It seems like it was only yesterday the Public Broadcasting Service single-handedly revolutionized education as we knew it. In 1982, jazz vocalist and former Rufus frontwoman, Chaka Khan, was asked by PBS composer, Steve Horelick to write and compose a children’s record for PBS’s upcoming program pertaining to reading and American literature. The introduction of the show gently began with an animated butterfly gracefully fluttering in alluring daylight leaving a trail of the spectrum of light. We later discover that the butterfly is in fact a figment of a child’s imagination that just so happens to be lying aimlessly on a tropical beach where we are then delightfully greeted by the tender voice of the Queen of Funk herself, Khan. As Khan enlightens us with her dynamic range, the butterfly quickly transforms into a multitude of creatures and beings such as dragons and astronauts, somewhat stylized in the same vein as “The Yellow Submarine” or “Cool World.” To much avail, it was that very moment “Reading Rainbow” was born in 1983. If it isn’t enough to be considered second nature by now, the thematic composition of “Reading Rainbow” is along the same lines as “DuckTales” and “Animaniacs,” being perhaps Khan’s crowning achievement as she famously coos, “Butterfly in the sky. I can go twice as high. Take a look.It’s in a book. A Reading Rainbow. I can go anywhere. Friends to know and ways to grow. A Reading Rainbow. I can be anything. Take a look. It’s in a book. A Reading Rainbow. A Reading Rainbow.”
For those who can remember as far back as I can, “Reading Rainbow” was one of the very first educational television programs to firmly emphasize reading through visual learning and scholarly apprehension. Its educational agenda was simply inspiring enough to encourage its adolescence to visit local libraries and book stores in order to grasp a wealth of knowledge and understanding for the program’s subject matter. Created under the tutelage of husband and wife duo, Dr. Cecily Truett Lancit and Larry Lancit, at Lancit Media Productions in New York, the brilliant concept of a reading series for children was conceived by Dr. Twila Liggett and film engineer, Paul Schupbach,of the Great Plains National Instructional Television Library at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Since its grand inception in 1983, the growing sponsorship of “Viewers Like You” ultimately solidified “Reading Rainbow’s” eminence as an educational program, being the third-longest running children’s series in PBS history alongside longtime frontrunners, “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” In a span of approximately 23 years, the public television series took home the gold after the program garnered over 200 broadcast awards, including a Peabody Award and 26 Emmy Awards, 11 of which were in the “Outstanding Children’s Series” category. From its colorful and highly recognizable logo to its charming and charismatic host, LeVar Burton,“Reading Rainbow” was one of PBS’s finest masterstrokes, drawing an array of high-profiled guests such as Kermit the Frog and Run-D.M.C., motivating in-house crossovers, cementing a national following, and becoming an enormous corpus in popular culture.
After nearly three decades on the air, PBS sadly trimmed the show’s funding in 2006 and shortly cancelled the series entirely in 2009 after the network experienced financial woes in 2005. According to Burton, who was the program’s executive producer during the final years of “Reading Rainbow,” PBS’s sister channel, PBS Kids which carried the series, was shut down effectively on September 24, 2005, in favor of a new commercial cable and satellite joint venture known commonly today as PBS Kids Sprout, which was developed in partnership with Comcast who later seized complete control of the publicly-traded network via NBC Universal. “Reading Rainbow’s” stock also greatly plummeted when the program could not hold water in prime time by itself when soft-spoken television host, Fred Rogers tragically passed away after being diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2002 nearly a year after “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” halted production. Rogers’ untimely death overshadowed “Reading Rainbow” when PBS felt morally obligated to heavily syndicate “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” fearing the network would lose appeal that their most prioritized show maintained for the past 34 years. The cancellation of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” ultimately afflicted “Reading Rainbow’s” time slot and after the ensuing arrival of animated programs based on popular children’s storybook series, “The Bernstein Bears” and “Thomas & Friends,” it was soon evident that “Reading Rainbow” could no longer anchor the network in the fashion the former had. The competition from animated television verse the expensive production of live-action footage spelled doom for “Reading Rainbow”and was unfortunately shown the door as an end result.
In the years following “Reading Rainbow’s” termination in 2006, cries for renewal stemmed after PBS Kids dissolved. After the show was removed from syndication on PBS’s morning lineup in 2009, the network felt it was necessary to commission “Reading Rainbow” for a home video re-release like it did years prior. When “Reading Rainbow” found a niche on VOD providers, NetFlix, and electronic stores bearing Blu-Ray and DVD tags in the early 2010s, the show managed to find new life, adding to growing speculation that PBS would reactivate the program. In a rare media appearance, LeVar Burton confirmed on his Twitter feed on March 19, 2010, that “Reading Rainbow 2.0 is in the works,” a form of application software that would carefully take the curriculum and itinerary of the original series, making it assessable and compatible to smart phone and tablet users. On March 4, 2012, Burton announced that it was the “last day of shooting before launch!” On June 13, 2012, in a special presentation at Apple Inc’s annual World Wide Developers Conference, Burton and his business partner, Mark Wolfe, introduced the new “Reading Rainbow iPad App” to its board of directors. “Reading Rainbow 2.0” quickly became available to the public in Apple’s iTunes Store on June 20, 2012, and within a gap of 36 hours it was ranked the number educational app in the U.S. In January 2014, the “Reading Rainbow 2.0” surpassed 10 million books read and video field trips watched by children in 18 months.
