History and Tv in Slovakia

by Mária Ridzoňová Ferenčuhová


Mass media reflect and at the same time form the historical consciousness of a society. They have an indisputable impact on how a nation perceives its own history. Studying television broadcasting of a country with a totalitarian history can provide an inspiring discovery of how the country’s ideology formed its nation’s collective memory, what part of this memory persists until the present day, or how it eventually changed throughout the years of transition to democracy.

In this context, Slovakia is quite unique, since as an independent state it had existed only for a short period during World War II (March 14, 1939 – May 8, 1945), and later only from January 1, 1993, this time already with a democratic system of law. Prior to World War I, Slovakia belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire; after the war, it joined the first Czechoslovak Republic. Following the end of World War II, Slovakia again became a part of Czechoslovakia. If we look even further back to the history, from the era of Great Moravia (9th – 10th century) – a Slavic state located ‘in between the Vistula and Dnieper rivers’ – through the times of the Austro-Hungarian Empire all the way to the joint republic of Czechs and Slovaks, the Slovak nation was always a part of some larger entity. This factor inevitably influenced the collective consciousness of Slovaks regarding their history. Television did not always reflect this collective memory in the same way, not even during the totalitarian era. Nevertheless, in order to be able to say anything relevant regarding the various forms of presenting history by television – first the state-owned, later the public one, and ultimately also by the private channels – we first need to briefly describe the development of TV broadcasting in Slovakia. Consequently, by analysing the most commonly covered topics and the typical features of Slovak historical programmes, we will attempt to describe how media changed their attitude to history – both the general as well as the Slovak one in particular.

A brief history of TV broadcasting in Slovakia

Regular TV broadcasting on the Slovak territory started on November 3, 1956. At that time, the state-owned Czechoslovak Television had been already broadcasting for several years on the Czech territory. During the first year, the Slovak television studio broadcasted only twice a week and the programme was practically the same as on the Czech television. By November 1957, the television broadcasted every day except Mondays. Regular daily broadcasting started in 1959, with common programmes for the entire Czechoslovakia and with several Slovak programmes. At that time, there were only 794 Slovak television concessionaires. It is not really possible to speak of any relation to history or style of its presentation by television during this period: television was focused on the here and now, being dominated by live broadcasts from sport events, drama performances or concerts. Broadcasting also included children’s and youth programs, non-fiction popular nature or travel programmes. History was covered only occasionally, namely in TV news when Czechoslovakia was commemorating some anniversary.

During the 1950s and the early 1960s, the program structure was set, although with still too many irregularities. Documentary series were often broadcasted one episode per month, or they just vanished after the first episode, only to reappear several months later. Yet, the daily TV news, magazines for children, students and schoolchildren, for communist party liners, women or agriculturists were strictly present and broadcasted at a fixed hour and/or day. During this period, television from time to time offered Western-European movies, especially French, set in the World War II era, or other historic periods. In 1959, Bresson’s film A Man Escaped (1956) was aired, as well as Carné’s Children Of Paradise (1945). However, historical films of Eastern European production dominated, namely from Russia, Hungary and Poland, but also Czechoslovakia. Practically all broadcasted Eastern-block films were about WWII – about the struggle against fascism or the liberation by the Red Army.

Historical documentaries and other non-fiction programmes about history were broadcasted mainly on occasions of important anniversaries (the ‘Victorious February’ [1948], the end of WWII, The Great October Socialist Revolution [1917]). Television program regularly featured series like The History Of The Communist Party Of Czechoslovakia (e.g. within the People’s University cycle, premiere March 1961), popular-educational series for students, for the Young Pioneers, or teachers. In prime-time, documentaries were usually aired on Thursdays, in case of ideological anniversaries in morning times and then also prior to the main evening program that usually consisted of a feature movie related to the anniversary. Already sine the late 1950s, television offered quiz shows and contests focused on knowledge of recent or more distant past of Czechoslovakia or USSR (What You Know About Your Country, or About USSR, or About The Slovak National Uprising, etc.).

In 1968, under the influence and in correspondence with the social and political liberalisation, the Slovak television studios presented – along with certain Western-European features – also some recent films of the Czech and Slovak New Wave movement, and the new Slovak TV fiction production1. To a certain degree, these programmes included discussion about the then pressing issues, political and cultural events, or about the transformation of The Czechoslovak Socialist Republic into a federation of two separate countries.

Unlike in the 1950s and the first half of 1960s, when historical programmes were clearly dominated by topics of WWII and the liberation, new topics started to surface around 1968 – the anniversary of the establishment of the first joint state of Czechs and Slovaks (1918), but also themes of national revival in the 19th century that led to the establishment of Czechoslovakia.

Following the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact armies in August 1968, the television program content became once again ideologically rigid, literally ‘normalised’. Many of the ‘Western’ features were replaced; mostly by the Soviet, Polish, Hungarian or East German ‘ideologically appropriate’ films. Yet, some of the Western criminal series or entertainment fiction films were still aired. In the area of movie production for cinemas, the effect of normalisation was felt only after 1970. However, television has a significantly shorter reaction time: due to its production conditions and faster pace of production, it is able to respond to political changes much sooner than in the case of movie production for cinemas. This was demonstrated not only by the almost immediate inclusion of the ideologically appropriate features and series into the TV program, but also by the fact that during September 1968, all discussion programmes perished from the screen, and were replaced by ideologically correct and carefully prepared speeches or comments. Normalisation had an interesting impact on the entertainment formats. In the 1960s, the You Pass The Verdict! programme was broadcasted irregularly (which covered fairly insignificant cases of divorces, work-related incidents, etc.), in which spectators were allowed to pronounce the guilty/not guilty verdict on the participants by phone. After 1968, audience lost the chance to vote, all people could do was call the studio during the live broadcasting and place questions to the experts. Consensus and democratic discussions were replaced by the paternalistic approach of the communist functionaries.

