An Easy Read

NPrint Brings Books to TV

At first glance, NPrint, a nationally syndicated television show being produced in Austin, looks a lot like Entertainment Tonight -- high tech computer graphics, quick editing, flashy camera work and a colorful set with two perky, good-looking anchors. And both shows aim for the same lowest common denominator market; tidbits of fluff thrown out with a glitzy song and dance designed to keep those with the shortest of attention spans from surfing channels for a few seconds.

But while ET is doling out Hollywood-style the latest gossip from the big and little screens, NPrint has adopted the same tactic to the written word. It's an odd juxtaposition, using such an anti-intellectual approach to literature -- an art form that has resisted the mass commercialization that's been shoveled onto film and music. But Doug Foreman, creator of NPrint, made millions from another strange combination when he created Guiltless Gourmet, a line of "healthy" junk food.

This month, NPrint will begin appearing on about 100 TV stations across the country, reaching a total of some 70 million viewers. No Austin-produced TV show since Austin City Limits has had that size of an audience, Foreman says. Locally, NPrint will air on KEYE-TV, very early Sunday mornings. "Austin has one of the highest literacy rates in the country and one of the highest book sellers per capita, so I thought it was a natural for us," says Dennis Upah, president and general manager of KEYE. "I also thought it was an innovative concept."

According to figures from the American Booksellers Association, Austin does have the highest per capita book sales in the country, an average of $195.86 per household -- and those numbers are almost 10 years old. Today, the city boasts about 70 bookstores, including a Borders Books and two Barnes & Noble superstores, and the mammoth locally-owned Book People. Is it odd that a well-read city like Austin should produce a show so unashamedly aimed at a post-literate society? Or is it just business?

Not `Serious' Literature

If you're looking for a scholarly discussion on the use of regional dialect in the works of Faulkner and Twain, or an examination of allegory in James Joyce's Ulysses, you'll be sorely disappointed with NPrint.

"We are not trying to be that show," Foreman says. "We are not going to try to appeal to those people. We figure ourselves first as an entertainment show. When you pick up a book, are you doing it to be entertained or are you doing it because it's educational?" Foreman doesn't deny that there are those who look for more in a book than just a good yarn, but that's not the audience he's after.

"I'm not that type of reader, a `serious' literature reader," Foreman says. "That doesn't mean that we won't cover it, but I can tell you as a whole from a television standpoint, serious literature and `book shows' have no ratings. No one gives a damn about watching them. The people are out there, but if they're that serious about literature, they're not watching TV."

True to Foreman's words, not much in the first episode could be considered "literature" at all. There are features on the latest John Grisham potboiler, a tell-all autobiography from producer Aaron Spelling, and a book of make-up tips by supermodel Cindy Crawford.

"I wouldn't call Cindy Crawford's book serious literature, but people are interested in her," Foreman says. The premiere also includes a segment on Ray and Mary LaFontaine's Oswald Talked, the latest in the never-ending stream of books on the JFK assassination. NPrint interviews the authors and the subject of the book, John Elrod, a man who was being held in a Dallas jail in November 1963 and briefly shared a cell with Lee Harvey Oswald.

Future segments will profile authors Kinky Friedman and Erica Jong, and there'll be a feature on Playboy magazine's "Girls of the Big 12" issue. "Now that's serious literature," Foreman jokes.

NPrint will also air regular features on CD-ROMs and the first episode examines Murder in the First, an interactive game that allows computer users to try a homicide case. "We're trying to appeal to a broad cross-section," Foreman says. "The people who'll say `What's a CD-ROM?'"

Generally, NPrint will take a look at writers who have become celebrities -- like Tom Clancy, Anne Rice, and Stephen King -- and those celebrities who have become writers -- like Dennis Rodman, Montel Williams, and Tim Allen. And the latest quickie book by a TV star like Fran Drescher will be given the same respectful, non-judgmental coverage as a new novel from a literary giant like Norman Mailer.

"That's not to say that we won't have a review, but it would be more tongue in cheek," Foreman says. "We're there really to promote the business, we're not there to tear people apart. Why do we want to promote something we think is bad? There's enough good stuff out there. You won't see Entertainment Tonight saying `We think this movie sucks.' We just present it and let people make their own decision whether it's good or bad."

