History and Tv in Hungary

2012 (tv) | 2014 (web) | 2016 (web) | 2016 (tv) | 2017 | 2018

by Teréz Vincze

1. The evolution of TV broadcasting in Hungary

1954: Broadcast of test-programmes started.

1957: Regular broadcast (2 days a week) was introduced – the channel was called Magyar Televízió (MTV).

1960: Frequency of broadcasting: 5 days a week. Number of subscribers: 80 000.

1967: Number of television subscribers reached 1 million.

1968: 6 days per week broadcast schedule was introduced.

1969: The first broadcast in colour.

1972: Regular broadcast (4 days a week) on the second channel (MTV2) started.

1976: Regional studios in two major cities outside Budapest were established.

1985: 90 percent of all programmes were broadcasted in colour.

1989: 7 days per week broadcast schedule has been introduced.

1989: As part of a political demonstration reform organizations symbolically “confiscated” the state television “in the name of the Hungarian nation”.

1992: Duna TV started to broadcast as a non-state channel operated by a public foundation.

1994: Numerous new cable channels could have been received by subscribers.

1995: The new (democratic) media law has been ratified by the Hungarian parliament. The new system of public and commercial radio and television channels has been introduced.

MTV, formerly state television and Duna TV have been declared public televisions by the new media law.

1997: Two nationwide commercial TV channels (RTL Klub, TV2) started to broadcast.

2006: Preparations for switching over to digital transmission have been started.

2. Hungarian TV networks

Public networks:

mtv1 (1957-)

mtv2 (1972-)

Duna TV (1992-)

MTV1’s main profile: actual information, news programmes, discussion programmes with public and political interest, cultural magazines + fiction films and series.

MTV2: its cultural and educational function is important, among the five main channels it has the strongest interest in educational and documentary programming.

Unfortunately MTV enjoys very low audience ratings. The two channels have an approximate 10-15 percent share of the Hungarian television market. It seems that public television in Hungary has lost the combat against commercial channels.

Duna TV: called the “Nation’s Television”. Its mission is to serve Hungarian audiences inside and outside Hungary. In 1999 Duna TV has been awarded “Best Cultural Television of the World” by UNESCO. It has a strong cultural mission: produces and broadcasts considerable amount of documentary films on Hungarian and European history as well. Fiction films with historical interest also frequent.

Concerning cultural and educational content Duna TV seems to fulfil most successfully the function of a public television in Hungary.

Commercial networks:

TV2 (1997-)

RTL Klub (1997-)

These two nationwide commercial channels have very similar profile and programme structure. They provide general entertainment: 75 percent of their programmes are entertainment programmes: reality shows, talk shows, game shows, fiction films and series. They broadcast one or two programmes per week that could be considered as “infotainment” with historical interest. Topics are chosen from the not-too-far past and usually presented as being in connection with some mysteries or legends of history.

It can be said that history (as things that had happened before the members of the audience were born) doesn’t exist according to these channels.

Hungarian cable networks with historical interest:

HírTV [News TV] – concentrates on actual news and information, but broadcasts Hungarian documentary films on a regular basis

Spektrum – Channel for culture, education and science, broadcasts educational and documentary films 24 hours a day. Approximately 15 percent of its programmes are history related. (Hungarian and world history is treated equally.)

Duna II. Autonomia – Member of the Duna TV network. Broadcasts news and information programmes and focuses on Hungarian history. Screens documentaries and historical programmes produced in Hungary.

International networks in Hungarian:

Viasat History

Discovery Channel

Discovery World

These channels broadcast international productions dubbed into Hungarian.

Statistic data on the programme structure of the five main channels:1

Programmes broadcasted on the five main channels in 2008

(number of titles)

  • educational: 5%

  • documentaries: 1,3%

  • fiction (films + series): 20%

Programmes broadcasted on the five main channels in March 2008

(broadcast time)

cultural, educational/documentary:

  • MTV1: 5%

  • MTV2: 18%

  • Duna TV: 14%

  • TV2: 1,3%

  • RTL Klub 1%

Programmes in comparison with the total amount of broadcast time in March 2008


  • MTV1: 1%

  • MTV2: 3,2%

  • Duna: 4,2%

  • TV2: 0%

  • RTL Klub: 0,2%


  • MTV1: 1,6%

  • MTV2: 10,5%

  • Duna: 8,3%

  • TV2: 1,1%

  • RTL Klub: 0,8%

Historical fictions in comparison with the total amount of fiction films broadcasted in March 2008