In the 1970s, the number of the Slovak Television concessionaires was approximately 720,000. Starting from the 1970, the Czechoslovak Television was broadcasting on two channels (and also partly in colour from February 14, 1970). The second channel’s offer consisted especially of reprises of old documentary or fiction films. The broadcasting structure was rather fixed, with fiction films being aired on Friday and Saturday evenings, and documentaries or journalistic programmes in the afternoons. Broadcasting for children and the Young Pioneers was scheduled for mornings or early afternoons. This structure persisted until the end of the 1980s.

In the 1980s, it is the programmes’ content that is changing rather than the structure: many titles are ‘closer’ to the audience than in the previous decade. The number of entertainment programmes, series and features is increasing; the number of cartoons and films for children and the youth has also risen significantly.

November 1989 and the social, political and economical changes that followed the Velvet Revolution represent a major influence and determining factor in the TV broadcasting transformation. Since November 1989, the state Czechoslovak Television broadcasted live from public demonstrations in Prague and later in Bratislava, and TV news could finally be broadcasted without censorship. The ideologically significant broadcasts (the Army, Police, and Border Guard magazines) started to disappear or mutated into specialised magazines.

In early 1990s, the broadcasting structure of the Czechoslovak television underwent an important transformation. The Soviet and the East European features and documentaries have been in part replaced by the West European (French, British or German) or USA features and series, and the amount of the entertaining talk shows, music shows and political satire have grown considerably. During the first 6 months of the year 1990, the Slovak studios broadcasted many of the old fiction and documentary films that were banned after August 1968.

In the 1990s, the 1st channel of the Czechoslovak Television became more or less federal, with common broadcasting for both the Czech and Slovak territories; the 2nd channel was progressively turned into the channel with two separate nationalised transmissions. This has been fully applied since September 4, 1990. In 1991, the new law on the Slovak Television was passed in the Slovak Parliament (Act no. 254/1991 Coll.) and the former state-owned television became a public service television.

From September 1990 to December 1992, the 1st channel of the Czechoslovak TV was called the F1 (Federal channel), and the 2nd channel was named the Slovak Television (S1, then STV). The Czech equivalent of S1 was the Czech Television (CT/CTV). Since September 1990, a third Czechoslovak Television channel entitled OK 3 (on the frequency of which the Soviet Television was broadcasting until the 1989) started to offer a selection of foreign TV programmes (CNN News, French TV5 News, videos from the French musical channel MCM, Screensport News, various fictions and series). Starting from June 6, 1991, OK 3 broadcasted only for the Czech territory and the TA 3 channel was set as the Slovak equivalent of OK 3.

The independent public service STV with its two channels (STV1 and STV2) was “born” on January 1, 1993, the day when Czechoslovakia split into two independent states. The Czechoslovak Television ceased to exist on December 2, 1992 by decree of the Act no. 597/1992 Coll.

Before 1991, the Slovak studios were producing only 30% of all the TV programmes; logically, the amount had to increase in 1991 and 1992 (but initially the STV1 broadcasted only few hours a day, a practice that was employed in the beginning of the Czechoslovak broadcasting in the 1950s).

By 1993, the STV encountered numerous problems with adapting its program structure, production and financing to the new conditions (this included the necessity to increase production, as well as to procure modern technologies and, later in the 1990s, to raise the capacity to win back audiences taken away by the private or foreign TVs).

The first full-scale [national coverage] private channel VTV appeared in the 1995, and was soon followed by TV Markíza, which started broadcasting in 1996, and later by several other private TV channels.2

Moreover, the difficulties that the public service STV was struggling with were combined with a complicated political situation. One after another, political parties currently in power tried to “format” STV, to make the financing transparent or even to use it for their political goals. Between 1993 and 2004, STV had 13 different managements.

In 2004, STV announced a “new start”. Its new director, with experience from private, audience-focused televisions, has reshaped the broadcasting structure – it started to resemble private channels broadcasting (it included talk shows, quizzes, series, and blockbuster fiction features). Nevertheless, this commercial transformation concerned only the 1st STV channel. The 2nd channel was designed for a rather demanding audience, with its program including quality art movies, archive films, documentaries, culture and art magazines, intellectual evening discussions, etc. However, criticism of the management appeared soon, complaining about the lack of original Slovak production, both fiction and documentary. The non-fiction programmes rarely ventured beyond the scope of mere TV journalism.

During the 1990s, the cable television network covered the larger Slovak cities; the rest of the concessionaires could take advantage of the satellite broadcasting, later of the IPTV. The digitalisation of TV broadcasting is still in progress.

Presenting history on television

According to the communist ideology and in line with the pro-Soviet orientation, the Czechoslovak Television had, since its beginnings in the 1950s, significantly preferred topics related to WWII, especially the anti-Nazi resistance (e.g., the Slovak National Uprising in 1944 and the Prague Uprising of May 1945), and the liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Army. In addition, history of the revolutionary movement (Soviet and Czechoslovak) and of the Communist Party was regularly presented – TV broadcasted educational documentaries, magazines for students and schoolchildren, teachers or party liners. The Russian October Revolution of 1917 was commemorated each November up to November 1989. Nevertheless, between 1956 and 1989, some history programmes about the ancient or modern history appeared occasionally – the focus was places on the 20th century, or on the national revival movements of the 19th century (this was the case especially towards the end of the 1960s). The period of WWI is also covered only to a minimum extent, with focus still on WWII. In reality, historic periods other than WWII appear almost exclusively in historical movies or series about specific historic figures (Matej Bell, Ján Jessenius, Ľudovít Štúr). Surprisingly, programmes on rulers also appear rarely, if we do not take into consideration the infrequently aired ‘costume features.’

However, within the framework of broadcasting for schoolchildren, high-school students or history teachers, there were certain specialised series (educational or methodical), covering larger periods of history. In general, however, presenting history on TV was – and to the present day remains – very selective. At any rate, while the previous regime strictly determined which periods were appropriate for presentation and commemoration, presenting history today is much more arbitrary.