As of October 3, 2014, “Reading Rainbow 2.0” currently remains atop of the list as the nation’s go-to educational application and overall Kids App for iPads. “Reading Rainbow 2.0” continues to inspire new generations of readers in children throughout the world despite having not been on the air for over eight years, but is that truly enough to improve education in America? Burton thinks not.
Being one of the show’s most vocal and proudest defenders, Burton has made it abundantly clear that he was on a virtuous conquest to bring “Reading Rainbow” back to the center stage of national television since its network pulling. In what he believes is one of the greatest priorities in enlightenment and literacy, Burton has sermonized the demand and necessity of “Reading Rainbow” for the past four years. On May 28, 2014, Burton started a Kickstarter campaign to revive the series and its assembly. In under 12 hours or less the campaign had successful reeled in a whopping $1 million earning. According to Burton, the campaign’s new objective is to create an educational version of the series for institutional usage, completely free of cost to schools desperately in need, and furthermore helping America position itself towards high literacy rates which currently stand at “below basic” for both children and adults.
In Burton’s Kickstarter tutorial, the former “Star Trek” lieutenant commander identified the three key watermarks the campaign needed to reach in order for “Reading Rainbow” to be renewed by PBS. The first objective is to develop a web-enabled “Reading Rainbow” for home users, the second objective was to create a classroom version with erudite tools teachers can succeed with and last but not least the final objective subsidizes costs so institutions can operate the program without spending a single dime. The campaign is also tinkering around with a website for daily student assistance services. The campaign reached the $1,000,000 goal on May 28 just before 8 p.m. EST, less than 12 hours after the movement had launched. The following day, May 29, 2014,Burton’s campaign reached two million dollars doubling their initial goal at 1:15 p.m. PST. The campaign raised $5,408,916 on Kickstarter with another one million from, “Family Guy” creator, Seth MacFarlane, and $70,000 raised via direct contributions. The grand total is $6,478,916. With 105,857 backers, the campaign holds Kickstarter’s record for most backers and is the 5th highest amount raised on Kickstarter in its history as a company.
Beyond the Kickstarter campaign, the valiant efforts to refinance “Reading Rainbow” alone speak volumes in contrast to any charity in America. There is so much truth to the renowned underwriting spot, “Viewers Like You” that has been running simultaneously for the past 29 years especially in regards to the funding of “Reading Rainbow.” It is a common announcement seen before PBS programming that simply asserts that the network only functions appropriately when government and public funding is involved. Without civic backing from viewers such as our children, families, and even our government officials, shows such as “Sesame Street” and “Reading Rainbow” would be virtually nonexistent.
In Big Daddy Kane’s defining 1989 record, “Children R the Future,” the Brooklyn MC addresses the value of such educational television shows during his childhood in the 1970s and the impact it has bared on later generations. “On and on and on and on, I say the beat don’t stop until the break of dawn. Nor does the growth of our young world. Yes the children, be building, each boy and girl. Cause you are the cream of the planet Earth. The new birth, now take that for what it’s worth. And give the child room, to blossom and bloom. Living large, it’s your destiny to consume,” raps Kane in a modest tone. Like the warmth of Burton’s presence on “Reading Rainbow,” Kane hints that he can and will make a difference no matter how big or small, whether he is Fred Rogers or Captain Kangaroo. What Kane ultimately alludes however is the wealth of a nation is not so much in its of economical and natural resources but it lies more decidedly in the kind and quality of the wealth of its children and youth. It is they who will be the creators and shapers of a nation’s tomorrow. The children of today will be adults of tomorrow. Today’s leaders and activists. Their quality and personality will determine the kind of destiny that beackons the nation. Therefore, it becomes mandatory for every nation and every society to nurture a strong, healthy and intellectual youth.
In order for us to make a difference in the sense of propounding knowledge into a new body of American children, we must borrow criteria from the past and Burton’s formula of “Reading Rainbow” is a perfect example of pressing scholarly enhancement. With all the garbage on television, our nation needs more intelligent programming like “Reading Rainbow,” because when our tax dollars are being submitted to filth such as “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “Duck Dynasty” you wonder why American literacy scores are rapidly declining. LeVar Burton inspired nearly three waves of children growing up in the 20th Century when “Reading Rainbow” commenced 31 years ago and with our help, millions of students and school-deprived minds can thankfully receive the proper utilities to succeed in this rat race world we live in. The Kickstarter campaign puts the program back on the right track and as does the iPad application but like Burton previously said, it’s still not enough. As Burton puts it, “nothing is enough until Reading Rainbow is available to every child everywhere,” going as far as promising he would personally autograph memorabilia from his “Star Trek” and “Roots” days to showing up to homes across the country to read stories to children of assorted families. With that being said, we have the ability to change the world and reshape this generation’s level of enlightenment in such a profound and unimaginable fashion by donating to “Reading Rainbow’s” Kickstarter campaign, however to quote my childhood icon, “You don’t have to take my word for it.”
Drew Mattiola is a third-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at RM814408@wcupa.edu.