Talking Heads

Hosting NPrint will be the husband-wife anchor team of Gerry Grant and Michelle Granados, both recent Austin transplants. Granados previously was a correspondent for E! News Daily and Grant covered "the circus that was the O.J. Simpson trial" for ET. Both will be developing segments for NPrint.

"We take pride in the fact that we're producers and writers," Grant says. "There are a lot of anchor people in the local news markets, Austin included, who are Ken and Barbie. They come in for the 10 o'clock news, they stroll in at 9:30, they just read the news and then they leave. That's not us."

"It was part of our agreement when we came here," Granados says. "We really wanted to be a part of the show. We wanted to let our brains work."

Granados, orginally from San Antonio, has covered the Academy Awards and received the Silver Quill Award for video production. Grant was nominated for an Emmy for his coverage of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake for CBS while working as an anchor in that city. "I think having them and people having seen them in the national market is one of the things that helped us market the show nationally as we did," Foreman says.

The host segments of NPrint are videotaped at the Ranch Studios, the former kicker dancehall at Capital Plaza that Foreman recently converted into a soundstage facility. But camera crews are being sent on location for stories. "We go to New York, L.A., Dallas -- we go all over for stories," Grant says. "It's amazing that this national show comes out of Austin, Texas."

Hitting a New Market

Taylor Foreman Productions began development of NPrint more than a year ago and had been nearing a syndication deal with Turner Broadcasting. But all negotiations were put on hold once media mogul Ted Turner announced he would be selling his company to the massive Time Warner conglomerate. So Foreman decided to produce and syndicate the show himself. Foreman hopes his show will attract businesses that traditionally haven't put a lot of money in television advertising, namely bookstores and publishers.

"The amount of money that has been spent on book promotion on television has quadrupled from what it was just a couple of years ago," he says. "I think publishers now are willing to get in and promote and spend a little bit more money on advertising than they did before."

Already, it's been shown that a mention of a book on programs like ET or Oprah boosts sales of that title, Foreman says. He points to a recent Publisher's Weekly article showing that a TV plug for a book increases traffic in bookstores, and savvy publishers are attempting to cash in on that trend. Austin's Book People, one of the largest bookstores in the country, has jumped on the bandwagon and has developed a working relationship with NPrint.

"They have a standing invititation to show up with their video crew and tape book signings, and they have the opportunity to interview the author," says Philip Sansone, president and CEO of Book People. Tammy Jordan, vice president of marketing at the bookstore, says NPrint has expressed interest in upcoming appearances by Johnny Cochran and Jimmy Carter. "Those are all things that would do well on their show," she says.

Not exactly the types of authors that come to mind when we think of this locally-owned bookstore with such a literary image, but Sansone says he doesn't think the NPrint approach will do any harm to literature. "I don't really care about that if it works," Sansone says. "If people watch it and get interested in books, that's fine. The book industry needs all the help we can get."

If NPrint catches on, Foreman hopes to eventually produce five or six episodes each week. Spinoffs, like Business NPrint or Kids NPrint, could follow. "It's not just a show; we see it as a franchise," he says. Part of that franchise is an Internet service offering the books and CD-ROMs featured on the show. A toll-free phone line provides the same service for those who aren't online. Foreman also is selling advertising time on his show to national clients, bringing in a few extra bucks and lessening his dependence on the affiliates carrying the show. Someday, Foreman would also like to host an NPrint convention, bringing together several dozen authors for panels and mass book signings.

But will there every be an NPrint for fans of Hemingway, M.F.K Fisher, Thomas Pinchon or Edith Wharton? "I haven't stopped anybody from doing shows about serious literature," he says. "If you want to go do one, I say, `Go do one right now. It's a free country, you can do whatever you want to do.' But we are not going to be the one who does serious literature. Are we going to promote books? Yeah." n Locally, NPrint will air early in the morning, on KEYE-TV Channel 42 at 7am on Sundays; the show first aired on Sept 22.

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