Section 5: Harm and Offence

The Watershed and Scheduling for TV, Radio and Online

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  1. Television Scheduling and the Watershed
  2. Television News
  3. Radio Scheduling
  4. Online
  5. Scheduling of Programme Trails

Television Scheduling and the Watershed


Television scheduling decisions need to balance the protection of young people and particularly children with the rights of all viewers, including those without children, to receive a full range of subject matter throughout the day.  They must also be judged against the requirements of the watershed.

The 9pm television watershed is used by broadcasters to distinguish between programmes intended mainly for a general audience and those programmes intended for an adult audience.  However, parents and carers share in the responsibility for assessing whether programme content is suitable for their children, based on their expectations of that content.

The 9pm watershed signals the beginning of the transition to more adult material, but the change should not be abrupt.  Programme makers and schedulers should also take into account the nature of the channel and viewer expectations.  The strongest material should appear later in the schedule.  If sudden changes of tone are unavoidable they should be clearly signposted, for example by giving clear information about scenes of a sexual nature, violence or the use of strong language.


Programmes broadcast between 5.30am and 9pm must be suitable for a general audience including children.  The earlier in the evening a programme is placed, the more suitable it should be for children to watch without an older person.  Programmes in later pre-watershed slots may not be suitable for the youngest children or for children to watch without an older person. 

Only in exceptional circumstances can there be any departure from this practice, and then clear content information should be given.  Exceptions may include, but are not limited to, images that some children might find distressing in natural history programmes or items in pre-watershed news bulletins.  Any proposed exceptions must be referred to a senior editorial figure or, for independents, to the commissioning editor.


Programmes that straddle the watershed, that is start before 9pm and finish sometime after 9pm, should normally be pre-watershed compliant throughout.


Programmes should normally be clearly commissioned for broadcast on a specific channel and for pre- or post-watershed, to allow the necessary careful judgements about the suitability of the content to be made during the production process.  Changes to originally agreed channel or transmission slots, particularly any proposal to broadcast a programme before rather than after the watershed, may mean a programme requires significant re-editing to ensure that it complies with these Editorial Guidelines for harm and offence, particularly regarding strong language and the overall tone.

Controllers, commissioners and production teams should be aware that channels and transmission slots, whether pre- or post-watershed, often carry well-established audience expectations.  It is therefore advisable to determine programme slots as early as possible in the production process. 


Interactive content broadcast on BBC public service television must observe the watershed and be appropriate for the audience of any associated programme.  Interactive content broadcast on television and associated with pre-watershed programmes should be pre-watershed compliant at all times.

Television News


The nature of news means that it is not always possible to avoid showing material that might distress some of our audiences before the watershed.  Our international news channels do not normally operate a watershed policy because the news is shown live across different time zones around the world.  Wherever appropriate, we should provide clear and timely content information to signpost difficult images, particularly those that may be distressing for children.

(See Guidance online: Violence in News and Current Affairs Output and Live Output)

Radio Scheduling


Radio does not have a watershed.  Our scheduling decisions should be based on the audience expectations of each radio service and informed by our knowledge of when children are particularly likely to be in our audience.  We must take extra care when different generations may be listening together.  This typically applies during the morning and afternoon school runs or during school holidays.  Unexpected or challenging material should be clearly signposted to avoid causing unjustifiable offence. 


We should normally play edited versions of music which would otherwise feature unsuitable material, including strong language or violent content, for mainstream daytime audiences.  At night and in specialist music programmes, the original version may be editorially justified but it should be within the audience expectations for the programme and, if necessary, we should take steps to achieve this (for example, signposting and content information).

(See Section 5 Harm and Offence: 5.4.20 - 5.4.26)


We should consider using on-air announcements to inform listeners about programmes which contain difficult or controversial material which would otherwise be unexpected on our speech services such as Radio 4, Radio 5 Live, the World Service and other national and local stations.  These services are predominantly for adult listeners and their audiences expect to hear a full range of issues and events explored throughout the schedule. 



There is no direct equivalent of the watershed online. 

Any content immediately accessible on the BBC Home Page must be suitable for a general audience, including children.  Any content immediately accessible one click from the Home Page should normally be suitable for a general audience, including children.

Otherwise, the nature of the content we make available should be based on the audience expectations of the specific online service and informed by our knowledge of when it is likely to appeal to a significant proportion of children.  This applies equally to content we create ourselves, user generated content, material brought in from third party websites and links to third party websites.

Unexpected and challenging content, especially content which might be unsuitable for children, should be labelled to avoid causing unjustifiable offence.  Content labelling should be clear and factual, but not inappropriately explicit.  We should be mindful of the effect on users if they arrive at challenging content by following links on third party sites that bypass the BBC Home Page or other contextualising pages.

(See Section 5 Harm and Offence: 5.4.4 - 5.4.5)


We should be aware that audience expectations may be influenced by the platform on which content appears.  However, online content linked to any radio or television programme must be appropriate to the programme and its likely audience, regardless of whether the content is created by the BBC or users. 

Additionally, the expectations of internet-based, user generated content may be different if that same material is also carried on television or radio. 


When linking from a BBC site to a third party website, we must check the contents of the third party site before installing the link.  We should not link to an external site if it is clearly inappropriate for us to recommend a visit.  It may be appropriate to add a disclaimer, and additional information, if the links are to controversial material.

BBC web pages designed for children should only link to third party pages with content suitable for a general audience.

We should not link from a BBC website associated with a radio or television programme aimed at children to another site whose associated programme contains material which is unsuitable for children.

Interactive executive editors should review the suitability of maintaining links as appropriate.

(See Section 14 Editorial Integrity and Independence from External Interests: 14.4.19 - 14.4.20 and Section 7 Privacy: 7.4.27 - 7.4.29)

Scheduling of Programme Trails


Trails for radio and television programmes that are unsuitable for a general audience including children must be carefully scheduled. 

Trails scheduled next to programmes targeted at children or when children are particularly likely to be watching, or in online content likely to appeal to a significant proportion of children, should be suitable for that audience. 

Trails for post-watershed programmes must be appropriate for a general audience including children if shown before the watershed.

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