ITC Notes

The Watershed and ITC Family Viewing Policy

The ITC's programme code states, in relation to its Family Viewing Policy, that:

Material unsuitable for children must not be transmitted at times when large numbers of children may be expected to be watching.

The policy assumes a progressive decline throughout the evening in the proportion of children present in the audience. It requires a similar progression in the successive programmes scheduled from early evening until closedown: the earlier in the evening the programme is shown the more suitable it should be for children, the later in the evening, the less suitable it may be.

Within the progression, 9pm is normally fixed as the point up to which licensees will regard themselves as responsible for ensuring that nothing is shown that is unsuitable for children. After 9pm parents may be expected to share responsibility for what is viewed.

This fixed time is known as ‘The Watershed’. Premium subscription services, whose availability to children will be more restricted, may shift the Watershed time from 9pm to as early as 8pm depending on the nature of the service. In addition, material of a more adult kind than would be acceptable at the same time on a more broadly available channel may be shown after 10pm on a premium subscription service (see also ITC Note 41 on rules for pay-per-view)

The latest edition of the programme code (200 2) calls for greater sensitivity to the content of daytime programmes during school holidays and for particular care to be taken over programmes of special appeal to children which may start before the Watershed but run beyond that time.


Television and the Child. This report of research undertaken by Professor Hilde Himmelweit at the London School of Economics, with a grant from the Nuffield Foundation, was published in 1958. Following much public discussion, it looked at the influence of television, particularly independent television, on children. The research drew on observations by parents and teachers, but principally on the examination of more than 4,000 children. The report accepted that post-9pm very few children remained in the TV audience, but stated that before that time parents alone could not be wholly responsible for children’s viewing. The report suggested ways in which television producers could take action to share this responsibility, including improving programme balance (avoiding, for instance, a concentration of crime programmes pre-9pm); looking carefully at the presentation of violence; and undertaking further research.

The O’Conor report. In 1959 the Independent Television Authority (ITA) and the BBC jointly appointed a committee under the Chairmanship of Miss May O’Conor to study the recommendations contained within the Himmelweit report and to advise on action. The report, Children and television programmes, was published in 1960. In its foreword the ITA/BBC stated that because the TV audience at any one time is very diversified and children form only part of this audience, they did not believe that the needs of children could be allowed to determine the nature of all TV output up to 9pm.

The O’Conor report did suggest that 6-9pm should be seen as family viewing time. Following this the ITA’s Children’s Committee stated that programme companies should have regard to the large number of children in their audience between 6-9pm and that the Authority should have firmly in mind and convey to programme companies the constant need for improving the quality of programmes presented during this period.

Neither the ITA nor the O’Conor committee believed a formal code was advisable, with the O’Conor committee stating that although it could save time, it could also serve as a scapegoat for producers to pass off their responsibilities.

The Pilkington Committee. Set up in 1960, the Committee under the Chairmanship of Sir Harry Pilkington was appointed to consider the future of broadcasting services in the UK. Around this time there was some disquiet about acquired programming, particularly US crime series and Westerns. The Pilkington Committee, which reported in 1962, felt that ITV was the more blameworthy for this public disquiet and did not find it easy to understand what the objections were to a formal ITA code on programme practice - despite the O’Conor statements on the subject. The lack of a code was described by the Pilkington Committee as a surrender of authority by the ITA. The ITA maintained it had a close interest both in principle and in practice in ensuring programmes during times when large numbers of children would be watching were suitable for the whole family - the absence of a code did not mean the absence of control.

Television Act 1964. During the months following implementation of the 1964 Act, the ITA reviewed and redefined its Family Viewing Policy (this was still not in a publicly available form). It was agreed it should apply to all transmission time before 9pm and its primary aim was to exclude from those hours all material that might be injurious to children.

In addition, the Television Act 1964 required the ITA to draw up a code giving guidance as to the rules to be observed in regard to showing violence on TV, especially when large numbers of children and young persons may be expected to be watching. This code, issued in July 1964, was closely linked to the Family Viewing Policy.

Working Party on Violence. In 1970 the ITA set up a Working Party on Violence, with representatives from the ITA, its General Advisory Council and from programme companies. It consulted on the Family Viewing Policy and in 1971 the ITA published a new code on violence. For more information on the current ITC policy on violence, see ITC note 33: Violence on Television.

The first Programme Code. In 1977 the Independent Broadcasting Authority (which replaced the ITA following the 1971 Sound Broadcasting Act) and programme companies devised a set of guidelines. This was the predecessor of the current programme code and set out in writing the Family Viewing Policy, covering bad language, sex, violence and scenes of extreme distress. It summed up the programme policy and practice of independent television over 22 years and gave practical help to producers and programme directors. This guidance was placed in the public domain. The ITC programme code has not changed significantly since that time in regard to the Family Viewing Policy. Further information on the portrayal of sex on television can be found in ITC note 35 and about bad language in ITC note 34.

The ITC acknowledges that many children nowadays do not cease their TV viewing at 9pm. However, ITC research shows that the principle of the 9pm watershed remains valid. In its annual survey of viewer opinion Television: The Public’s View 2002, the ITC includes questions about the family viewing policy. Awareness of the watershed had reached 97% and just under two thirds of the public believed that 9pm was the right time for the watershed. In addition, the annual survey consistently shows that the majority of the public believe the responsibility for children’s viewing lies with the parents (65%), 27% feel the responsibility should be shared and just 8% believe it should lie with the broadcasters. In light of this, although the ITC recognises children may still form part of the post-9pm audience, parents are fully aware of the more adult nature of the programming after this time and of their own responsibility for their children’s viewing.

In 1998, the ITC used citizens’ juries to find out if its approach to regulation had kept pace with the opinions of the viewing public. Both juries emphasised the importance of the 9pm watershed as a time before which material unsuitable for children would not be shown. Some jurors argued for the watershed being a clean break while others proposed a grey area during which more adult material would be phased in.

Further references
ITA/ITC Publications

Television: The Public’s View 2002. ITC, 2003
ITC programme code. 2002
Television on trial: citizens’ juries on taste and decency. ITC. 1998.
Children and television programmes: Report of the joint committee. BBC/ITA, 1960

External Publications

Report of the Committee on Broadcasting 1960 (Pilkington Report). (Cmnd 1753). London: HMSO, 1962
HIMMELWEIT, H. Television and the child. London: Oxford University Press, 1958
SENDALL, B. Independent television in Britain, volume 2: expansion and change 1958 to 1968. London: Macmillan, 1983

June 2003