On the watershed – how a geographical feature began a hotly-debated issue of censorship

12 Jun

There’s been a lot of news coverage recently about the TV watershed – the mythical point on the clock at which all the children are allegedly in bed, and adults can enjoy more graphic content.  Campaigners argue that children are currently exposed to far too much adult content too early in life – and that includes unsuitable content and language used on TV ‘pre-watershed’, throughout the day and early evening.

It got me thinking –  why do we use ‘watershed’ to describe this family-friendly / adult invisible boundary in our TV viewing?

We also use ‘watershed’ to refer to a defining moment in time – a major change, e.g. “it was a watershed moment in British history”.

But neither of these uses appear to have anything obvious to do with water, or, for that matter, sheds.

So what’s going on?

The OED suggests the original use of ‘watershed’ was geographical, rather than political or cultural.  It refers to the place, usually a high ridge, where waters separate to flow into different rivers or basins.  It was first used in English in the 19th century – that great age of scientific discovery – and the rather strange combination of ‘water’ + ‘shed’ is thought to be derived from the German wasserscheide, a word the Germans had used since the 14th century.

Here’s an early usage of that geographical meaning by that most famous of 19th century scientists, Charles Darwin, is his account of the voyage of The Beagle: “The line of watershed, which divides the inland streams from those of the coast, has an elevation of about 3000 feet.

Seventy-five years later, the word ‘watershed’ had taken on a metaphorical meaning.  Just as the watershed is effectively the point of no return for waters as they flow into separate rivers, a watershed moment came to refer to any point of no return, the time after which everything changes.

It was an American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who first coined this usage in his poem The Two Rivers in 1878:

Midnight! the outpost of advancing day!

 The watershed of Time, from which the streams of Yesterday and To-morrow take their way.

This sense of a turning point in history was rapidly adopted, as is demonstrated here in a quote from Nation in 1893:  That resolution marks the water-shed of our Revolutionary politics.

The usage of ‘watershed’ to refer to a dividing line on television doesn’t appear until the 1960s, I suppose the point at which TV ownership had become more widespread.

I’ve often heard it said that we owe the TV watershed to the famous campaigner Mary Whitehouse – but if the OED and Wikipedia are both to be believed on the topic, then the watershed was in place before Mrs Whitehouse began her campaigning.

The OED first lists the usage of the word ‘watershed’ in a BBC Handbook from 1962:

The BBC’s Code of Practice on Violence, its new 9.30 p.m. watershed policy, its intention to distinguish those programmes which it thinks unsuitable, and perhaps more important, suitable for childrenshow that both sides are aware of the problem.

However, the entry on Mary Whitehouse in Wikipedia suggests she did not begin campaigning until 1963, a year after the BBC had formulated a policy on the watershed, so perhaps the BBC deserves a little more credit than it’s normally given, even though that would perhaps greatly upset Mary to hear me say that!

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