The main way in which viewers under 18 may be protected from potentially harmful and offensive material is through the appropriate scheduling of programming. As a general rule, the more adult in nature the content is, the later it should be broadcast, with the 9pm watershed being the crucial point in time before which material unsuitable for children should not generally be broadcast. Leading up to and after the watershed, parents are expected to take increasing responsibility for their children's viewing.
Some content may be considered so potentially harmful and offensive (for example material that "...might seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of people under 18") that it should never be broadcast on television, for example, scenes condoning sexual violence, very explicit sado-masochistic practices.
Summary of Rules
- Children should be protected from unsuitable material by appropriate scheduling (see below).
- The watershed is 9pm. Nothing unsuitable for children should, in general, be shown before 9pm or after 5.30am.
- There should be a gradual transition to more adult material from the watershed, not an abrupt change.
- Broadcasters should clearly 'flag-up' or warn audiences when programmes before the watershed contain material that might distress some children, for example the killing of animals or surgical procedures. Note, however, that this is not a substitute for appropriate scheduling.
The Code acknowledges that there are a number of factors which determine whether a programme is appropriately scheduled or not. These factors include:
- the nature of the content, for example whether it is frightening, distressing, gory, sexually explicit, or contains strong language;
- the nature of the particular programme. For example it might well be appropriate to schedule a futuristic, science-fiction series containing comic book violence at a time when large numbers of young children are watching, but not to schedule a soap opera containing domestic violence, which is more realistic and 'close to home', at a similar time;
- the likely number and age range of children watching, taking into account school time, weekends and holidays. For example a discussion about sexual matters might be inappropriate in a breakfast or teatime show, when large numbers of young children are likely to be watching, however this may be defensible during term-time, in a mid-morning or mid-afternoon discussion programme, when most children are at school;
- the start and finish time of the programme. For example, a movie scheduled to start at 8pm and end at 9.30pm which has generally mild content throughout until the final scene, which contains very graphic violence, would be unlikely to be appropriately scheduled. Although this scene would not transmit until after the watershed, because the film started well before, it would be likely to have attracted a significant number of younger viewers, including children, who would stay with the film until its conclusion; and
- the likely expectations of the audience for a channel at a particular time on a particular day, for example to schedule a drama about teenage sexuality in a slot normally reserved for cartoons aimed at very young children, may surprise and upset audiences. Furthermore, Channel 4 audiences may expect to see stronger material at, say, 9pm than is shown on BBC1 or ITV1 at the same time.
Particular care and attention is required when scheduling trailers and post-watershed programmes which are repeated before the watershed, and these should be carefully edited for a pre-watershed audience.
Broadcasters should take particular care to ensure that material scheduled to start before and continue past the 9pm watershed does not abruptly become unsuitable.
The Code stipulates that in evening television schedules there must be a gradual progression towards more adult material. To coin a well-used phrase:
"9pm is a watershed, not a waterfall".
The most adult material, therefore, should be reserved for well after the watershed.
There is no requirement that there should be a gradual progression towards less adult content as schedules approach 5.30am. However, it is advisable not to show the most adult material immediately before 5.30am as, immediately thereafter, programmes must be suitable for family viewing. Please note that Channel 4, E4, More4 and Film4 all have time shifted (+1) versions. This means that effectively the watershed ends at 4.30am.
Programmes Starting at 9pm
Particular care needs to be taken with pre-title sequences immediately after 9pm because, in spite of any warning which may be given, limited context can be provided to viewers and they may be more likely to come across material by chance. Ofcom has stated that in pre-title sequences immediately after the watershed at 9pm, very strong editorial justification is required for the inclusion of the most offensive language.
Sometimes programmes scheduled to start at 9pm actually transmit a couple of minutes early which might mean that some adult content (for example strong language) is broadcast before the watershed. For this reason, any programmes containing adult material in the opening minutes and scheduled to start at 9pm should be flagged up to network presentation, so that it can ensure that the programme does not start before the watershed.
Flagging up Content Pre-Watershed
There will be occasions where some content which is not unsuitable for children generally, may nevertheless still cause distress to some and should be flagged up to viewers, for example younger children may be upset by scenes of an injured animal having to be put down or scenes in a daytime programme showing a surgical procedure.
On-air warnings about offensive content inform audience's expectations and, in turn, whether viewers consider particular material to be justified. Whether or not a programme requires a warning, for example for strong language, violence or sexual content, depends on a number of factors, in particular the time at which the programme is transmitted.
Wherever an on-air warning may be required, the commissioning editor responsible should seek advice from the programme lawyer and if appropriate arrange with network presentation for a suitable warning to be given. Exceptionally, a flagging or warning into each programme part may be required. Also see Channel 4's Internal Procedures for Reference Up & Compliance.
Where a programme starts before the watershed but continues after it, it may be necessary to broadcast a warning into the first part after the watershed and, if appropriate, any following parts, if they contain adult material it is considered necessary to warn audiences about.
The principles to be applied when scheduling music videos are the same as with other content. However, conscious that some genres of music are well known for including mild sexual content and innuendo in lyrics and videos, which can lead to problems for broadcasters, Ofcom has provided specific guidance on scheduling music videos in the Ofcom Broadcasting Code Guidance notes [See Broadcasting Code Guidance Notes: Protecting the Under Eighteens: Observing the watershed on television and music videos].
Programme Trailers & Promotions
Because viewers cannot generally be forewarned about the content of promotional material, particular care is required both in relation to the content and the scheduling of such material. Potentially offensive material should generally be avoided. If in doubt about the suitability of the content of any promotional material, please seek advice from a programme lawyer at an early stage.