The television Watershed, which starts at 9.00 pm and lasts until 5.30 am, is well
established as a scheduling marker to distinguish clearly between programmes intended
mainly for family viewing and those intended for adults. Some 90% of adults are aware of
the Watershed and its significance. The Watershed should not be an abrupt change from
family viewing to adult programming. It is not a waterfall, but a signal to parents that
they need to exercise increasing control over their children's viewing after this
time. Parents should also be aware that even programming leading up to the Watershed might
not be suitable for all children. The child audience covers a wide age range from very
young children to adolescents, and even some 'children's' programmes or
news programmes may be unsuitable for younger child audiences. Broadcasters should provide
sufficient information to assist parents and others to take the degree of responsibility
they feel appropriate for the children in their care.
Broadcasters should further bear in mind that children tend to stay up later than usual
on Friday and Saturday nights and during school holidays and that programmes which start
before 9.00 pm and run through the Watershed may continue to be viewed by a family
audience. Care should also be taken in the scheduling of daytime programmes in and out of
Cable and licensed satellite
services operate with the standard 9.00 pm Watershed for all channels, except for
specially encrypted services with restricted availability to children, which have two
Watersheds: one at 8.00 pm (equivalent to the 9.00 pm change on other channels) and the
second at 10.00 pm when material of a more adult nature can be shown. Other cable and
licensed satellite services are expected to follow similar standards to the terrestrial
channels. The programmes and the versions of the films they broadcast should be suitable
for the time of day.
Pay Per View services give subscribers greater choice over what is available to view in
the home. Given their stricter security systems, the Watershed does not apply in the same
way. However, the expectation is that the films or programmes shown will conform to the
same basic principles set out in this Code.
Although there is no Watershed for radio, caution should be exercised at the times
children tend to listen, especially during breakfast programmes.
Labelling and Warnings
Breaches of taste and decency in broadcasting can cause particular offence when they
are encountered with little or no warning. Broadcasters have to fulfil the conflicting
objectives of attracting audiences whilst simultaneously warning other viewers or
listeners that they may find a programme offensive. Providing as much advance information
as possible about the nature of programmes can often fulfil both objectives. Research also
suggests that clearly worded warnings are appreciated so that people can make informed
choices about what to watch and what to allow their children to view. Respondents are able
to differentiate between the sorts of warnings appropriate to different programme genres.
Taste and decency
Challenging or deliberately flouting the boundaries of taste in drama
and comedy is a time- honoured tradition going back to Shakespeare, Chaucer and beyond.
The tradition has a rightful place in broadcasting. Comedy has a special freedom but this
does not give unlimited licence to be crude or cruel, or to humiliate individuals or
Matters of taste shift quite quickly and vary from one age or social
group to another. They often relate to subjects which can cause embarrassment or upset.
Matters of decency, however, are based on deeper, more fundamental values and emotions:
the respect owed to the bereaved at funerals is one example. Offence to decency has the
potential to cause more significant difficulty, and should thus be given the highest
priority when considering the suitability of items for broadcast.
The use of language of all kinds is never static; words acquire new meanings and
interpretations and levels of offence undergo constant change. The impact of particular
words can differ between generations and between different parts of the country, as well
as between different tones of voice. There is a range of words, such as
'bugger', 'sod' and 'bastard', which can be terms of
near-affection in some places when spoken with particular emphasis. In other circumstances
or places, they remain terms of strong abuse. Language may be offensive because of
political, religious or social sensitivities; though language can occasionally have a
shock value, expressing moments of extreme stress or even outrage. There is also a concern
that, in constant use, expletives can represent an impoverishment of language and a
barrier to communication.
A significant number of complaints arise from the impact on a group of people from
watching together ' different generations of a family or a mixed group of men and
women. Each generation has its own language for use among its peers, often including words
which if used between generations or strangers would give the deepest offence.
