watershed and prime time

This post is inspired by the following quotation from darling, two-year-old daughter Grover:
"Bastard.  (BrE) Mummy said it!"
 Before she (orig. AmE) outs me as a (orig. AmE) potty mouth at her (AmE) daycare/(BrE) crèche (or nursery), I'll have to take the matter into hand and save my sparkling wit (in response to Better Half's all-too-accurate parodies of me) for (BrE) after the watershed.

Because it's late at night (or early in the morning), I'll let Wikipedians do the work for me:

United Kingdom

According to Ofcom, the watershed on standard television in the UK starts at 9:00 p.m., and finishes at 5:30 a.m. the next morning. Programmes that are 15+ are shown during this period. However, some 12+ shows can be shown before 9:00 p.m., such as The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle and Doctor Who. On premium film or pay-per-view services requiring a subscription, the watershed starts at 8:00 p.m. However, 12, 15 and 18 rated films can be shown on PIN protected channels (such as Sky Movies) at any time of the day. Viewers are required to enter their PIN to view. There should be a gentle transition to adult material, and 18-rated material is not allowed to be shown before 9:00 p.m.
See also for the UK: The Ofcom Broadcasting Code - Section 1

United States

The term "watershed" is not used in this context in the United States. In the US, the "safe harbor" for "indecent" programming begins at 10:00 p.m. and ends at 6:00 a.m. the next morning (all time zones). However, content that is considered "obscene" (including explicit human sexual intercourse) is never allowed by the FCC rules for broadcast stations. Those content rules only apply to channels broadcast terrestrially and not those only available on cable. Consequently, restricted-access networks (like the premium channels HBO and Showtime and adult channels Playboy TV and Spice) have taken advantage of considerably more leeway in their programming.
The term is an extension of other uses of watershed:  'the ridge or crest line dividing two drainage areas; water parting; divide' (which some dictionaries list as 'Chiefly BrE') and later ' an important point of division or transition between two phases, conditions, etc.' (Late addition, June 2017: Michael M has pointed out that World Wide Words has a good account of the AmE/BrE difference in the watery kind of watershed.)

If I needed an equivalent for after the watershed in AmE, I think I'd say not in prime time, which isn't exactly the same thing.  The watershed is a dividing line between the times when stricter and looser 'decency' codes have to be followed, whereas prime time is the part of the evening in which television networks expect to have the most viewers and therefore where they put their choicest programming (8:00 to 11:00 or 7:00 to 10:00, depending on the time zone).  It's also when they charge the most for advertising time.  In BrE, this is more commonly known as peak time, though since the major broadcaster (the BBC) is (orig. and principally AmE) commercial/(BrE)advert-free, it's less directly about advertising revenue.  While prime time is not the only time when children might be watching, not in prime time is often used to mean 'not appropriate for a general audience'.  This gives a double meaning to the name of Saturday Night Live's original troupe, the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.

On American (chiefly AmE) network television (i.e. distributing programs to local affiliates; not cable/satellite), the rules are fairly restrictive at all times, so I was surprised when I first moved to the UK and saw things like Something for the Weekend (which was really horrid) or The Sex Inspectors (experts watch couples getting it on and give them pointers on improving!  The website describes it as post watershed), right there on free TV at a time when the equivalent US stations are showing the nighttime news.  (Did the US ever import this format?)  The reason why most of the good American television comes from HBO and Showtime is that those, as pay channels, do not have the same content restrictions as their free broadcast counterparts (and they've decided to use that power for good rather than evil).

At any rate, either Better Half will have to wait until the watershed from now on before he points out my pedantries and hypocrisies, or I'll have to rein in my tongue-in-cheek responses. Or else Grover will be teaching the entire pre-nursery room some choice AmE phrases.    I think I know which one is most likely.


  1. Couldn't you just converse with him in subtitles with the sound turn down, like sleeping-baby TV mode? Incidentally, I wonder where this use of the slightly technical geographical term watershed came to be used in this very specific sense. Amazingly, OED (well I still have enough naive faith in OED to be amazed) has yet to get round to including it.

  2. I'd consider that, Harry, but I don't want her to learn to spell 'bastard' too!

  3. I understand that the literal meaning of "watershed" is different in the US, referring to the drainage basins rather the ridges that separate them. I guess metaphorical extensions must inherit the original dialect-specificity.

  4. May I also add that though the term "watershed" refers to the geographical description that Harry and Mollymooly mention, that I tend to more readily think of a watershed event - as in a game-changing event.

    Mel (AmE)

  5. Giggling madly! Sorry, Lynneguist, but have so been there and done that. My small person, then aged somewhere between 1 and 2, and I were visiting a friend. Said friend dropped something on the floor. "Oohhh....," she exclaimed, and let the expletive she'd thought of die unsaid.

