How to get documentary TV channels

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Drop some knowledge

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 Original Bundle from Sky TV (www.sky.com) has a few factual channels included, such as Discovery Shed and Quest, but for the big guns you’ll want the Variety Bundle. That’s where you’ll find Discovery, National Geographic, Animal Planet, Yesterday, History, and all their subsidiaries. Upgrading to the Family Bundle will get you seven 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 but costs a fee for everyone else.

See all Sky TV channels

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.

See all Virgin Media TV channels

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. Entertainment Ultra HD has six of them in HD too.

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

See all BT TV channels

Documentaries and factual TV on TalkTalk

Both the Essentials TV and Plus TV packages from TalkTalk (www.talktalk.co.uk) give you pretty much the same channels - and for factual TV, that means Yesterday and Quest.

However, to get more - namely Crime and Investigation, Eden, History, H2, and National Geographic - you can add the Entertainment or Entertainment Extra TV 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.

Read more about TalkTalk TV Boosts

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.

FAQs

  1. What are the main TV services in the UK?

    Freeview is the most common TV service in the UK - set top boxes are affordable, and new TVs predominantly all come with Freeview tuners built-in. Once you have Freeview you can watch TV as much as you want with no additional cost. Other subscription-free TV options include YouView and satellite TV service Freesat.

    However, for the best choice of channels and on demand services, you’ll need to join a subscription-based TV service. The four big ones in the UK are from Sky, Virgin Media, BT, and TalkTalk.

  2. How do I switch to a new TV service?
    Switching TV services is a breeze if you use a comparison service like ours. Simply enter your postcode, and we’ll list all your different options side by side, so you can easily compare features and price. When you find a package you like, click the link and you’ll be taken straight to the provider’s site. Fast, simple and hassle-free.
  3. How do I get sports channels?

    There are multiple sports channels in the UK, with the biggest being Sky Sports and BT Sport.

    Sky Sports is available at an extra monthly cost on Sky TV, BT TV, TalkTalk TV, Virgin Media TV, and Now TV. Read our guide for more info.

    BT Sport, which also includes ESPN, is available on BT TV, and for an extra monthly cost on Sky TV and Virgin Media TV. Read our guide for more info.

  4. How do I get movie channels?

    Sky often has the first TV broadcast rights for big movies, so if you want to see the latest blockbusters first, you’ll need Sky Cinema - which you can get through Sky, Virgin Media, BT, and TalkTalk TV packages for an additional monthly charge.

    Most TV providers also offer new home entertainment releases to view on a pay-per-view basis. Bear in mind, you may need a broadband connection to access some of these services. See our guide for more info.

  5. Can I save money by bundling TV, phone and broadband?
    Yes you can. Providers like Sky and Virgin Media offer competitively priced bundles, comprising broadband, homephone and TV, and getting all three services from the same place often leads to significant savings. It also makes it easier to manage finances, as all services come on a single bill.