The protests which are often provoked by bad language in programmes, especially those
intended for children, are often protests at breaches of these assumptions. Research has
indicated that audiences consider the use of bad language to be unacceptable in certain
circumstances and its repetitive use was disliked by 86% of respondents. Significantly,
the level of protest is reduced when the audience accepts the relevance of the language
used to the situation portrayed. In recent research, 65% of those questioned favoured the
use of a later transmission time rather than editing, particularly for films containing
The paramount concern of most adults is for children, especially
children under 10. In research conducted by the Commission, most respondents (89%) said
that all programmes shown before the Watershed should contain language suitable for a
family audience. Respondents were also concerned about the use of bad language by those
whom children take as role models, for example footballers or pop stars.
The Commission does not lay down rigid rules or a list of banned words.
Common sense and a study of the relevant research should indicate where the areas of
difficulty lie. However, words and phrases which have sexual origins or applications cause
particular offence. For example, the Commission would expect the abusive use of any of the
synonyms for the female genitalia to have been referred to the most senior levels of
The Commission considers there is hardly ever any justification for the use on
television of offensive language before the Watershed. This rule should be broken very
rarely and never without discussion at the most senior levels within the broadcasting
While no Radio Watershed exists, the use of words which give particular offence should
also be carefully overseen at senior levels within the broadcasting organisations.
The Broadcasting Standards Council's research in 1991, repeated in 1998, showed
how racist terms and terms implying disability and mental illness have come to be regarded
as deeply offensive, outpacing some traditional terms of abuse. Broadcasters should be
sensitive to the offence caused by these words to the majority, as well as the minorities
Offences against Religious Sensibilities
The casual use of names, words or symbols regarded as sacred by different sets of
believers can cause hurt as well as offence. People of all faiths are distressed by
affronts to their sacred words. This should not be underestimated. For example, while many
may not themselves be offended, a majority would not wish to cause offence to others by
the casual use of the Christian holy names as expletives. There is particular offence
taken by the linking of the names with sexual swear words. Often, the offence is not
intended, but arises from an unawareness of the weight attached to words or symbols which
have religious connotations for some of the audience.
The lyrics of contemporary music can also cause problems. Care should be
taken over material which glamorises crime and drug-taking, incites aggression, or debases
Music videos should observe the limits applied to drama, bearing in mind the different
times at which they are likely to be transmitted. The precise time of scheduling all music
videos should be chosen with care.
Drugs provide a legitimate subject matter for both factual and fictional programmes,
but nothing should be done to promote their irresponsible or illegal use.
Alcohol and Smoking
Given the health and other risks, neither smoking nor the abuse of alcohol should be
glamorised, especially in programmes directed mainly towards the young.
Portrayal of violence
Violence takes many forms. War. The outrages committed by
terrorists. Human conflict in daily life and popular fiction. The antics of cartoon
characters. Body contact sports. The ravages of natural disaster. They are facts of life.
So long as it exists in society, television and radio programmes will reflect it, portray
it and report it. Broadcasters have a duty to show real life in a violent world where
natural disasters and human actions wreak havoc. To seek to prevent broadcasters from
telling and retelling hard truths about the world would be a substantial disservice both
to democracy and to our understanding of the human condition. The portrayal of violence
has played a major part in popular storytelling throughout human history, and continues to
have a place in the civilising process of which broadcasting is a part.
There are some significant concerns about the portrayal of violence which broadcasters
need to take into consideration. These include the fear that repeated exposure to violence
desensitises audiences, making them apathetic towards increases in actual violence or
indifferent to the plight of victims or the copycat effect ' outbreaks of violence
similar to those shown on the screen ' which could be a consequence of showing it in
detail. Viewers might identify screen violence with the reality of their own lives and
become unreasonably fearful, for instance, being scared to go out at night alone. It could
also encourage the view that violence is acceptable as the means of resolving disputes.