    "Damn!" said my small person, helpfully.

    And I'm very glad it wasn't worse!

    They always pick up the things you'd rather they didn't.... my parents have stories to tell about the times we embarrassed them when we were Grover's sort of age, and I dare say the grandchild that is due in July will provide his or her share of such stories, too.

  6. I think I'd just call it "late night TV," though more likely it would be spelled "late nite." And it's usually junk game shows and infomercials rather than raunchy material.

  7. Technically, "prime time" starts at 7:00 (6:00 Central and Mountain). That first hour is known as "early access", and (until 1996) the FCC's "prime time access rule" prohibited networks from programming the first half-hour.

  8. Consider the following senses of "watershed":

    (1) Geographical divide
    (2) Drainage-basin
    (1a) Moment when the world changes

    (1) is the original, and has been almost completely driven out in AmE by (2). Clearly (1a) is a figurative use of (1), so it's a little funny that (1a) survives alongside (2) while (1) does not.

    I am guessing that, although (1) is more alive in BrE than in AmE, (2) is also very much alive in BrE. I base this partly on the fact that Fowler in Modern English Usage (1926) was already bemoaning the way (2) had established itself -- also on the fact that the linked Wikipedia article refers to not 9:00 p.m. but rather the whole period from 9pm to 5:30 a.m. as the watershed.

  9. My use of the word "period" reminds me that a similar sort of shift occurred with that word: A word meaning (grammatical) "sentence" came in AmE to mean "dot at the end of a sentence".

  10. @empty: "I am guessing that, although (1) is more alive in BrE than in AmE, (2) is also very much alive in BrE."

    Not in my experience. It would seem the geography teachers fought a successful rearguard action in Blighty, having surrendered the US to the enemy. The sloppily-worded Wikipedia sentence disagrees not only with the opening sentence of the selfsame article, it also disagrees with the Ofcom page:

    Meaning of "the watershed":

    The watershed only applies to television. The watershed is at 2100. Material unsuitable for children should not, in general, be shown before 2100 or after 0530.

    On premium subscription film services ... the watershed is at 2000. There is no watershed on premium subscription film services or pay per view services

  11. I (Aussie/Kiwi) have never heard of either watershed or safe harbour as terms related to TV. If I had to call it anything, I think I would have picked "late night", but that's rarely used either.

    One thing that's started happening on some of the free to air channels here recently is they advertise certain episodes of various shows as "Adults Only (name)", eg "Adults Only Two and a Half Men". But they then show them at 8 or 8:30, which I wouldn't consider an adult only time, and frankly I can't tell why any given episode or show is adults only or not. They don't rate them any differently, and they all seem pretty similar to me. I'm starting to think it's pretty much an advertising gimmick.

  12. It would seem the geography teachers fought a successful rearguard action

    That's impressive!

  13. "Family hour" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_Viewing_Hour) is also used to mean the time for tamer TV programming in the US.

  14. This post brings to mind "skinemax". It comes from a fusion of skin and Cinemax (US cable channel that broadcasts pornographic shows late at night). While it originally began as a slang term for the channel Cinemax, it seems to have genericized (a la Kleenex or tannoy) to mean any late night pornographic shows, at least for 20-something-Midwesterners.

    Personally, I have only ever heard of "watershed" as empty's (1a) meaning. I would never use it myself and I would be quite surprised to hear it from anyone else in my generation.

  15. The Shorter OED says that watershed was based on the German term Wasserscheide (examples here).

    Robert Burchfield concurs. In the third edition of Fowler's, he reports that it was used figuratively ("a turning-point in affairs, a crucial time or occurrence") in the standard language from the last quarter of the 19C.

    Here in Ireland, there is a popular TV programme called "Prime Time"; it's about current affairs and is usually shown at 21.30 — well after prime time and the watershed!

  16. Personally, I have only ever heard of "watershed" as empty's (1a) meaning.

    I see (2) all the time: a highway sign reads something like "entering Neponset River watershed" and an environmental action group concerned with water quality calls itself "Westport River Watershed Association".

  17. I actually have heard "watershed" used a couple of times here in America--however, only very rarely, and with the meaning of "when the kid-friendly programming ends and the 'adult' programming begins".

    Of course, by "adult" here, I mean stuff like...news.

    It's not a very proper usage of the term at all.

    Also, to fit in with that alternate definition you've mentioned: this "improper" usage of watershed uses it to define the time that "adult" programming starts, as opposed to the amount of time that the "adult" programming lasts.