What is interesting about the portrayal of WWII – the period most frequently covered during the totalitarian regime – is how its topics and motives were repeated, or how they gradually developed. Feature production about WWII from the 1950s was dominated by “front-line” action movies, and later complemented by somewhat more intimate uprising titles; in the 1960s the focus shifted to the perspective of a child protagonist.3 The so-called “concentration-camp” films and movies about the Jewish genocide appear only occasionally and mainly in features, not in TV production.4 Despite the fact that many movies for cinemas were broadcasted also in TV usually three years after their premiere, movies about holocaust appeared rarely in TV. Unlike in the case of some historical features that were broadcasted with literally chronic regularity on the occasion of certain anniversaries5, holocaust movies never became the ‘inventory’ of a TV program.

The anniversaries were always the pretext and at the same time the reason for broadcasting historical fiction movies or documentaries.

Before 1989, history programmes appeared always in February (to celebrate the victory of the Communist Party in February 25, 1948), in April (Lenin’s birthday and the eventual liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Army troops), in May (the end of WWII and the Victory of the Soviet Army over Nazism), in August (the Slovak National Uprising, August 29, 1944) and in November (the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917).

The anniversary of the end of WWII and liberation by the Soviet Army was usually celebrated with ‘foreign movies’ – from USSR, Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, East Germany – be it movies for the cinema (Ballad Of A Soldier, The Cranes Are Flying), however, less known movies also appeared, about which we know only little without precise information from TV archives.

Apart from feature movies, anniversaries were commemorated also by numerous live broadcasts from manifestations (from Moscow on the occasion of the end of WWII, from Prague and Bratislava on the occasion of the ‘Victorious February,’ from Banská Bystrica on the occasion of the anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising [SNP]), and also by national or foreign montage documentaries and series, or by national TV series based on veteran “witness” accounts (however, these appeared approximately in mid-1960s). In late 1950s and in the first half of 1960s, the non-fiction production covering recent history (i.e. WWII) begins to provide an outlook into the future – damages caused by the war are, in line with the socialist ideology, always presented with hope for better times. Later on, a more commemorative tone prevailed.

In 1970, the world commemorated the 25th anniversary of the end of WWII, and the Eastern Block also the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birth. Television reflected on these anniversaries thoroughly. From January to May, it aired several documentaries, the so-called TV “inscenations“ [TV stage-plays] and reprises of cinema movies (Lenin’s Legacy, On Lenin’s Command, Returns To Lenin, Lenin’s Youth). Occasionally, Lenin-related programmes appeared throughout the year, so that in November 1970 on the occasion of the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution (GOSR), television had already aired all of the available titles, including the chronically repeated Ten Days That Shook The World, or other adaptations of John Reed’s book about GOSR.

Likewise, the 25th anniversary of the end of the WWII and liberation was commemorated already from January by the Milestones programme about the gradual liberation of Czechoslovak towns and villages – naturally with emphasis on the role of the Soviet Red Army. Practically the same broadcasting structure appeared 5 years later – with the only difference that the focus was placed on the anniversary of the end of the WWII, since it was ‘more round’, although the number of Lenin-related programmes was in fact the same. They were just moved from primetime to specialised programmes for teachers and schools. In its own turn, the 30th anniversary of SNP surprised with a richness of national TV production – especially documentaries and journalistic production. In 1974, the infinitely repeated cinema movies almost did not appear. All in all, it can be said that throughout the years, anniversaries have also obtained a regular structure: they focused on all age groups – from schoolchildren, through working adults, to the seniors.

The fall of the regime in November 1989 represented an especially significant milestone in Czechoslovakia’s contemporary history. It brought not only the beginning of a transition to democracy, with its social and economic implications, but also a great revision of history.6 After 1989, the liberalisation and the end of WWII remained in television’s program agenda, but the point of view changed.7 Lenin’s birthday and GOSR were “erased” from the historical calendar; in August, not only the SNP but also the Occupation by the Warsaw Pact armies in 1968 was commemorated; and November was not the month of the Czechoslovak-Soviet friendship anymore, but the month of the fall of the totalitarian regime.8 This new anniversary deserves some more information:

On November 17, 1999, the Slovak Television broadcasted the same program as it did in 1989 to emphasize the difference between the “then and now”). However, the 15th anniversary of the totalitarian regime’s fall was reflected differently in the media. In line with its philosophy of the ‘new beginning’, the public STV wanted to prove it was capable of producing original non-fiction programmes – thus on the occasion of the Velvet Revolution’s anniversary, it prepared an entire succession of TV documentaries on the Velvet Revolution: one devoted to the key figures of the revolution, another about the student movement, etc. Five years later, the public STV did not take so much effort. It had combined the approach used in 1994 and 2004, broadcasting the same titles it had produced for the anniversary in 2004, even with the original ‘packshot’ divide – the large number 15, which was utterly absurd on the 20th anniversary. In between the documentaries, STV inserted programmes aired in 1989.9

For the young Slovak Republic, or at least for the nationalistic part of its political representation, March 14 became an important anniversary of the first autonomous Slovak State (1939-1945). Of course, this is no state holiday, nor a day of commemoration. Thus, in TV broadcasting, it appears only in TV news, usually reported on as a possible source of tension. For March 14, various nationalistic parties or civic groups (some being now banned), with covert or open adherence to fascist or neo-Nazi ideology, usually announce public marches or gatherings.

After 1989, Easter became an unusual type of ‘anniversary’. Apart from numerous Passion features, or other movies about Jesus Christ (from the Jesus Christ Superstar musical, through TV movies like The Life Of Christ (TV) in early 1990s, to Scorsese’s Last Temptation Of Christ or Gibson’s the Passion Of Christ – after 2000 all the way to the present day), the Easter season became a pretext for broadcasting historical movies with ancient-Greek or ancient-Roman topics.

