Now, thanks to the new National Geographic Channel on BSkyB you can watch footage that's every bit as impressive as the magazine images and have a narrator do all the hard work by reading the associated words for you. The new channel started this month, and will run from 7pm to 1am seven days a week.
National Geographic is not inclined to hide its light under a bushel when it comes to letting you know just how good its product is: why waste time with false modesty?
The magazine is famed world-wide for its high production values and ground-breaking investigations and assignments (it has a world-wide readership of 44 million), and already produces some of the highest-rated documentaries on American television, so it's perfectly natural for it to move into satellite broadcasting.
And as you might expect, those fabulous images of people, animals and places transfer perfectly from print to film. Such is the quality of the footage that most of the programmes will appeal to anyone from about five to 85, but they also act as top-quality material for geography, sociology, biology, general studies and a range of other subjects.
Watching videos of a selection of the September programmes, I found it difficult to make notes as I was glued to the screen and reluctant to miss a lion snaring its prey, an insect escaping its hunter, or a volcano blowing its top.
The channel is sliced up into different "genres", with themed programming strands at the same time each day. Examples are Quest, which focuses on adventure, exploration and human endeavour; Wild, which features some of the best wildlife documentaries by the world's top wildlife film makers; and The World's Last Great Places, which looks at less familiar aspects of the world's most remote and wild destinations, their people and their cultures.
National Geographic says that the aim of the programmes is to use its own natural history unit and the world's top wildlife photographer s to film "natural history, adventure, science, archaeology and anthropology" in a way that is "inspiring and educational" and that shows "a respect for the environment and other cultures".
It appears to have got off to a good start and there's every reason to expect more of the same.
The narration is set at a level which allows all age groups to understand what's going on, although in terms of using the programmes as resource material and for project work they would probably be more appropriate for the 14 to 18 range.
There were a couple of niggles with the programmes that I saw, however. The first is that the narration is invariably in "American" - not surprising given that National Geographic hails from the land of the
free, but at times American voice-overs don't necessarily sit comfortably with British viewers. But I doubt that this would be enough to cause anyone to reach for the off button.
Neither was I too keen on the use of celebrities to anchor one of the programmes - Vanishing Birds of the Amazon. In this case it was Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger - fair enough, they have a genuine interest in the plight of the birds, but they also had a tendency to take your attention away from the main subject, especially when they played to the camera.
This aside though, National Geographic's reputation through its magazine work has carried over pretty seamlessly into this new television channel. It would be well worth getting hold of the monthly programme schedule as there's a strong possibility of discovering something that would be of interest to teachers of everything from geography to biology - and the chances are your pupils won't be the only ones to learn something from it either.
National Geographic Channel broadcasts nightly on Transponder 7 from 7pm-1am. NGC, co Sky TV, Grant Way, Isleworth, Middlesex TV7 5QD