  • MTV1: 4,5%

  • MTV2: 0,4%

  • Duna TV: 2,5%

  • TV2: 0%

  • RTL Klub: 0%

Documentaries broadcasted in March 2008 in comparison with the total amount of films (fiction+documentary) broadcasted

  • MTV1: 3,7%

  • MTV2: 14,3%

  • Duna TV: 15,8%

  • TV2: 0,7%

  • RTL Klub: 1,6%

Audience share of channels

According to AGB Nielsen, the company that conducts television audience surveys in Hungary, between January 2009 and September 2009 the two main commercial channels (RTL Klub and TV2) together had the 43% share of all audiences, meanwhile the public channels had 14%. Although, the measurement of Duna TV’s audience is surrounded by considerable controversy. According to AGB Nielsen Duna TV’s share at the Hungarian national market is about 3-4%. The problem is that AGB Nielsen considers only viewers living in Hungary, meanwhile considerable portion of the target audience of Duna TV lives outside national borders (several hundred-thousands of Hungarians in Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine and Serbia), and no official survey exists about the number of these viewers. However, according to a non-official survey conducted in 2007, 50% of Hungarians living in Transylvania choose Duna TV from Hungarian channels available to them.

3. Representation of history on Hungarian television before 1989

Under the socialist system MTV1 and MTV2 as state television channels invested considerable amount of money in producing their own historical programmes. It was evident that this is the most efficient way to spread the official view on national and international history formulated by the Communist Party. It was in 1961, only four years after the regular broadcast had been started in Hungary, when the first history programme appeared on television.

This pioneering 8 part series was called Panoptikum [Wax museum] and, as most of early history series on Hungarian television, was engaged in the events of the 20th century. Apparently it was the most important period for the Party to tell its version of. Panoptikum dealt with the Hungarian history of the 1930s and 1940s. It presented portraits of leading political figures (prime ministers and party leaders) of the period called the „Horthy era”, named after Miklós Horthy the Regent of the Kingdom (Regency) of Hungary between 1920 and 1944, and painted extremely disapproving picture of these mainly right wing politicians.

The series was based on original documents accompanied by voice over narration, presented archive footage originated from the period, and contained interviews with witnesses. Unfortunately the episodes of this series have been lost, only descriptions of them exist today.

Another significant project was the documentary film Memento about the second world war broadcasted in 1968. The production process lasted for four years and the recordings that of the film was put together had been selected from 1 million meters of archive material.

One of the most outstanding historical programme that have ever been produced by a Hungarian television is the 50-part series called Századunk [Our Century]. The producers’ aim was to connect educational and entertaining functions. The episodes were based on exhaustive research, however, the presentation was easily comprehensible to the average viewer. The episodes consists of historical events enacted by actors, archive material accompanied by voice over narration, and interviews with witnesses of the historical events.

Thanks to its popularity, and because of the extensive research the episodes were based on, Our Century staid on Hungarian television screens for decades. The broadcast of the series started in 1965 and the last episode was aired in February, 1988.2

According to the director of the series, Péter Bokor, during these years neither the leaders of the television, nor political functionaries wanted to give him instructions about what kind of events or which historical persons should be presented in the programme. It can be said that as a result of János Kádár, the leader of the Hungarian Communist Party, being not too fond of television the party didn’t keep it under strict control. Thanks to this „negligence” most of the historical programmes produced during the 1970s and 1980s are of high standard.

During the ‘80s significant history programmes have been created. In 1982 a decree on improvement of popular educational programmes in mass media was accepted by the Communist Party, and consequently new projects were started in the studios of MTV.

At the same time confrontation with the history of recent Hungarian past – especially 1956 – couldn’t have been postponed anymore and became an issue in political and public discussions as well.

In 1984 the broadcast of a 50 part series with the title Magyar évszázadok [Hungarian Centuries] was started. The episodes told the history of the country from the foundation of the new Christian state by Szent István (Saint Stephen), the first king of Hungary until the socialization of the economy and culture by the Communist Party in 1949. At the same time world history was being told by another series called Tévéegyetem [Tele-University]. The episodes covered the history of the Antiquity.3

As part of confrontation with the recent Hungarian past the history of the last forty years was told by a series called A velünk élő történelem [History that lives with us] in 1985 (11 episodes), and a second season (6 episodes) of this programme in 1986 was devoted to tell the story of the 1956 revolution.