Changes in presenting history on TV after 1989

The Velvet Revolution of November 1989 had a major impact both on the broadcasting structure and on the programme content. The first year after the revolution, banned films and documentaries reappeared, the official history was revised, or – especially in the mass media – a “thick black line” between the past and the present was supposed to be drawn, accompanied by the denunciation of the criminal political regime and by “lustration” of new regime’s politicians.

As a result of the previous, ideologically formatted historiography that had an impact namely on the contemporary history, during the transition period of the 1990-1993, the greatest number of programmes were representations of the 20th century history (not only of the WWII, but of the inter-war period as well, and – a new element – the revision of the period of the 1960s and the 1970s). However, the number of the original or foreign documentary series on the ancient history and ancient civilisations increased, too. All in all, an increasing diversity of historic programmes can be observed. At the same time, television’s strategy of that time can also be identified: to air reprises of ideologically acceptable films produced or purchased already prior to 1989, to broadcast new acquisitions with current topics, to offer a different view of own history, but also that of the WWII, or to produce own original movies, series or teleplays as soon as possible.10

During the so called Mečiar’s era, between 1994 and 1998, the public service STV served as the political propaganda channel once again. The program was full of political comments and “historizing” reportages (about then and now, stressing the benefic influence of HZDS, the governing party of the Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar and libeling the political opposition and their political decisions). These were not proper historical programmes but we need to precise that the rhetoric on TV during Mečiar’s government reminds strongly the totalitarian one.

As far as the audiovisual portrayal of the world history is concerned, in the late 1990s, the public STV gradually focused increasingly on the audience, reaching out for the offer of foreign televisions, purchasing ready-made programmes, and producing less and less original fiction or non-fiction programmes on international history, or only co-producing original movies or series produced by independent productions. After 2000, majority of films about history are produced namely by private productions11; the public television produces first and foremost journalistic or discussion shows, usually related to anniversaries. However, STV now refrains from producing features, or popular-history or historic-memory series that became typical for Czech Television’s production. Despite this situation, STV remains the only television purchasing and broadcasting original author features or original historical series.

The private Slovak channels do not produce any original history programmes. Also, their broadcasting of foreign history programmes is more or less accidental; if there are any historical fictions or series broadcasted (historical non-fiction is very rare on private channels), they are usually bought from the foreign televisions. The only exceptions are the archive Czech and Slovak films, broadcasted by a commercially oriented private channel, e.g. the second channel of TV JOJ (JOJ Plus). The private news channel TA3 has no special history broadcasting, and it does not produce any historical documentaries; however, on the occasion of historic anniversaries, it usually puts together historians, political scientists or sociologists with a TV anchor, offering a TV discussion in the framework of ‘The Theme of the Day’ broadcasting.

Again, the most frequently presented period is the history of the WWII (both in documentary and fiction films), followed by the Czechoslovak history and/or European history after the WWII up to 1989.

The ancient history appears in the Slovak broadcasting mainly thanks to the Hollywood history fiction features. Yet, the documentary series on ancient civilisations of the Greek or Roman Empires or on Far East civilizations, even a digest of the European history, may appear from time to time on the public STV. Seldom, there are fiction programmes on WWI and almost never on the Middle Ages period or the Modern times. By way of a conclusion, we may make a slight exaggeration – the Slovak channels present either the ancient history, or the history of the 20th century, nothing in between…

Audience response to history programmes

There are very few original academic studies covering the issues related to television audiences. Certain sociologic surveys were made on the Slovak film audiences, but no relevant study exists about the Slovak television spectators and their response to the history programmes.

The monitoring of TV program audience rates in households is made by means of the so-called “People Meters” that have been used in Slovakia since 2004. Results of the audience monitoring are sometimes published in journals or specialised revues on media or advertising (the Stratégie monthly). The public service channel Dvojka [2nd channel], which is the main channel broadcasting historical documentaries, rarely reaches over a rate of 2%. In a certain way, the newspapers reviews or online articles on television programmes reveal audience reactions in the internet forums, but they are rarely a subject of studies or analyses. That is why this section will focus only on several specific examples of audience responses to historical programmes that have appeared in mass media during the past couple of years.

In comparison with the Czech Republic, there is still a considerable lack of audiovisual productions that would systematically reflect on the period between 1948 and 1989. While the public Czech Television has produced documentary series about recent history (persecution of different social groups in the 1950s, the samizdat and the dissent during the normalisation period, or the culture and film in the 1960s, that had or still have an important impact on the public), in Slovakia there are only rather sporadic contributions in this area.

However, in 2008 and 2009, the Slovak Television chose the same model of anniversary documentary series as the Czech Television (The Magical Eight, 20 Years After The Velvet One…). Production of these series (the first part of the Magical Eight was released in May 2008, the last one in August 2009) has not engendered such debates as its Czech counterpart had achieved in the Czech Republic. Production of these documentaries served rather as a proof that the Slovak Television really does produce original documentaries.12

Much more lively debates were inspired by the announcement of the reprise of Povstalecká história (The History Of Uprising) in August 2009, a fictional series shot in 1984, characteristic of the official pre-November interpretation of the Slovak National Uprising (which used to be represented uniquely as a manifestation of the communist anti-Nazi resistance). The Slovak Television announced that, before and after the screening of the series, there would be a discussion with historians about the accuracy of the presentation of the past, but eventually STV used only an information cartoon prior to each part of the series, stating that this presentation of the past is outdated and influenced by the political regime during which the series was produced.

However, in August 2005, Povstalecká história was broadcasted, for the first time since the 1989, on the public STV. It was not followed by any intense reactions in newspapers or discussions forums.

