and -16/-18 rated programs/films are not allowed before 22:00 and 22:30 respectively. -18 rated programs/films can only air via satellite and cable. The watershed for all ratings finishes at 06:00 the following morning.
There is also one additional rating that is not used in films; -10. -10 rated programs signifies content less intense than -12 rated programs. Programs and films that are rated -12 or higher must display the respective icon on-screen for the duration of the program. -10 rated programs must display the respective icon on-screen at the start and in regular intervals.
In Germany the watershed is between 22:00 and 06:00 for content suitable for ages 16 and older, and between 23:00 and 06:00 for content suitable for adults (18 and older). This means that programmes marked "Keine Jugendfreigabe" (not approved for minors) by the ratings organization FSK may only be shown after 23:00. Blacklisted movies may not be aired at any time. For some content rated 12 and up, the watershed is 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 an FSK nor FSF rating isn’t usually aired by commercial broadcasters, as 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 can ask the FSF to tell them how to cut the movie for another rating.
Public broadcasters are allowed to rate their programmes themselves.
Greece uses a triple-tier watershed, along with a five-tier color-coded decal scheme, displayed in the beginning and in regular intervals during all broadcasts except for news bulletins.
- A white rhombus in green or a white circle in blue indicates unrestricted programming.
- A white triangle in orange indicates programming that could upset younger children, and is only allowed between 19:00 and 06:00.
- A white square in purple indicates programming that may be unsuitable for children, and is only allowed between 21:00 and 06:00.
- A white X in red indicates programming which by law must not air until midnight. Programs with foul language will typically fall into this category. Content with this rating before midnight is punishable by fine, except when used in the context of a suitably labelled movie film, theatrical play, etc.
The color-coded ratings are mandatorily displayed and verbally announced at the beginning of each broadcast. These provisions are enforced by the National Radio and Television Council (ESR), an independent authority, the executive members of which are appointed by the leaders of all parliamentary parties, preferably by unanimous consent and in extremis by an 80% supermajority.
India currently does not have a watershed. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is responsible for regulating television programming. As per current laws, a general broadcast code exists that allows only programming with 'U' (Universal) certificate to be broadcast on television. However, broadcasters have regularly flouted the code. India does not have a clear policy on adult content but the government has in the past issued curbs to channels over content that it deemed objectionable. The government has, at times, ordered individual programs and movies to be broadcast between 11pm - 5am. There have been several proposals in the past to introduce a watershed between 11pm - 5am daily, when programming rated 'A' (Adults Only) can be broadcast, but all proposals till date have been rejected by the government.
In general, Family shows, cartoons and soap-opera programmes are not regularly censored but are kept under a regulator which checks the content of the shows. Any nudity, offensive language and/or sexual material is always cut. Reality shows that contain mature content are allowed to air after 11:00 pm. only. Films that are shown on television display the censor certificate before the film begins. Films are often censored and modified for video exhibition on the basis of the ratings below:
- U '('Universal) – Unrestricted public exhibition throughout India, suitable for all groups. Films can be aired round the clock. Any nudity/drug innuendo is cut. Such films may contain mild profanity or crude humour, mild sexual content, educational or family-oriented themes and/or mild violence.
- UA (Parental Guidance) – Unrestricted public exhibition but with parental guidance for children under the age of 12. Those aged under 12 years must be accompanied by an adult. Such films may contain moderate coarse language or suggestive dialogue, references and use of soft drugs, people wearing minimal clothing (frontal or rear nudity is not permitted), moderate sexual content, mature themes and/or moderate violence (including brief or implied sexual violence).
- A (Adults Only) - Telecast of an A-rated film on television is prohibited.
In the Republic of 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; 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 may only be shown 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. TV3 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 TV3 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 9pm 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 9pm and, therefore, the Code will offer some protection in the hour between 9pm and 10pm."
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, and programmes "directed to children and adolescents" only from 16:00 to 19:00. After 22:30, +14 programmes can be aired. +18 programmes are prohibited from television altogether.
Netherlands, The 
- Programs that are rated "All ages", "6" or "9" can be broadcast all day.
- Programs that are rated "12" can be broadcast from 20.00 to 06.00
- Programs that are rated "16" can be broadcast from 23.00 to 06.00
The number in the age rating indicates the lowest age for which it is suitable.
New Zealand 
On free-to-air channels (but not those on satellite) programming rated Adults Only is only allowed between 20:30 and 05:00. Adults Only programming is also allowed to air between midday and 15:00 on school days. Sports programming and news bulletins are exempt from the system altogether, but do still carry warnings before certain stories.
