Television time-zone restrictions

8.63 Free-to-air television broadcasters in Australia are currently subject to time-zone restrictions. For example, the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth) provides that they may only broadcast films classified:

  • MA 15+ after 9 pm, and
  • M after 8.30 pm, and between noon and 3 pm on school days.[42]

8.64 Further restrictions related to C, G and PG content, and restrictions that apply to content on the free-to-air digital channels, are outlined in codes of practice.[43]

8.65 These limitations are not imposed on subscription broadcast and narrowcast television, or for online content such as television streamed on the internet. Converging media environments, discussed in Chapter 3, may suggest that time-zone restrictions on free-to-air television are becoming less relevant. Content at the MA 15+ level may, in practice, now be watched at any time of day in any Australian home with subscription television, an internet connection, a recording device or a DVD.

8.66 Free TV submitted that time-zone restrictions on free-to-air television may no longer be relevant or effective for a number of reasons, including that:

  • time zones were developed ‘in an analogue world, prior to the emergence of pay TV, the Internet, IPTV and video on demand’;
  • the same type of content is readily available on other platforms at any time of day;
  • time zones may be ‘contrary to the strong trend in media consumption towards viewers accessing what they want, when they want’, using time-shift programming and ‘on demand’ content services;
  • parental locks give users greater control over content; and
  • regulation should not ‘place an unjustifiably higher burden on some content platforms’.[44]

8.67 Free TV also submitted that market dynamics dictate that:

when material is restricted on one medium, it merely redistributes to other, less regulated media. This leads to the inequitable outcome of having disproportionate financial impact on the more regulated platform while at the same time resulting in no overall decrease in the public’s exposure to the content.[45]

8.68 In the Discussion Paper, the ALRC asked whether Australian content providers—particularly broadcast television—should continue to be subject to time-zone restrictions.[46] Many stakeholders argued that time-zone restrictions should be removed, often drawing upon similar arguments to those raised by Free TV.[47] For example, one person said the ‘artificial restriction of content to time zones is a waste of time, effort and money’:

It is currently possible to watch an R 18+ movie on pay TV in your home at 8:30 am any day of the week. You can do the same for X 18+ movies on the internet. With the change to digital television nearly every set will have a child proof lock which will enable parents to restrict access based on the classification. Individuals need to be responsible for what content they consume and parents need to be responsible for their children’s access to content in their home.[48]

8.69 The ABC and SBS said that the time-zone restrictions were developed to give parents ‘confidence that they could limit the exposure of children to inappropriate material’, but their effectiveness

is diminishing over time as audiences shift from viewing scheduled television to on-demand viewing through personal video recorders, catch-up television services and platforms where no times zones apply, such as pay television and mobile services.[49]

8.70 Some stakeholders pointed to the wide availability of parental lock functions on televisions, particularly following digital switchover in 2013.[50] Foxtel, for example, noted that it has an ‘advanced and integrated parental control system to assist parents protect their children, which makes time zones on [subscription television] unnecessary’.[51] Free TV also noted that ‘the sort of content that the time-zone system was designed to promote (such as content suitable for children) is now readily available on two advertisement-free, dedicated, government funded children’s channels (ABC2 and ABC3)’.[52]

8.71 However, some argued that there continues to be a community expectation that certain television channels are ‘safe’, particularly for children, at certain times of the day, and that therefore time-zone restrictions are still important. Foxtel, for example, submitted that although times zones should not apply to subscription television, or other fee-based or on-demand services, they should be retained on free-to-air television, ‘given the near universal reach’ and ‘broad appeal’ of free-to-air television channels, ‘which are more likely to attract children’.[53]

8.72 FamilyVoice Australia submitted that time-zone restrictions should be maintained, and would remain relevant

as long as there is a sector of broadcasting which is (a) free to air and (b) easily viewed at the time it is broadcast simply by switching on the relevant device.[54]