The period from 2004 to 2005 was marked by a scandal and by several public protests and debates in relation to STV’s premiere of a documentary about a post-war anti-Jewish pogrom in a small Slovak town of Topoľčany entitled Miluj blížneho svojho (Love Thy Neighbour, 2004, dir. Dušan Hudec). The premiere was set for June 2004. In May 2004, the director general of the public STV refused to broadcast it, declaring the film was unfinished. In reaction to this statement, an internal screening was held and the film was proclaimed complete. The director general still insisted on cancelling the film’s premiere, justifying it by the anti-Semitic assertions of one of the film’s protagonists. However, the film’s director Dušan Hudec was certain the main reason for the his film’s cancelled premiere was the impression it made of the Catholic Church, whose post-war attitude towards Jews could hardly be qualified as moral. After many public protests13, the STV finally agreed to broadcast the film, but only as an introduction to a 2-hour talk show Pod lampou [In The Lamplight], which in fact violated the film’s independence. In July 2005, the Slovak Television Council made an appeal to the director general to broadcast the film again – in September 2005, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the pogrom in Topoľčany, but this time without the talk show. STV director took the council’s appeal as a simple recommendation, and the film was not broadcasted. (One of earlier films by Dušan Hudec, Divokí psi (1995, Wild dogs) had a similar fate, but without the huge public stir that took place in the case of Love Thy Neighbour. STV refused to broadcast Wild Dogs, probably because of the negative image that the film was supposed to make of the Russian nation and its culture.)

Another film that caused heated public debates was Dušan Hanák’s full length documentary for cinemas entitled Papierové hlavy (1995, Paper Heads, TV premiere 1997), co-produced by STV. The film reveals communist atrocities by means of re-montage of archive footage (newsreels and instructional police films) and using the victims’ testimonies. In addition, The Paper Heads was furtively drawing a parallel between the practices of the communist establishment from before 1989 and those of the political representation in power in 1995. It was mainly this analogy that caused the most intense public reactions.

It is very characteristic that all of these films somehow relate to the portrayal of Slovakia’s post-war history, or to the revision of the communist historiography. On one hand, this demonstrates the fact that the most controversial are those periods whose protagonists are still alive, but on the other hand it reflects the continued interest of the media in the most recent history. such movies also demonstrate how the public and the other media understand the role of the public television: broadcasting controversial historical programmes in private televisions does not draw any public discussion or requests for explanatory comments prior to their airing.14

The main tendencies of historical representations on television

Glancing at a TV program, it could seem that the most common example of a historical presentation in TV are currently the foreign costume fiction films, representing various periods or centuries up to the WWII, which are broadcasted both on the public TV as well as on the private channels.15

However, the costume films – attractive for the audience and usually produced by large US productions – are less numerous than the Czech and Slovak films about the recent or more distant history. This fact is most probably caused by the ‘ostalgia’ that some private channels rely on, especially the JOJ Plus. In its broadcasting, this channel even resurrected the profession of a TV presenter, which the public TV cancelled due to financial reasons in 1990s. Even though there are not so many Czech and Slovak historical movies produced during the past 20 years, it only increases their audience rates.16 Practically all historical films that are broadcasted on Slovak channels were produced by independent private studios (or co-produced by the Czech public television) and were primarily designed for movie cinemas. In addition, they practically all deal with the topic of WWII and the period of the 1950s up to the so called “normalisation” or the “real socialism”.

By far the most favourite and at the same time the most efficient TV article are the reprises of the ‘pre-November’ features and series. They can be divided into two groups – older pre-November comedies and series set in the-then present,17 and older movies that had already been conceived as historical ones.18

Documentaries and series form a special group that we look upon individually, as it is primarily designed for a ‘more demanding audience,’ which is why the private, commercially focused televisions practically do not broadcast this type of production. Thus, the only channel that both broadcasts and occasionally produces this category of films is the public STV. The non-fiction movies and series are primarily aired on the more intellectually focused Dvojka. Its program is dominated by foreign series about the turbulent history of the 20th century, war conflicts, terrorism, political assassinations, etc. They are usually popular-education montage documentaries with a voice-over commentary and ‘talking heads’ of experts, e.g. the German series Stalingrad (BroadviewTV, 2004), Assassination Attempts That Shook The World (UK, 2007), International Terrorism Since 1945 (UKTV History, 2008)

In addition, ethnographic or anthropologic documentary series are broadcasted, too: Les voix oubliées – Chroniques et mémoires de l’humanité, France 2004; Neanderthals, The End Of An Era. STV, dir. Karol Kopecký, 2006; or even various documentaries on geography, history and culture – Treasures Of Civilization (France 2007-2008, dir. Nicolas Thomi), which is a presentation of cities and monuments listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Increasingly, the entertainment historical sci-fi are broadcasted on Jednotka [1st STV channel] – e.g. the series Primeval (2007, dir. Cilla Ware, UK).

From among the Czech and Slovak (co-)production, it is important to mention at least some broadcasted documentaries on the 20th century history. Many of them offer new historical knowledge, thus predetermining to a certain extent the text version of historiography. We list at least some of them: Nicolas G. Winton – The Power Of Humanity (dir, Matej Mináč, 2002, WWII – Shoah), Among Blind Fools 1-3 (dir. Petr Bok, script Martin Šmok, 1999, Shoah), Between The Star And The Crescent 1-3 Peter Bok, Martin Šmok, 2003, the Cold war period), The Key To Determining Dwarfs Or The Last Journey Of Lemuel Gulliver (dir. Martin Šulík, 2002, 1960s), 66 Seasons (dir, Peter Kerekes, 2003, 1930s up to present), Love Thy Neighbour (dir. Dušan Hudec, 2005, 1945), Cooking History (dir. Peter Kerekes, 2009, WWII up to present), The Journey Of Magdalena Robinson (dir, Marek Šulík, 2008, Shoah).

These documentaries are built mainly on testimonies of survivors, combined with re-montage of archive footage. Sometimes they also reuse a voice-over commentary, when it is necessary to relate to a different topic or to explain the historical and political context that is not evident from the testimonies.