In general it can be said that no considerable effort was made to produce programmes on international history before 1989. All of the significant productions focused on Hungarian history. At the same time it seems evident that these programmes were preoccupied by the history of the 20th century. The number of series produced in connection with this century equals the number of series dealt with all the preceding ages.

Another important issue of representing history on Hungarian television is the question of historical fiction produced by MTV. During the 1960s and 1970s quite a few popular historical adventure series were produced. Most of them take place in the first part of the 20th century and had contributed to create the popular myth of the Communist Party.4 Several of them are still part of public memory today and thanks to their nostalgic value they can be (and are) shown on television and sold on DVDs.

The evolution of historiography and TV history

The period between the end of second world war and the 1970s could be called the heyday of Hungarian historiography. The boom can be associated with efforts to revision the works of Hungarian historians of the so called „Horthy era”. Their views were considered as fascist and imperialist, and historians of the early communist period strived to condemn these works and use this opportunity to legitimate the communist rule. The above mentioned programme, Panoptikum is an adequate parallel example of this intention.

In 1945 the Hungarian Academy of Sciences established its History Institute of which the main aim was the „Stalinization of the study of history”, but at the same time the institute had positive effects on the study of history as well. Historical resources has been published, historical journals were established and new trends in historic studies have also emerged. History of economy, social history and several of the history-associated studies (as Turkology and ethnography) were among the most important new trends.

The communist ideology’s pressure on historians was eased from the late 1960s and lots of important and professionally high standard research have been published. The most significant historians of each historic period acted in an advisory capacity on the television’s history programmes of these decades. This is why it can be said that the most significant history series produced by Hungarian television during the 1970s and 1980s (for example the two 50-part series Századunk [Our Century] and Magyar évszázadok [Hungarian Centuries]) can be considered academically high standard even today.

4. History on Hungarian television after the fall of communism

In Hungary documentary films played the role of catalyst for political change at the end of the 1980s. Around 1988 significant full length documentaries were made about topics that couldn’t had been mentioned before in public. These films were screened in front of packed movie theatres, although broadcasting them on the state television was impossible at the time. Several years after the political change these “system shifting” films were shown on television but had been lost their appeal to audiences. During the 1990s (Hungarian) documentary films were gradually disappearing from television screens and/or were moved to unpopular time slots, however, after 1989 the number of foreign (especially British and American) documentary and educational series arose considerably.

Soon after the political change the Hungarian television found itself in the midst of political debates. All the political parties required greater say in the future of the state television, meanwhile programming concentrated more and more on current affairs.

In the meantime, public television is Hungary had lost the battle for television audiences in a few years after the birth of commercial channels. By 2002 MTV’s share of audiences had been shrunk to 15%. At the beginning of the 2000s, as a result of deepening financial problems, MTV practically ceased producing pre-recorded programmes. Televised items were either news, interviews and talk shows broadcasted from television studios or fiction films and series. This tendency had taken heavy toll on history programmes as well. Historical series have been supplanted by experts sitting around tables and discussing history.

History programmes and public debate

As a result of the production of history programmes by television channels is moderate, debates couldn’t really be provoked by them.

In Hungary the typical form of the representation of history is full length documentary film, approx. 100-150 have been being produced every year, 10-15% of which are history related. Production of these films are financed by state cultural foundations and they are screened at film festivals, sometimes on public and cable channels (HírTV) as well. Among these documentary films, from time to time, can be found one or two that are able to provoke public debate. These films usually deal with Hungarian history in the 20th century. Hot themes are the Trianon Peace Treaty, the period between 1919 and 1944, and the relationship between Hungary and Transylvania – all of these questions are closely connected to Hungary’s transition from a middle sized European empire to a small sized East-European country. Films treating such topics easily stimulate debate between nationalist and liberal groups. Strangely enough, television channels usually don’t screen the films in question, however, when the debate springs studio discussions on the topic is organized.

All in all, twenty years after the political change and the heyday of historical documentary, these films are attracting practically no audience, and so they are unable to provoke considerable public debate.