8.73 FamilyVoice submitted that only material suitable for children to watch unsupervised should be shown at certain critical periods of the day. It also stated that restrictions should continue to be placed on PG media, and that material that is unsuitable for viewing by persons under 15 should not be shown before 9.30 pm.[55] Free TV, on the other hand, suggested that if some time-zone restrictions were maintained, then they should at least be made consistent with the more recent restrictions on the free-to-air digital channels, so that PG content may be shown at any time of the day, M content from 7.30 pm, and MA 15+ content from 8.30 pm.[56]

8.74 Time-zone restrictions on broadcast television continue to be used throughout the world. The UK has a 9 pm ‘watershed’, before which time content inappropriate for children may not be broadcast. Free-to-air television in the United States of America may not broadcast material which is ‘indecent’ or ‘profane’ between 6 am and 10 pm, but these time restrictions are not placed on cable networks, even though the cable networks now account for over 85% of the US television audience. Time-zone restrictions are also in place in New Zealand, Canada and many other countries.[57]

8.75 Under the European Union’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMS Directive), member States must ensure that broadcasters do not include programs which ‘might seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of minors, in particular programmes that involve pornography or gratuitous violence’ on their linear services (scheduled services such as broadcast television).[58] Linear broadcasters must also restrict programs detrimental to minors ‘by selecting the time of the broadcast or by any [other] technical measure’ so that ‘minors in the area of transmission will not normally hear or see such broadcasts’.[59]

8.76 In the ALRC’s view, time-zone restrictions as they currently apply to commercial broadcasting services may become unnecessary in coming years. The restrictions are becoming anachronistic as media content is increasingly available online, such as on catch-up services, and on subscription television services at all times of the day. Parental locks also give parents greater control over the type of media content that may be watched on televisions and other devices in the home. Children’s channels are also now available not only on subscription television, but on dedicated free-to-air television channels. However, the ALRC agrees with the ABC and SBS’s submission that:

A phased transition away from time zones is desirable, but is likely to require a significant public education campaign and robust technological solutions which give parents confidence that they will be effective in protecting children from inappropriate content.[60]

8.77 Industry and the Regulator should therefore plan for the gradual phasing out of these restrictions, perhaps by implementing a public education campaign about how to use parental locks effectively. However, the ALRC does not recommend the immediate removal of mandatory time-zone restrictions. As ABC and SBS submitted,

policy makers and broadcasters will need to proceed carefully given that most audience members continue to view programs at their broadcast time, rather than time-shifted—at the end of 2011, only about 8% of all free-to-air prime-time viewing was time-shifted.[61]

8.78 Rather than prescribe the precise time-zone restrictions as the Broadcasting Services Act currently does, the new Act should provide that time-zone restrictions may be set out in industry codes which must be approved by the Regulator. This provides for a level of flexibility and will enable the restrictions to be adapted, or gradually phased out, in response to a changing media environment.

Recommendation 8–4 The Classification of Media Content Act should not mandate time-zone restrictions for broadcasting services, but these restrictions may be provided for in industry codes.

[42]Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth) s 123(3A)(c), (d), (3C)(c), (d).

[43] Free TV Australia, Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice (2010) <http://www.freetv> at 15 January 2012.

[44] Free TV Australia, Submission CI 1214.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Australian Law Reform Commission, National Classification Scheme Review, ALRC Discussion Paper 77 (2011), Question 8–1.

[47] See, eg, Free TV Australia, Submission CI 2519; A Hightower, Submission CI 2511; D Henselin, Submission CI 2473; Telstra, Submission CI 2469.

[48] R Harvey, Submission CI 2467.

[49] Joint Submission Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Special Broadcasting Service, Submission CI 2521.

[50] See, eg, Free TV Australia, Submission CI 2519; Telstra, Submission CI 2469.

[51] Foxtel, Submission CI 2497.

[52] Free TV Australia, Submission CI 2519.

[53] Foxtel, Submission CI 2497.

[54]FamilyVoice Australia, Submission CI 2509.


[56] Free TV Australia, Submission CI 2519.

[57] See Appendix 3.

[58] European Parliament, Directive on the coordination of certain provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action in Member States concerning the provision of audiovisual media services, Directive 2010/13/EU (2010), art 27(1).

[59] Ibid, art 27(2).

[60] Joint Submission Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Special Broadcasting Service, Submission CI 2521.

[61] Ibid (citation omitted).