  18. "Also, to fit in with that alternate definition you've mentioned: this "improper" usage of watershed uses it to define the time that "adult" programming starts, as opposed to the amount of time that the "adult" programming lasts."

    Er, no - surely that's the other way round. The watershed is the moment the adult programming starts; the dividing line. At least, that's what it's meant to mean here.

    Incidentally, I would have thought "prime time" television would be between 8:00 and 10:00 pm.

  19. Oh, is that right? Sorry. I've heard it used both ways, so I figured the way I more heard it used here would be the wrong one.

    Or something like that.

  20. It seems that any notion of "safe harbor" on US TV is pretty much a joke. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, on NBC at 9 pm Eastern (8 pm Central). CSI on CBS (ditto). Well, unless we're being saved from sex; violence is OK.

  21. "Well, unless we're being saved from sex; violence is OK."

    A higher toleration of violence and a lower toleration of sex is definitely the biggest difference I (British) notice when viewing US terrestrial TV.

    That and apparently being able to find a channel showing Law and Order (or a spin-off) at any time of the day or night...

  22. I (20's British) have only ever heard watershed in the sense of a 'moment of change' and almost always in reference to the 9pm television law. I was also under the impression that 11pm was another stage in UK broadcasting law as greater/ more frequent use oof strong lanugauge and explicit sex is permitted after that time.

    I always thought it odd that the watershed doesn't apply to news here. The Six O' Clock news is often identical to the Ten (or Nine as it was when I was growing up) and does not shy away from graphic description or even depictions of international disasters and atrocities.

    Roger Owen Green: In studies of censorship classification the American tolerance of violence and abbhorence of sex (particularly any kind of amourous interaction between same sex couples) in comparision to the obverse in Britian is well documented. If you're a geek like me, seeking out US and UK versions of the same film and watching to see which cuts have been enforced is always enlightening.

  23. I once accidentally taught that word to a macaw in a zoo (as with Lynneguist's story, my husband was the inspiration). Despite my best efforts to teach the bird something, ANYTHING else to say, it insisted on squawking "bastard, bastard" over and over at the top of its lungs. I imagine the group of schoolkids behind us is still talking about that field trip.

  24. Please, I must say:
    1) I know more than one English child (one my husband's godson) who were born out of marriage, whose parents later married - in one case when the child was over 20 - who were crestfallen to learn that they had to give up the official designation of "bastard" as (I learn from them) if the parents marry, they are obliged to legitimate any offspring [this apparently doesn't apply in America, or Steve Jobs would now be somebody else...?].
    2) my husband ONLY referred to one English friend (here in Spain) as a "bastard" when the friend made an amazing coup in Scrabble. But our then-very-young daughter interiorized the term and continued to refer to that friend by that epithet...until conviced it wasn't relevant outside Scrabble...

  25. This isn't entirely on the topic of the original post, but a couple of observations on differences between US and UK scheduling: As Roger Owen Green mentioned, Law & Order SVU at 8/9pm is absurd - I (BrE) watched a bit of an episode once, and was amused that after the horrible, detailed description of deeply disturbing things happening to people, the characters' choice of vocabulary extended to 'heck' and 'shoot', and possibly, in a very daring moment, 'son of a bitch'. It's baffling to me why people who had strong enough stomachs for the former needed to be protected from strong language.
    Still, a good thing about the American type of TV decency is that you guys have comedies that are both family-friendly and actually good - here's it's pretty much one or the other, which on the one hand gives us gems like Spaced or Peep Show, but on the other really gives us nothing to watch when Granny comes over for tea. Unless we want to watch My Family. Which is a fate worse than death.

  26. ""Family hour" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_Viewing_Hour) is also used to mean the time for tamer TV programming in the US."

    By British standards, all US TV consists of tamer programming, at least when it comes to sex and profanity.

  27. All network TV, anyway, and a surprising amount of cable TV. I was surprised, for instance, to find when I was in the US last week that Comedy Central was blanking swearwords and pixellating mild nudity in a film shown after 10pm. I was less surprised, but even more annoyed, that they cut to ads every five minutes. It's one thing to do that for a show, but for a film it's unforgivable.

  28. In England we use watershed, I cant think of another word for it...

    We also spell words correctly :P

  29. Chris Evans, who used to present the BBC Radio 2 afternoon programme, recently described his change to a morning-show as moving [away] from the drive-time slot. I always thought drive-time was both commuting-periods, not just the evening one.

  30. And I thought that "late-night TV" in the US, far from being raunchy, was the opportunity to find reruns of The Honeymooners (which was one of my great discoveries and I loved it) and classic black-and-white films (which are one of my great passions).

    I notice that the captchas are getting more and more illegible – is this a ploy to cut down on my retrospective wibbling?


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)