At the same time, there are two phenomena worth to mention here. The first is the success of two documentaries that were produced independently from television channels but were considerably well received by audiences in movie theatres and on television as well (Budapest retro, 2002; Budapest retro II., 2003 – both directed by Gábor Zsigmond Papp). These films present the everyday life of Hungarians during the socialist era by using archive footage from the ‘60s and ‘70s. It seems that audiences prefer the history of everyday to the traumas of History.

The other project that is worth to mention here uses archive footage as well. The internationally acknowledged Hungarian director, Péter Forgács have been producing a series since 1988 called Privát Magyarország [Private Hungary] using archive home-movie footage. The material have been shot by common people during the first half of the 20th century and that is collected and re-edited by the director. He creates historical representation from a private point of view by using home movies. The audience can experience, for example, the second world war or the time of anti-Jewish pogroms from a unique and unsettling angle, while the events themselves directly are not present in the pictures. These films have achieved serious critical acclaim and were received considerably well by audiences. Parts of the series can be seen, from time to time, on the public channels.

5. Contemporary tendencies of historical representation on Hungarian TV

Hungarian television channels recently were preoccupied with programmes devoted to remembering the 20th anniversary of political change. For example there were regular week-by-week reprises of 20 years old newsreels, interviews with important personalities who have taken part in the events of 1989, and several of the so called “system shifting” documentaries were screened on public channels.

Apart from these, typical history related programmes are the following:

Magazine: presentation of a phenomenon by a presenter who introduce the topic then comments archive footage and photos. Sometimes an interview with an expert or a witness also part of presenting the topic.

This format is present on commercial and public channels as well. Usually the historical problem treated in these programmes have some kind of connection with current social or political problems. Therefore most of the topics are in connection with recent Hungarian history.

Discussion in the studio: this format is frequently used by public channels. Two or more expert are invited in the studio and they discuss a certain historical problem. (Usually these programmes are the most informative and the least popular ones.)

The educational format: public channels are experimenting with formats in order to attract younger audiences, especially secondary school students.

At spring, during the final exams’ season of secondary education, MTV broadcasts history lessons for students preparing for their exams. A presenter – a teacher – introduce the topic then explain, for example, how a historical document can be analysed and used in scientific argumentation, or how can one get historical data by analysing a picture or a sculpture in a museum. In accordance with the material secondary school exams consist of, these programmes cover all periods of world history.

A few years ago MTV have introduced a format that could be called “school room debate”. The basic idea was to brig together one or two historians and a group of secondary school students in the studio where they would discuss a certain historical problem. The students were asking questions and the historians had to explain difficult problems in a way that was understandable to youngsters. The format itself was interesting but, being not entertaining enough, did not necessary reach its target audience.

Historical television series: Not too many of them have been produced recently, although in 2009 MTV has introduced a 46 part (25 minutes each) series with the – not very thought-provoking but clear – title: Magyarország története [History of Hungary]. The project seems to be ambitious for several reasons. The producers have left the studio, episodes had been recorded at historical places, during the presentation the presenter actually touches the several hundred year old objects (books, swords etc.) that played crucial part in history. Although the project is rather innovative, its visual aspect is still characterised by static illustrations such as paintings, sculptures, heraldic symbols. (Based upon the responses to this programme at internet forums, the audience appreciates this non-studio-based presentation of history.)

What do we know about the audience of contemporary history programmes?

It can be said that there are not too many academic studies covering the questions related to television audiences. National Radio and Television Commission (ORTT, www.ortt.hu) is an independent organization supervising media activity in Hungary. Surveys concerning media content and audience responses are usually commissioned by ORTT, however, no survey related to historical programmes have been conducted so far.

The aim of these studies usually to investigate whether Hungarian media operate in accordance with democratic standards. Most of the surveys cover the representation of political parties and government executives. Another topic, that considerable studies can be found about, is the representation of violence and its effects on young people.

ORTT have commissioned so far three surveys covering questions related to audiences. The first were about the effectiveness of the new age limit system introduced at Hungarian television several years ago. The second tried to shed light on the opinions of children and young adults on reality programmes, and the third one has examined the representation of violence from the point of view of the audience.

Similarly, no studies or surveys conducted by universities or research institutes on the audience response to history programmes can be found in Hungary today.