In scheduling a programme containing violence, especially where it is violence with
which viewers may identify closely, broadcasters should consider the programmes placed
each side of it, as well as the time of transmission. A sequence of programmes containing
violence can rarely be justified.
News & Explicitness
A balance needs to be struck between the demands of truth and the danger of
desensitising people. Where scenes of violence are included in television news bulletins,
the fact that violence has bloody consequences should not be glossed over. There is also a
danger of sanitising violence. However:
- the dead should be treated with respect and not shown in close-up unless there are
compelling reasons for doing so
- close-ups of the injuries suffered by victims should generally be avoided
- care should be taken not to linger unduly on the physical consequences of violence.
Decency requires that people should be allowed to die in private. Only in the rarest
circumstances should broadcasters show the intimate moments of death itself.
Neither explicit hangings nor other judicial executions should be shown before the
Watershed, except in the rarest of circumstances. Careful editorial consideration ought to
be given at the most senior levels of management before such material is broadcast.
Subsequent broadcasts should happen only after their relevance in a new context has been
Violence in Drama
Violence is a legitimate ingredient of drama, but should seldom be an end in itself.
The context of the violence, and the audience's ability to appreciate the conventions
within which the drama is being played out, will be key. Research indicates that
respondents are most shocked when violence occurs in locations that seem familiar to them,
and with which they can identify, particularly if that violence 'erupts' and
cannot be foreseen. Violence in situations which are more distant, and which are further
from their own reality, are less likely to impact; whereas the apparently gratuitous
intrusion of violence into locations regarded as places of safety can be deeply shocking.
The impression of violence goes beyond the number of punches thrown or guns fired and
is connected with the audience's expectations. Research suggests that people are more
concerned when the act of violence is personal and shown explicitly and realistically.
Action films and thriller or adventure series create a perception of violence because of
the subject matter, and the noise of running feet, shouting and squealing tyres and the
firing of weapons, but these are considered to be less realistic and therefore less
disturbing. It is the combination of pain, cruelty and viciousness in a recognisable
situation which causes anxiety as fictional violence is seen by some as more real than the
actual violence of war in a far off place.But the serious consequences of violence should not be glossed
over ' in real life a blow to the head which fells a man is unlikely to be cured by a
ritual head-shaking as the victim swiftly gets to his feet.
Some film genres, such as the Western, sci-fi, action adventures,
Japanese cartoons or action thrillers present violence as cartoon. In depicting violence
which in other contexts would be unacceptable, it is important to schedule programmes
appropriately and ensure that they are trailed so that audiences can exercise informed
judgment on whether to watch. It is also important to have pre-transmission announcements
Broadcasters should also consider whether a cartoon breaches unacceptable limits of
Children and Drama
Some pre-Watershed drama, especially soaps, will deal with adult issues. But
broadcasters should be aware that some children can be disturbed by violence in familiar
surroundings. Contemporary domestic violence is potentially distressing, while violence
set in a distant land or in another era may be less disturbing for children. The general
principles covering violence in drama will need to be observed with even greater care.
In drama produced for children, the themes and content will cover a narrower range than
drama for adult audiences. The levels of violence permissible in some adult plays would be
unacceptable for broadcasts aimed at children or when children are likely to be viewing.
Care should be taken to avoid:
- suggesting that violence does not injure people or have consequences for the perpetrator
as well as the victim;
- implying that violence does not cause long-term damage or psychological harm;
- showing dangerous conduct which might be copied by children;
- suggesting that characters, especially those likely to be children's heroes, resort
easily to violence as the means of resolving differences capable of resolution by other
Traditional children's cartoons do not normally raise concerns, but the character
of some modern day cartoons means that parents should not assume that all cartoons will be
suitable for younger audiences. Broadcasters should also alert parents by both scheduling
and providing adequate information about a cartoon's content.
On television the use of weapons, particularly knives or other objects readily
available in the home, should be considered carefully. Care should also be taken not to
give detailed instructions on how to make explosives.
