Best documentary TV channels

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Want to learn things, but don’t want to leave your living room or take any exams? Sounds like you need a bit of factual TV. From the big international broadcasters like National Geographic, to the home-grown ones like Eden, there are plenty of channels for all the knowledge you need.

What documentary and factual TV channels do I want?

Whether you want general facts or some more specialised knowledge, there’s enough out there to suit everyone. While some channels, such as Yesterday and Quest, are available with basic TV packages, you’ll have to splash out a little more for premium ones like Discovery.

Luckily, all the main pay TV services in the UK include a nice range in their packages, and some have them on demand as well. And take a look at the HD options - HD makes nature documentaries look amazing, and who doesn’t want to see all the detailing on those 19th-century teapots on Antiques Roadshow in high definition?

Let’s look at what channels are available.

  • General - For all kinds of documentaries, investigation, and fact-based reality shows, you’ll want the award-winning Discovery channel, to get shows like MythBusters, How It’s Made, and Deadliest Catch. You may also find its subsidiary channels hanging around, including Discovery Turbo, Discovery Shed, and Discovery Science. Quest is another generalised channel, with plenty of facts, lifestyle, and entertainment from the likes of Bear Grylls and Robson Green.
  • Nature - If it’s documentaries about natural science, geography, the environment, and world culture you’re after, you can’t get much better than the National Geographic channel. For something more home-grown, there’s also Eden, where you can watch David Attenborough documentaries, Ray Mears shows, and Horizon.
  • Animals - Nat Geo Wild is great for shows on wildlife and the earth, as is Animal Planet - which, believe it or not, has programmes about animals. It’s where you’ll find wildlife documentaries, Shark Week, and reality TV about people who look after leopards.
  • Crime - For true crime - programmes on cold cases, infamous criminals, historical crime, and so on - there’s the Crime and Investigation channel as well as ID (Investigation Discovery).
  • History - The History channel is an obvious choice here, with a mix of documentaries, dramas, and slightly less historical programmes like Storage Wars and Pawn Stars. Discovery History shows much of the same. And then there’s Yesterday, formerly UK History, which has a focus on recent history and investigation - so, expect shows like Antiques Roadshow, Who Do You Think You Are? and Time Team.

Documentaries and factual TV on Sky

The standard Sky Entertainment package from Sky TV (www.sky.com) has a whole bunch of factual channels included, such as the Discovery suite, National Geographic, Animal Planet, History, and more. Adding on the Sky HD pack will get you six of those channels in HD as well.

You’ll also find some of them available to watch live and on demand through Sky On Demand and Sky Go, including Discovery, History, and National Geographic. Sky Go is free to all Sky TV customers.

Documentaries and factual TV on Virgin Media

The bigger the Virgin Media (www.virginmedia.com) TV package you choose, the more factual channels you’ll get included. A basic Player TV package has Yesterday and Quest; Mix TV adds ID and PBS America; and Fun TV adds a whole bunch, including National Geographic, Eden, H2, and the whole Discovery suite.

For the HD versions of Animal Planet, Discovery, Eden, and National Geographic, you’ll want Virgin Media’s biggest package of all, Full House TV. It’ll also get you History, and Crime and Investigation.

Most factual channels are available to watch live on any device with Virgin TV Anywhere, and some - including Discovery, National Geographic, and ID - have box sets and catch up on demand through your TiVo box.

Documentaries and factual TV on BT

A Starter package from BT TV (www.bt.com) has just Yesterday and Quest - but upgrading to Entertainment Plus will get you the whole shebang of Discovery, History, National Geographic, Nat Geo Wild, Crime and Investigation, ID, and Animal Planet. The Max package has six of them in HD too.

If you want the high definition channels but don’t fancy splashing out on Max, that’s no problem - you can add the HD Extra Bolt-on to any other package.

Documentaries and factual TV on TalkTalk

The basic TV package from TalkTalk (www.talktalk.co.uk) give you all the standard free-to-air channels - and for factual TV, that means Yesterday and Quest.

However, to get more - namely Crime and Investigation, Eden, History, H2, National Geographic, and Nat Geo Wild - you can add the Entertainment Boost. Boosts give you bundles of additional channels and they work on a rolling monthly basis, so you can start or stop subscribing whenever you want. This one also happens to be included as standard with the TV Plus package.

Documentaries and factual TV on Freeview and Freesat

Freeview and Freesat are a little thin on the factual TV. The only channels completely dedicated to facts on Freeview are Yesterday and Quest - though that’s still more than Freesat, which doesn’t include either.

Find out how Freeview and Freesat compare to YouView in our head to head.

Are documentary channels available in my area?