The series with an obvious education purpose, like those by Peter Bok and Martin Šmok, combine a voice-over commentary with the mosaic of archive footage or still photographs to open or explain the theme of the film, tying it up with testimonies of survivors and discussions of professional historians. Among Blind Fools, for example, deals with a specific topic of the Slovak WWII history – the Jewish anti-Nazi resistance within the Bratislava Working Group and their project of saving Slovak (and European) Jews. The film’s historical supervisor was Yehuda Bauer; the documentary presents plenty of unseen archive footage. The role of the commentary is important here, therefore the most precious elements of the film are interviews with the Jewish resistance members, and the confrontation of their testimonies.

The same principle as in Bok’s films is used in Dušan Hudec’s Love Thy Neighbour, but the testimonies are dominant here, while the commentary and the archive footage serve only to contextualise various testimonial discussions, and the interviews with historians are completely missing.

Films by Peter Kerekes are one of the rare art documentaries. The use of archives here has a strong aesthetic dimension: in his 66 Seasons (2003) for instance, Kerekes is projecting private archive footage on the water-table of a swimming pool to show the liquidity and virtual nature of memory. There is no voice over commentary, the testimonies come from the dialogue with the director and from the film medium itself (reconstruction and re-enactments with a retro pattern is used to simulate the period the survivors are talking about).

Marek Šulík’s The Journey of Magdaléna Robinson (2008) is a documentary portrait of a Slovak photographer and Auschwitz concentration camp survivor, with a very traditional use of newsreel footage to illustrate the political regime in Slovakia during the WWII. Thus, the film makes an interesting use of the audiovisual apparatus as an external memory – Magdaléna Robinson died during the shooting and the director decided to “re-film“ some of her testimonies to stress the fact the very last Shoah survivors are passing away, and that we will soon have the tendency to enclose Shoah into external memory stocks: he is screening one of the interviews with Robinson on a small TV placed in a wide holocaust museum, and he films this “installation,“ thus achieving a strange alienation effect.19

This practice is reused in the same context by Peter Kerekes in his Cooking History a year later (Marek Šulík was the editor of the film).

An unusual example of presenting history on TV is Martin Šulík’s Key For Determining Dwarfs. It is a staged documentary based on intimate diaries of the Czech scriptwriter and director Pavel Juráček, in which the staged parts are shot as home movies – they are shot on 8mm film and are combined with archive footage from the 1960s. The voice-over consists of parts of Juráček’s diaries.

Except for the fiction movies and historical documentaries, Dvojka also airs regular weekly reprises of 50-year-old film newsreels (in Slovakia, newsreels vanished from movie theatres only in 1990, despite the existence of the daily TV news at 7 p.m. since 1956). From 2010, Dvojka is broadcasting also the “Retro Journal”, the reprise of TV News made between 1961 and 1980. The film newsreels are broadcasted without introduction, but the Retro Journal is introduced and presented by STV’s chief archivist Milan Antonič.

Apart from with the reprises of the old newsreels, there is currently no regular programme on history in television. From time to time, especially on occasion of anniversaries, cycles of TV documentaries are shown, as it was done for the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in November 2009. But these documentary cycles, such as the Historical Panorama, can consist of quite heterogeneous documentaries and are broadcasted at various times and days of the week.

Nevertheless, the “shape” of a typical Slovak (or even Czech) documentaries remains invariant: usually they use the same voice for the voice-over commentary, they use (all of them the same) STV archive footage and very interchangeable interviews with participants, politicians, historians or politics science experts.

Likewise, TV discussions on history, panels or the “Theme Of The Day” (TA3) have all a fixed structure: historians or politicians react to a topic presented by the TV anchor. Each topic, before being discussed, is also presented by a short video (usually from TV News, or an archive newsreels).

Despite the existence of original documentary cycles and debates on history organised on the occasion of various anniversaries, neither the public STV nor any other television produces programmes such as Marc Ferro’s Parallel History on La Sept/Arte that aired towards the end of the 1980s and in early 1990s. Slovak discussions and panels are introduced by a TV anchor, but the discussions are quite “rigid,” within only historians’ discussions. Filmologically speaking, there is no real reaction of historians to the short videos, or to the way how the topic was re/presented by the video.

Prior to 1989, there were programmes such the Historical Calendar or History of the Small Mechanised Muse that used clips of archive footage and a voice-over commentary, plus an anchor. This kind of programmes is not produced anymore, thus the same principle is used for programmes like Reporters, which is dealing with contemporary issues, political affairs or economical problems.

Presentation of history programmes or their introduction to the audience by a TV anchor accompanied by experts – historians or film theorists – was experimentally introduced by STV’s Dvojka in 2003 and 2004. Reprises of old films or documentaries were introduced by short, 3 to 5 minutes long presentations of a “talking head” accompanied by a subtitle with the person’s name and profession. For economical reasons, the reprises are now broadcasted without any introduction.

History, memory and television

To concluded, a certain parallel between the evolution of the Slovak historiography and the evolution of the history presented on TV can be made. After 1989, the Slovak historiography revised the way of presenting past events, but also of selecting historical topics. Practically all school history textbooks were declared to be ideologically incorrect and were gradually replaced with new ones. Historical research focused on the so-far uncovered problems or periods (especially the totalitarian era, the history of the persecuted groups, the history of representations…).

Despite this fact, the “thick dividing line”, so often mentioned by the media, separating Slovakia history into that before and after 1989, did not materialise in research. Many works remain relevant to the present day, even though their rhetoric or some specific parts bear the mark of the previous regime.

The same tendency can be observed on TV: some films or documentaries that were often broadcasted simply vanished. The new TV documentaries then focused on new topics: many of them were portrayals of people persecuted by the previous regime (priests, intellectuals, kulaks, bourgeois, etc.)