Poland uses a double-tier watershed system, as well as five age ratings. All age ratings must be displayed throughout the whole of the program, with the exception of commercial breaks and news bulletins. The ratings are "All" (indicated on-air by a smiling face), "7", "12", "16" and "18".
- Programs that are rated "12" may contain a war theme and/or stronger violence, and are not allowed within children's schedules.
- Programs that are rated "16" may contain very strong violence, bad language and/or erotic situations, and are not allowed within children's schedules or before 20:00 on mainstream channels.
- Programs that are rated "18" may contain explicit violence, explicit situations and perhaps some racist comments, and are not allowed within children's schedules or before 23:00 on mainstream channels.
The number in the age rating indicates the lowest age for which it is suitable.
Open channel terrestrial TV stations (RTP, SIC and TVI) can only broadcast programs and movies rated 16 or 18 between 23:00 and 06:00. On cable TV however there are no restrictions of broadcasting, except pornography which cannot be broadcast at all without encrypted signal, requiring an IRD to be seen.
South Africa 
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:
- All: Suitable for all ages. The respective icon is required to be displayed on-screen for 30 seconds at the start of the program.
- PG: Suitable for all ages, but very young children must be accompanied at all times. The respective icon is required to be displayed on-screen for 1 minute at the start of the program.
- 13: Prohibited to children under the age of 13. The respective icon is required to be displayed on-screen for 2 minutes at the start of the program and after every commercial break.
- 16: Prohibited to children under the age of 16. Programs with this rating are not allowed before 21:00. The respective icon is required to be displayed on-screen for 5 minutes at the start of the program and after every commercial break.
- 18: Prohibited to children and young people under the age of 18. Programs with this rating are not allowed before 23:00. The respective icon is required to be displayed on-screen for the duration of the program. The content in programs that have an "18" rating is not restricted, as long as it does not have pornography which is prohibited altogether.
In Spain, the watershed is simpler than a lot of other countries as 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", "13" and "18". However, only 18-rated programmes are restricted. 18-rated programmes are only allowed between 23:00 and 06:00, and are required to broadcast a verbal warning before it is shown.
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.
United Kingdom 
According to Ofcom, the watershed on free-to-air television in the UK is between 21:00 and 05:30, while premium or pay-per-view services are allowed to start the watershed at 20:00. Until 1 October 2011, the watershed closed at 05:30 for the premium channels just like it still does for the free-to-air channels. But on 1 October 2011, the watershed rules for the premium channels had been relaxed and it now ends at 06:00 for the premium channels. Programmes that are rated 15 cannot be shown outside this period. However, some 12-rated shows can be shown before 21:00, such as The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, Doctor Who, and Futurama. There is no watershed on PIN protected channels (such as Sky Movies). On this type of channels, trying to view adult material before 20:00 will require a PIN.
There should be a gentle transition to adult material, and 18-rated content must not air until 22:00 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. R18-rated material is not allowed at all, and must be edited to fit 18-rated content guidelines if shown on television.
Advertisements also have to comply with the same set of rules, and can be restricted when shown outside the watershed (i.e. junk food, bingo, alcohol, condoms). Advertisements that may have an adult-related context, such as bingo, are less likely to be allowed on child-orientated 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 this may result in the broadcaster being given a fine.
See also: The Ofcom Broadcasting Code - Section 1
United States 
The term "watershed" is not used in this context in the United States. In the U.S., the "safe harbor" for adult programming begins at 10:00 p.m. and ends at 06:00 the next morning. This "safe harbor" was established by the U.S. Supreme Court case FCC v. Pacifica. That case distinguished "obscene" material (which is always banned by U.S. law) from the broader category of "indecent" material (which may be broadcast during safe harbor). Because the FCC's jurisdiction only covers channels broadcast on the publicly owned spectrum and not those only available on cable, restricted-access networks (like the premium channels Cinemax and HBO, with shows such as Sex and the City, or adult channels Playboy TV and Spice) have taken considerably more leeway in their programming.
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 hour; however, these broadcasts were before the safe harbor in the Central and Mountain time zones, where programming scheduled for 10:00 EST would typically be broadcast starting at 9:00 (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 network affiliates who air an "indecent" program at the same moment to not all 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 in the Eastern and Pacific time zones (within the safe harbor), but at 9:00 in Central and Mountain times (outside the safe harbor). The FCC split its fine among the 111 CBS affiliates covering these time zones. After a court settlement, the network agreed to pay US$300,000 in fines.
In the 1970s, the ill-fated Family Viewing Hour tried to make the 8:00 to 9:00 hour (7:00 to 8:00 for Central/Mountain areas) safe for family consumption, but was overturned in court due to the way it was instituted.
