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Watershed Rules in the UK

Watershed words, we’ve all heard of them, but what exactly does it all mean? What makes a word so bad you can’t say it out loud? How come songs can say ‘bitch’ and ‘ass’ at any time of the day, but you won’t find the b-word anywhere near a BBC program before 9pm? At, we are obviously big into our ‘fucks’ and our ‘cunts’, so the big question is: why isn’t everyone else? Why didn’t Kat and Alfie ever send each other rude anniversary cards like our “Happy Anniversary Sugar Dick” or “Happy Anniversary Sugar Tits” anniversary cards on EastEnders? We know that would be right up their street!


We call it watershed, America calls it Safe Harbor, in Italy the watershed doesn’t begin until 10.30pm, and in Poland there are two ‘Protected Time’ tiers when programmes can be shown. All across the world there are some form of watershed rules (apart from India where anyone can show anything at any time of day), but in the UK ours begins at 9pm and ends at 5.30am. So, if you want to show the Game of Thrones cast handing out “Sorry I Fucked Your Dad” and “Sorry I Fucked Your Mum” rude sorry cards on TV then you better do it after 9pm or you’ll be fucked yourself, and not in the good way.

According to the overlords of broadcasting, Ofcom, watershed rules don’t just apply to swearing, but to all adult related content. Everything from nudity to violence is included so that young, innocent viewers are protected from the big bad world of sex, drugs and rock and roll. 

Despite all of the rules and regulations regarding the watershed on British TV, there are actually very few definitive rules pertaining to specific swear words themselves. Everyone is too prudish and stuffy to actually utter or even type out these dirty, dirty words. Despite this, words do fall into a number of categories each which have their own rules. ‘Strongest language’ covers ‘cunt’, ‘motherfucker’ and ‘fuck’; whilst ‘wanker’, ‘pussy’, ‘bastard’ and slag are words that ‘can cause moderate offence’; ‘mildly offensive’ includes ‘crap’, ‘knob’ and ‘prat’ whilst words that are associated with religion such as ‘Jesus Christ’ are usually avoided altogether. The strongest language can’t be broadcast before 9pm, whereas moderately offensive and mildly offensive can only be broadcast pre-watershed if it is editorially justified. In order to get around these watershed rules, broadcasters will either edit the scene so no swearing is alluded to altogether, or they will dip the sound or bleep the offensive word out altogether. Broadcasters must also ensure that they obscure the foul mouth of the person uttering the naughty word if viewers could work out what they were trying to say. 

Recently Ofcom released a list of the 47 naughtiest words and phrases which weren’t allowed pre-watershed, which seems like a dumb move from an organisation devoted to making sure people aren’t being offended by bad language. Anyway, here are some of our absolute favourites and what Ofcom had to say about them:

Bint - Medium language, potentially unacceptable pre-watershed. Seen as potentially derogatory by women, but men also find the word problematic.

Beef curtains - Strong language, generally unacceptable pre-watershed. Low recognition. Seen as vulgar and distasteful, especially by women.

Punani Strong language, generally unacceptable pre-watershed. Not always recognised. Seen as vulgar and distasteful by those familiar.

Gash Strong language, generally unacceptable pre-watershed. Seen as crude and often derogatory, particularly by women. 

Fuck, shit and cunt aside, no matter how much we adore swearing it’s probably a really good idea to have the watershed in place, and although we’d love to see more rude sorry cards and rude anniversary cards on the TV, we understand it’s for the best if we all keep our fucking swearing to a fucking minimum before fucking 9pm.