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National Geographic Q&A at the Consumer Electronics Show

Baby Boomers like me associate National Geographic with musty stacks of magazines our parents carefully collected, plus the occasional Jacques Cousteau special.

But that image is badly outdated, according to Paul Levine, senior vice president, Interactive Platforms Group for National Geographic.

Today's National Geographic Society is a publishing empire with worldwide reach, deeply engaged in online and interactive media including map software, games and videos, plus wallpapers, ringtones, and content specifically developed for mobile devices. Not to mention movies, including some of the latest 3-D technology, and television. Oh, and magazines.

BNET Analyst Jim Henry interviewed Levine earlier today, Jan. 6, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Levine was checking out what's new at CES and also talking to high-tech partners and would-be partners. Here are edited excerpts:

BNET: If ever there was a publication I would have thought of as "So Last-Century" it would be National Geographic. As the head of the Interactive Platforms Group this sort of thing must drive you crazy, but I was surprised to learn National Geographic even had an Interactive Platforms Group.
Paul Levine: There really is a lot. There are millions of cars with GPS in them. There's an opportunity. We have more than a dozen media touchpoints, and they're all integrated. National Geographic reaches 33 countries. National Geographic Traveler reaches 14. National Geographic Kids is No. 1 in its category in the United States. NG Kids is so successful we're rolling out a magazine for even littler kids, too. Print's not dead, at least not for us. But besides publishing we also have the National Geographic Channel and National Geographic Television, which are not the same thing. NG Online is expanding. It gets 14, 15 million unique visitors ... Most people are aware of different pieces, but they don't know all that about us.

BNET: Out of all those, is there one medium that stands out as the fastest-growing, or the one where the resources you're devoting to it are growing the fastest, or that's the newest out there?
PL: It's really difficult to answer you because it's this multi-channel platform for everything we do. We tell great stories. We leverage all that talent, all those assets, based on the platform and on what audience we're trying to reach. We have more than 500,000 friends on Facebook.

BNET: I understand that part of your responsibility is to promote "how National Geographic extends its global mission." With so much change and so many different media and different audiences, hasn't the mission changed, or at least evolved?
PL: Inspiring people to care about the planet is our mission. Even though we do so many things, we don't try to be all things to all people. We can't; we'd fail. We're also not that large. But everything we do is based on these core things where we really are the 800-pound gorilla, like the great photography, the color, the stories, the accuracy, the authenticity.

BNET: What's the nature of National Geographic games? That's another idea that strikes me as at-odds with my image of the magazine.
PL: What everybody seems to forget about is that of all the millions and millions of people playing games, the vast majority are rated "E" for Everybody. They are family-friendly games. They are not Grand Theft Auto, or a shooting game like Halo. as much as I like to play those. ... You are never going to see "National Geographic Poachers."

BNET: Then what's the value-added for National Geographic, for a video game? If there are animals in the game, is it that they're depicted accurately, behaving how those animals actually behave? If it's a game where you play at being a National Geographic magazine photographer, do you lose points because the light wasn't right for the photo you were trying to shoot, or something?
PL: We have a Standards and Practices Group that maintains the authenticity and the veracity of everything we do ... It might be entertaining, but what you're experiencing is true. Whether the player knows it or not, it's accurate. And if somebody gets curious about an animal, we include an animal encyclopedia where they can learn more if they want.

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