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In the same way that a geological watershed divides two drainage basins, a broadcasting watershed serves as a dividing line in a schedule between family-oriented programs, and programs aimed at or suitable for a more adult audience, such as those containing objectionable content (including graphic violence, profane language, and sexual intercourse, or strong references to those themes, even if they are not shown explicitly). The transition to more adult material must not be unduly abrupt and the strongest material should appear later in the evening.
In some countries, watersheds are enforced by broadcasting laws. Cultural differences around the world allow those watershed times to vary. For instance, in Australia, the watershed time is 19:30 (7:30 p.m.), and in Italy it is 22:30 (10:30 p.m.). In some countries, the schedule is divided into multiple periods with progressively fewer restrictions. In addition, some countries are more lenient towards subscription television and radio or pay-per-view channels than towards free-to-air channels.
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+ 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 legally binding watershed in Austria. However, according to its regulations, the public service broadcaster's channels do not air content that might harm the physical, mental or moral development of minors before 8:15 p.m. and when fictional programmes "not suitable for children" or "only for adults" are aired an X or O, respectively, is added to the digital on-screen graphic.
In Brazil, the concept of watershed was officially abolished on August 31, 2016, after a controversial decision made by the Supreme Federal Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal). Despite the online activism organized by some opposing parents and critics, such as Helena Martins, a journalist and representative of the National Program of Human Rights (Programa Nacional de Direitos Humanos), who created a petition on the Internet trying to prevent the decision, the Court ruled in favor of a lawsuit made by the Brazilian Labor Party (Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro), a nationally known political party who received the support (during the lawsuit) of the Brazilian Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters (Associação Brasileira de Emissoras de Rádio e Televisão), composed of a group of several radio and television broadcasters spread throughout the country. Both organizations advocated for the national abolition of the watershed, claiming that the watershed was a kind of restriction that caused problems related to the "lack of programming freedom" on the Brazilian television.
The watershed was enforced only for free-to-air television channels (both VHF and UHF); pay television channels were not required to follow the watershed, and indeed, could broadcast any program anytime.
The Code of Ethics and the Violence Code of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (which does not include the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and provincial public broadcasters such as TVOntario and Tele-Quebec, which are directly overseen by the CRTC) specify that broadcasters may not air programming that contains sexually explicit material or coarse or offensive language intended for adult audiences outside of the "late viewing period," which is defined as programming beginning at 9:00 p.m., and ending at 5:30 a.m. Programs that begin before 9:00 p.m. are considered pre-watershed even if they run into this time period. In regards to time zones, the watershed is based on the time zone from which the signal originates. 11:00 p.m. is the watershed for radio broadcasting; before then and after 4:00 a.m., radio stations are forbidden from broadcasting content that glorifies violence, undue coarse language, or undue sexually explicit material.
In the Czech Republic, only programmes that "can be watched by children" can be aired until 22:00. After 22:00, adult-oriented programmes may be aired. They have to be marked with star on either corner of image.
In Finland, all the major television companies (Yle, MTV Media, Nelonen Media, SBS Finland and Fox International) have agreed not to show 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 that capacity in early 2012.
In Germany, content suitable for ages 16 and older is permitted between 22:00 and 06:00 and content suitable for adults (18 and older)is permitted between 23:00 and 06:00. Programmes marked "Keine Jugendfreigabe" (not approved for minors) by the ratings organization FSK may thus be shown only after 23:00. Blacklisted movies may not be aired at any time. Some content rated 12 and older is permitted between 20:00 and 06:00, but there is no general watershed for such content.
As many Indian households have only one television, nearly the entire broadcast day is positioned by broadcasters as being suitable for family viewing. Self-censorship of foreign series (particularly from the U.S.) is common in order to meet more conservative content standards, and the period between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. is typically treated as a de facto watershed (with some channels, such as Zee Café, openly promoting programming blocks within the hours featuring "uncut" programming with fewer edits).
In 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, and 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 are shown only 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. Virgin Media One operates what it calls "the internationally accepted watershed" of 21:00. Radio broadcasting does not apply a watershed.
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. After 22:30, +14 programmes can be aired, while +18 programmes are prohibited from television altogether except for satellite, cable, and OTT premium adult channels.
Peru has adult time from 22:00 to 6:00. During the rest of the time, nevertheless, some +14 programming signs may be posted on the screen. As of 2015, there have been complaints that adult time is not enforced (either from the TV channels or the authorities) since some programs such as Combate, Esto es Guerra, Amor Amor Amor and Al fondo hay sitio have broadcast violence, or sexually suggestive material, during "unrestricted" time.
In Poland, the Czas chroniony ("Protected time") rules specify that programmes with a "12" rating or higher are not allowed to be aired during scheduling blocks intended for children, programmes with a "16" rating are not allowed to be aired before 20:00 on mainstream channels, and programmes with an "18" rating may not be aired before 23:00 on mainstream channels.
Open channel terrestrial television stations (RTP, SIC and TVI) can broadcast programmes and films rated 16 only between 22:30 and 06:00 with a permanent visual identification and red circle in right top on the tv screen. There are no legal restrictions on pay television, but those channels usually follow the same rules as open television, for example, the red circle on the top right (or top left ). Pornography may be aired only on encrypted channels.
The national public broadcaster RTV Slovenija uses three watersheds. Between 8 PM and 5 AM content rated 12+ can be shown, programmes rated 15+ are allowed between 10 PM and 5 AM programmes and 18+ rated content can be screened between midnight and 5 AM. Cartoons and children's programmes have to be screened until 7 PM, when the main evening newscast begins. Many broadcasters (for example local or regional channels) also take this approach in a similar way.
The original content rating icons (used before 2014) were a red triangle with a stylised eye for content rated +15, while adult-only content used a red circle with a stylised eye. 2b1af7f3a8