6. Final remarks

The continuity of “national history”, in a certain respect, had been broken before the first Hungarian television channel started to broadcast. After WWII under the Soviet rule Hungary wasn’t an independent state, it was first of all a Socialist country, member of the friendship of socialist countries economically and ideologically controlled by the Soviet Union. The failed national uprising of 1956 was the single most important attempt to gain back Hungary’s national independence – and together with that the continuity of its national history – after WWII. The uprising were repressed and the socialist system together with the Soviet control had been re-stabilized just before the first history programme would appear on Hungarian television in 1961.

As part of the new ideology there were periods in national history that more attention were paid to. Especially to those that could be, one way or another, presented as forerunners of socialist ideas and values. The new political system did not want to change or hide the facts of pre-20th century history, rather it was suggested that there are important and less important periods in history, hence not all of them are worth to speak or make a TV program about.

Naturally, from the point of view of the new ideology the most important historical period to deal with was the beginning of the 20th century. Being the foundation of this new, socialist historical continuity the Soviet revolution in 1917, in each “satellite” country the commemoration of the “Great Bolshevik Revolution of October” become one of the most important “national” holydays, and this revolution itself was to symbolize history and social evolution to the masses celebrating the anniversary each year by marching on the streets of capital cities all over the Socialist block. Other important “national” holydays and commemorations were held in connection with WWII, with special reference to the Soviet Red Army and its decisive role in the liberation of Europe, and especially of the Eastern block.

In 1989, with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, a new period in Hungarian national history has started. The new beginning was marked by significant full length documentary films about the hidden and suppressed crimes committed by Hungarian communist and socialist establishments during the preceding 40 years. However, the immense political and cultural transformation that were under way at the beginning of the 1990s has soon distracted public attention from historical problems of the past. The television channels and viewers agreed on that that history is what happening right there around them, and the representation of the “constant present” on most of the television channels has commenced.

Since the mid-1990s the most interesting and innovative moving pictures dealing with historical problems – none of them produced by television channels – have been those that are experiment with the innovative use of different kind of historical documents, and consider representation of history as a process of re-organization and re-creation, the continuous reinterpretation of events and materials: Péter Forgács’s re-workings of archive home movies, Gábor Zsigmond Papp’s use of archive footage in Budapest retro, and political educational films of the socialist period in his successful semi-documentary titled The Life of an Agent, 2004).

Concerning the possibility of representing history these artist seems to maintain that no objective account of the past is ever possible. Hungarian history of the post-WWII period and the use of the representation of history during that period is a clear example that can support such an observation. Although, in general a more conservative standpoint is taken by television channels in connection with representing history, attempts for questioning the possibility of objective representation are palpable as well. While the 46 part series of the Hungarian television on Hungarian history (History of Hungary) emphasizes and presents the objective facts of history (historic places and objects), the commentary stresses the divergent interpretations that can be drawn from those seemingly objective remains of history.


1 Based on the survey made by MTA-ELTE Communication Theory Research Group for ORTT (National Radio and Television Commission, www.ortt.hu). The full survey can be read in Hungarian at: http://www.ortt.hu/elemzesek/20/25/1234202108musorstruktura2008_20090209.pdf

2 Episodes of Our Century include: Episodes 1–11: From the birth of the movies until the workers’ revolution in Hungary in 1919 (aired in 1965-66). Episodes 12–16: The „Bankgasse affair” in 1919 (aired in 1969). Episodes 17–20: Money forgery and international conspiracy in the 1920s (aired in 1971). Episodes 21–25: The Relationship between Hungary and the Third Reich (aired in 1976). Episodes 26–45: History of the year 1944: From the occupation of Hungary by the German Army to the occupation by the Soviet Army. (Episodes 26-29 aired in 1981, Episodes 30–37 aired in 1986, Episodes 38–45 aired in 1988.) Another 5 films with content that didn’t fit into the episodes had been produced and aired at various times under the series title.

3 Antiquity in the East (16 episodes), Antique Greece (8 episodes), The Roman Empire (8 episodes).

4 One of the most popular of such series is Egy óra múlva itt vagyok [I will be back in an hour, 1971]. The 14 episodes take place during the second world war, the main character is a worker who joins the underground anti-Nazi movement and gets in trouble in funny and dangerous ways. It is especially remembered for its satirical sense of humour that is rather rare to find in representations of the second world war.

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