But while historians continued to present results of their research, the public television, due to its economical transformations, produced less and less new history programmes and preferred to draw on its archives, especially in case of fiction films.

However, transformation of methods and approaches in historiography has its equivalent in the history programmes production: interest in the small, private history is strongly present in both of them. In historiography, the method of the oral history is often applied, in documentary production, there is an upsurge of intimate, testimonial films and films reusing the private archives footage.

In the textual historiography, there is a plethora of research on propaganda and the history of representations. This has no equivalent in TV history, maybe with the exception of reprises of the old film newsreels or the old TV news. But there is a great tendency to use them to increase the “ostalgia” on TV.

This inevitably leads to formulating a side-note on the fact that Slovak television (including the public STV), despite its inevitable influence on retention and changes of the collective memory, follows first and foremost the marketing and media strategies that secure its audience rates. Naturally, these strategies more or less also form the nation’s memory, however, this influence is much less targeted and considerably less researched.

This text is only a first draft from a series of studies about presenting history in the Slovak TV broadcasting. It is impossible to provide an exhausting and thorough report on just a couple of pages, with each reduction or limitation possibly leading to misrepresentation. Therefore, this general outline does not include details on the transformation of TV broadcasting after 1989, rather, it focuses on and prefers continuity of historiography and media history to partial overviews of the individual programmes, which focus predominantly on entertainment and only accidentally on presenting history. The goal of this text is to provide an overview, not an analysis. In order to offer an analysis, it would be necessary to literally ”dig through” the TV archives. Which will be the next stage of our research.


1 Along with movies set in the present (Intimate Lighting, dir. I. Passer, The Party And The Guests, dir. J. Němec, Tango For a Bear, dir. S. Barabáš), television also broadcasted films about WWII: the relatively new Closely Watched Trains, dir. J. Menzel, but also older films by Polish directors: The Passenger, dir. A. Munk, or Canal, dir. A. Wajda.

2 In chronologic order of broadcasting start date (the list comprises only major channels with full national coverage – signal available on entire Slovak territory):

1993: Slovak Television (1st and 2nd channel, 3rd channel since 2008; the 1st channel is the third most watched of all Slovak TVs)

1995-1999: VTV (Vaša televízia [Your TV])

1996: TV Markíza (from 2009 broadcasting on two channels – Markíza and TV Doma), the leader on the Slovak media market

1999-2001 TV Luna

2001: TA3, the only news channel in Slovakia

2002: TV JOJ, the number two on the Slovak media market (from 2008 broadcasting on two channels: JOJ and JOJ Plus)

2008: TV Lux (Christian Television)

3 Typical examples of “action” movies include Vlčie diery and Captain Dabač by Palo Bielik, shot for cinema, but on anniversaries regularly aired on TV. The more intimate titles include e.g. Zvony pre bosých (S. Barabáš). Child protagonist is featured in A Song About the Gray Pigeon (S. Barabáš), and later in If I Had A Gun (Š. Uher).

4 Radok’s Distant Journey (1949) was the first Czech example of concentration and extermination camp movies, however, since it was banned, it did not appear in TV. In the first half of the 1960s, several movies about the holocaust were produced in Czechoslovakia (The Boxer, dir. Peter Solan, The Shop On Main Street, dir. J. Kadár, E, Klos), but their approval process was difficult. For example, in the case of The Shop On Main Street, it was argued that the Czechoslovak cinematography already had a movie about Jews – the Czech Transport From Paradise, dir. Zdeňek Brynycha. See Macek, V. Ján Kadár. – Bratislava: Slovenský filmový ústav, 2008, p. 148. However, none of these films was broadcasted in TV prior to 1989.

5 On the occasion of the Slovak National Uprising, the most frequently aired movie was Bielik’s Vlčie diery, on the occasion of the ‘Victorious February’ – the 1948 communist coup d’état, the Citizen Brych by director Otakar Vávra is broadcasted, which was based on the eponymous novel by Jan Otčenášek (1958, 1960, 1973…). In 1962, it was replaced by TV adaptation of this novel entitled the Spring Breeze by director Ladislav Helge. On round anniversaries of the end of WWI, Bielik’s movie 44 was broadcasted, since it was one of the few movies that dealt with this historic period.

6 In professional historiography, historians that were banned from publishing started writing again; exiled historians and journalists do so as well. Ultimately, it can be said that once the revisionist emotions subsided, which oftentimes had a nationalistic or lustration background, professional historiography did not reject pre-November research and its outcomes. What did change was the school outlines for teaching history, as well as the collective perception of individual events from Czechoslovak history in the 20th century. Slovakia started studying its totalitarian past slightly later than the Czech Republic. The Nation’s Memory Institute was established several years later than its Czech counterpart.

7 In 1990, at the 45th anniversary, a traditional war film in prime time was replaced by a discussion with Czech historians revising the Prague uprising (The Prague Uprising: Myths and History, broadcasted on May 7, 1990), however, on May 9, The Ordinary Fascism by Mikhail Romm was the main programme of the evening). In 1991, TV offered a richer program: in May, it aired not only the Soviet movie No Other Way, but also Radok’s Distant Journey (1949) or Truffaut’s The Last Metro.

8 Thanks to the ‘rediscovery’ of certain historic events that all of a sudden became worth remembering or commemorating, it is possible to cover topics that had previously been a taboo, removed from the collective memory, or which so far did not belong to the scope of general knowledge. This way, the topic of liberation of Czech territory by US troops appeared, the ‘Masaryk tradition’ was revived, and Christian themes are covered as well. Historical programmes now feature the history of USA and the Western world, history of religions (People And Gods, broadcasted in January 1990), as well as numerous Western-European views of the period of totality in Czechoslovakia (British documentary Absurdistan aired on November 17, 1990); the number of movies on Shoah also increased significantly.