Portrayal of sexual conduct
Research shows that audiences in Britain have generally become more
liberal and relaxed about the portrayal of sex, but broadcasters cannot assume a universal
climate of tolerance towards sexually explicit material. Offence may be given by making
public and explicit what many people regard as private and exclusive.
Radio and television have to meet the expectations of wide audiences which will
encompass a spectrum of tolerance towards the portrayal of sexual relationships. However,
even those unlikely to be offended themselves may be concerned about viewing some
programmes in the company of others, and are likely to be mindful of the effects on
children. Broadcasters have a duty to act responsibly and reflect the fact that relations
within and between the sexes normally reflect moral choices. Audiences should not be
reduced to voyeurs, nor the participants to objects. The youth and physical attractiveness
of the participants are no justification for explicitness.
Sensitive scheduling, especially within the hour around the Watershed, is particularly
important for items involving sexual matters. Broadcasters should provide straightforward
labelling in clear language and sufficient warnings about programmes containing explicit
Encrypted subscription and Pay Per View services offering explicit sexual content cater
to self- selected adult audiences. But the depiction of sex is bound by the law relating
to hard-core pornography and obscenity.
Where a news story involves a sexual aspect, it should be presented without undue
exploitation. The relative explicitness of such reports must, in any case, be measured by
the broadcaster against the time of day at which they are transmitted and the likely
presence of children in the audience. Other factual programmes deal with a variety of
sexual themes. But producers should ask themselves whether an explicit representation is
Broadcasters must ensure that actual sexual intercourse is not transmitted. The
broadcast of sexually explicit scenes before the Watershed should always be a matter for
judgment at the most senior levels within the broadcasting organisations. On radio,
broadcasters must take into account the likely composition of the audience before
scheduling more explicit portrayals of sexual activity.
When a scene involves rape or indecent assault, careful consideration must always be
given to achieving the dramatic purpose while minimising the depiction of the details.
Rape should not be presented in a way which might suggest it was anything other than a
tragedy for its victim. Children
A sexual relationship between an adult and a child or between under-age young people
can be a legitimate theme for programmes: it is the treatment which may make it improper,
or even unlawful. The treatment should not suggest that such behaviour is legal or is to
be encouraged. Explicit sexual acts between adults and children should not be transmitted.
The Protection of Children Act, 1978, makes it an offence to take an indecent
photograph, film or video-recording of a child under the age of 16, or involve a child
below 16 in a photograph or recording which is itself indecent ' even if the
child's role in it is not. Even when legal advice judges material to be on the right
side of the law, it should be subjected to careful scrutiny at the highest level over the
need to include the sequence in the programme. This applies even when the child is played
by an older actor or actress.
Incest and Child Abuse
The inclusion of these subjects in well-established serials or single programmes may be
justified as public information, even in programmes directed at older children. These
programmes may also play a legitimate role in warning children of the dangers of abuse,
and advising them of the help available.
Where a play or film takes incest as its theme, there should be particular awareness of
the relative ease with which some people, including children, may identify characters or
actions with their own circumstances, and may also take them as role models.
In television, material of this kind should be accompanied by clear labelling of the
programme's content, while sensitive scheduling and labelling are also called for in
Explicit sexual conduct between humans and animals should never be shown and should be
referred to in programmes only after consultations at a senior level.
There is now a greater relaxation about the human body. The appearance of the nude
human body can have a justifiable and powerful dramatic effect and be a legitimate element
in a programme, provided it does not exploit the nude person. But it can also be
disturbing and cause offence, especially where it appears that there is no clear editorial
rationale. The justification must come from the intention and the merit of the individual
Sexual humour and innuendo may cause offence especially if broadcast when there are
children and young people in the audience. It may pass over the heads of the young, but
may nevertheless cause embarrassment to older people watching or listening with them. Care
is needed therefore in the scheduling of risqué programmes and programmes which would not
normally be expected to contain material of this kind.