Why the watershed still matters

50 years on it's important to mark what’s inappropriate, even if there is increasingly little we can do to shield children's eyes, says Ellie Walker-Arnott

Back in July 1964, a law was passed to protect children from seeing “harmful or offensive material on TV in the evenings” and the watershed, which prevents broadcasters from scheduling unsuitable shows before 9pm, was born.


A lot has changed since then. The colour of our screens, the number of channels, and what a typical evening’s viewing consists of. Not least of which is what we consider to be “harmful or offensive.”

New research carried out by Ofcom has revealed that our attitudes towards content which could be viewed as such is becoming increasingly relaxed.

Over the last five years the number of adults saying there is too much violence, swearing or sex on our telly screens has fallen significantly.

Who can say they haven’t enjoyed a bit of Game of Thrones, Luther or Line of Duty? Shows which would never have made the schedules 50 years ago.

But in an age where we are so unfazed by graphic content and children (5-15 year olds) are so tech savvy they can (in some cases literally) use an iPad before they can walk, there’s a worry that the watershed could be seen as redundant. And it’s just not true.

10 years have passed since I was below the watershed, and spent my evenings bartering to be allowed to stay up past it. And it’s natural to ask what purpose that censorship serves in a world where children, with access to violent video games, the bottomless chasms of the internet – much of which even my adult eyes wouldn’t want to look at – and TV on demand, are unlikely to get their fix of adult content from watching scheduled telly later than 8:59pm.

Children are curious, eager to push boundaries, assertive and determined. The watershed isn’t really going to stop an inquisitive 15-year-old from getting around online parental controls and ticking the “I am aged 16 or over” box on iPlayer if they really want to.

But it’s still important to mark and recognise what’s inappropriate, even if there is increasingly little we can do to shield kid’s eyes.


Just because children can access “harmful or offensive” content with worrying ease, doesn’t mean that mainstream TV should be one of the places they do so.