In Venezuela the watershed begins at 23:00 and ends at 05:00 in the following morning and is called "Adult time" according to Article 7 of the Law on Social Responsibility on Radio, Television and Electronic Media. During this block adult-oriented programs may be transmitted as long as they do not contain hardcore pornography, political or religious intolerance, racism or xenophobia.
Watersheds by time 
This is a list of watershed times in each country, starting with the earliest and ending with the latest. This only includes the last phase of the watershed to start (i.e. in Australia, MA15+ shows are not allowed until 21:00, and AV15+ shows are not allowed until 21:30. The one for AV15+ shows would be the only one included in the table). Similarly, this table only includes the first phase of the watershed to end. Some countries may share the same last phase watershed time, in which case, the conflicting boxes will be sorted by the end time.
A green box in either the start or end time means its has multiple phases of the respective event.
The main part of the watershed is not in place.
Watershed rules depend solely on whether it is free-to-air or not.
The main part of the watershed is in place.
Watershed rules vary depending on, but are not limited to whether it is free-to-air or not.
- Quinn, Ruth-Blandina (January 2005). "The watershed" (MS Word). Taste and Decency: a review of national and international practice. Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. Retrieved 25 October 2012.
- Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (10 April 2007). "BCI Code of Programme Standards: Guidance Notes" (PDF). Retrieved 25 October 2012.
- Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (July 2012). "Broadcasting Complaint Decisions" (PDF). Retrieved 27 October 2012.
- Subscription Narrowcast Television Codes of Practice 2007 (Report). Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association. 2007. p. 3. http://s3.amazonaws.com/assets.astra.org.au/material/codes%5CSNTCodesofPractice2007.pdf. Retrieved 31 January 2010.
- Jugendschutz im ORF
- Questions Concerning Broadcast Standards, Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, September 2008
- "Televisioyhtiöiden käytännesäännöt", Finnish Centre for Media Education and Audiovisual Media, 2007. Retrieved on 2012-09-07. (Finnish)
- "'Watershed' timings for adult movies on TV soon". The Times of India. 2006-01-21. Retrieved 2012-12-05.
- "Watershed hour beckons Indian television". The Telegraph - Calcutta, India. 2010-11-22. Retrieved 2012-12-05.
- "Govt says a firm ‘no’ to adult content on TV". The Financial Express. 2011-02-21. Retrieved 2012-12-05.
- "Consultation Document – Phase 1". BCI Code of Programme Standards. Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. 2005. p. 14. Retrieved 27 October 2012. "It is worth noting that in Ireland the watershed operates as an informal arrangement and is not contained in any codes, rules or law."
- Broadcasting Commission of Ireland 2007, p.7
- Lansdowne Market Research (October 2005). "Towards development of a Code on Taste and Decency" (PDF). Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. pp. 43–44. Retrieved 27 October 2012.
- Broadcasting Commission of Ireland 2007, p.8
- "RTÉ Programme Standards and Guidelines". RTÉ. 26 June 2008. p. 51. Retrieved 27 October 2012.
- "On Screen Classification". RTÉ.ie. Retrieved 27 October 2012.
- "The Watershed". General RTÉ Guidelines. RTÉ. Retrieved 27 October 2012.
- Broadcasting Authority of Ireland July 2012, pp.85–87
- Broadcasting Authority of Ireland July 2012, pp.19–20
- Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (May 2011). "Complaint Decisions". p. 82. Retrieved 27 October 2012. "With regard to a watershed, such practice is only applicable to television broadcasting."
- Quinn 2005, p.19
- Quinn 2005, p.21
- Quinn 2005, p.114
- Quinn 2005, p.117
- Quinn 2005, p.129
- "Children’s Commercial Communications Code". Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. May 2011. p. 8. Retrieved 27 October 2012.
- Ministero delle Comunicazioni - Tutela dei minori 
- Bundesgesetz vom 24. März 2006 über Radio und Fernsehen (Federal Act of 24 March 2006 on Radio and Television)
- Ofcom - Watershed Ofcom
- The Ofcom Broadcasting Code - Section 1 Ofcom
- "ABC Faces Indecency Fine for 2003 'NYPD Blue' Episode" Washington Post
- Eggerton, John (2007-07-05). FCC Gives CBS More Time To Respond to Without a Trace Question. Retrieved from http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/CA6457447.html (redirects to http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/109471-FCC_Gives_CBS_More_Time_To_Respond_to_Without_a_Trace_Question.php).
- Adult material can also air between midday and 15:00 on school days.