9 In 2009, the JOJ Plus channel made a serious effort to address the 20th anniversary of November 17. Even though it is an entertainment ‘retro’ channel, since 2008 it broadcasts the Pod Lampou [In The Lamplight] discussion programme, which was previously featured on the public Dvojka channel. On November 17, 2009, JOJ Plus aired a programme focused on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the content quality of which outperformed even the original documentary about the Velvet Revolution that was broadcasted on Jednotka, the 1st channel of the public STV. On the other hand, the commercially focused Markíza offered only a tabloid of about 20 minutes, Nežná 1989, a chronicle of some sort featuring events and issues from 1989 all the way to the present day, with large titles, impressive music and advert-like editing.

10 Only during the first months of 1991, the public TV gradually aired original three-part teleplay set in the times of the Great Moravia (Mojimir II), the Two Women based on Moravia’s novel, the Christopher Columbus TV series, Wajda’s Ashes And Diamonds, the Story (an Italian movie about a tragedy of a Jewish teacher and her sons during the WWII), original biography Alfred The Great, German feature documentary Conference in Wannsee, English TV play Enemies of State based on a biography of Z. Tomin, a view of the WWII through the eyes of a child in the film Kindergarten by Yevgeni Yevtushenko (all broadcasted in January); also the Adolf Eichmann ‘documentary’ play by R. Kipphardt, a Soviet documentary Group of Comrades about the elite persecuted by the communist regime, a two-part Soviet historical movie The Agony – Rasputin’s End, a Polish-Hungarian movie about WWI called C.K. Deserters (all in February 1991). In March, reprises or older or archive historical movies were offered as well – Heaven’s Riders (J. Polák, 1968) about the pilots of the exile Czechoslovak army during WWII, or many times aired ‘costume movie’ 6 Women Of Henry The VIII by A. Korda, as well as original TV plays – Dido, a trilogy on the persecution of early Christians in the Roman Empire, and another trilogy Bitter Chariot of Hope based on the Old Testament stories.

11 Filmmakers begin to shoot their movies in ‘self-production’ – establishing their own production companies, obtaining finances partially from Culture Ministry’s funds (the Pro Slovakia fund, since 2010 the Audiovisual Fund), from the third sector, or looking for foreign co-producers for their films. The public Czech Television offers favourable conditions namely for documentarists; to certain extent also other foreign televisions.

12 In February 2008, prior to the election of STV’s director general, the Slovak documentary filmmakers made an official appeal to the Slovak Television Council to increase the original documentary production within the public television, where it was literally in agony. The appeal caused explosive reactions in STV, which assured the public that over 100 original documentaries, magazines or non-fiction series were in production or post-production, one of them was the Magical Eight series.

14 Broadcasting of the Czech normalisation-era series 30 Cases Of Maj. Zeman, main protagonist of which was an officer of ŠtB, the communist secret police, set in 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, on private TV channel JOJ Plus did not cause any scandal, while its broadcasting.

15 Here, we can include movies like Gladiator, Troy, Passion of Christ, La Reine Margot, Titanic; or WWII films like Schindler’s List, Enemy At The Gates, or even old “art films“ like the Soviet Ivan’s Childhood, the Ballad Of A Soldier, The Cranes Are Flying or the French Hiroshima Mon Amour…

16 From among the more recent Czech or Slovak historical films or retro-movies on history, we may mention Musíme si pomáhat (Divided We Fall, dir. Jan Hřebejk, 2000; WWII), Tmavomodrý svět (Dark Blue World, dir. Jan Svěrák, 2001, WWII), Všetci moji blízki (All My Loved Ones, dir. Matěj Mináč, 1999, Shoah), Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále (I Served The King Of England, 2006, 1920-1956), Krajinka (Landscape, dir. Martin Šulík, 2000, 19th century up to 2000), Pelíšky (Cosy Dens, dir. Jan Hřebejk, 1998, 1960s) Pupendo (dir. Jan Hřebejk, 2003, 1980s), Muzika (Music, dir. Juraj Nvota, 2007, 1980s).

17 The Czech series The Hospital In The Suburbs (script Jiří Dietl, dir. by Jaroslav Dudek, 1976), the 30 Cases Of Major Zeman (dir. Jiří Sequens, 1974-1979), representing crimes perpetrated between 1945-1973), The Ambulance (script Jiří Hubač, dir. by Jiří Adamec, 1984); comedies Sweet Troubles (dir. Juraj Herz, 1984), 4 Murders Are Enough, Darling (dir. Oldřich Lipský, 1970), Kulový blesk (dir. L. Smoljak, Z. Podskalský, 1978) and many others. From time to time, this group also included films that became allegories of the regime, e.g. Joseph Kilian (Postava K Podpírání, dir. Pavel Juráček, 1963).

18 The Bell Tolls For Barefoot (Stanislav Barabáš, 1965, WWII), I’m Sitting On A Branch And I’m Fine (Juraj Jakubisko,1989, 1946-1956), The History Of The Uprising (Andrej Lettrich, 1984, WWII), The Song Of A Grey Pigeon (Stanislav Barabáš, 1961, WWII), If I Had A Gun (Štefan Uher, 1971, WWII), The Shop on Main Street (Ján Kadár, Elmar Klos, 1965, WWII, Shoah), Closely Watched Trains (Jiří Menzel, 1966, WWII), or even the Czech sci-fi comedy I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen (Oldřich Lipský, 1969, contra-factual history from 1939 up to the 21st century…). Few series are representing the 19th and the early 20th century: Dobrodružstvá kriminalistiky (Adventures of Criminology, dir. Antonín Moskalyk, 1989) or the Middle ages: Marketa Lazarova and Valley of the Bees (both František Vláčil, both 1967).

19 It was only recently that I learned from a personal interview with the director that the title towards the end of the film is misleading. Marek Šulík obtained the video footage with Robinson’s testimonies only after her death, he combined it in a montage, added some archive footage and shot only the scenes with a TV set in the museum.

Frame video