Kickstarter propels Reading Rainbow partnership into digital future

By Dru Sefton

Actor LeVar Burton’s multimillion-dollar Kickstarter campaign to fund a digital rebirth of Reading Rainbow promises to reconnect classrooms with the legacy public TV brand and could inspire a new version of the children’s literacy series from partner WNED-TV.

Burton’s campaign seeks crowdfunding for a for-profit venture to make storybooks and videos accessible to children and teachers on more digital platforms, yet the Buffalo station has a stake in his success. WNED, which co-produced the PBS series, retained ownership of the property when it went out of production. It is partnering with Burton on the digital venture and hopes to channel enthusiasm for that project into an on-air rebirth as well.

Actor LeVar Burton "feels just as passionate about the brand as we do," said Don Boswell, president of WNED, which owns the Reading Rainbow brand. (Photo: RRKidz)

“We’ve shown that it’s possible to use engaging technologies to get kids to read,” Burton says. “We want to expand that footprint and go after universal access.” (Photo: RRKidz)

“Our station will never give up this brand. It’s one of the most trusted gifts that we have,” WNED President Don Boswell said. “And LeVar feels just as passionate about the brand as we do.”

“WNED is always going to own that brand,” Burton said in an interview with Current. His company, RRKidz, has licensed worldwide rights to Reading Rainbow and has built a digital audience for its storybook-based content through freemium apps for the iPad and Kindle Fire platforms. More than 15 million books and videos have been accessed through the apps since they launched in 2012, according to RRKidz.

Through a Kickstarter campaign that launched May 28, Burton plans to “bring Reading Rainbow back for every child, everywhere” through web content and mobile devices. The Kickstarter cash will back development of a new version of the app that’s tailored specifically for classroom uses, make content from both the general-audience and educational apps accessible on the Web and provide yearlong subscriptions to the full Reading Rainbow library to at least 1,500 classrooms.

The campaign hit its initial goal in just 11 hours and set a new goal of $5 million. With that, RRKids will provide subscriptions to 7,500 classrooms and offer content on a wider variety of digital platforms, including game consoles and connected televisions.

RRKids and WNED are collaborating on all work related to Reading Rainbow, including the digital revamp. “We stay in touch regularly,” Boswell said. “We talk about next steps, we offer ideas and suggestions.” RRKidz “is always very good about showing us what they’re doing and asking our insight. And rightly so. LeVar wants to make sure we’re in the loop. We don’t want to be a distant partner.”

Reaction to the Kickstarter campaign has been extraordinary, prompting coverage in Time, the Wall Street Journal and People and on NBC’s Today. The Onion poked fun at the campaign’s success with a “person on the street” interview (“I really wish Reading Rainbow had been there for me last year when I was struggling with Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge,” one complained). Burton capitalized on the excitement by releasing a parody of the show’s theme song on the Funny or Die website June 4, which earned 35,000 views within hours.

All the attention is good news for WNED. The station gets a cut of Reading Rainbow app proceeds and merchandise like T-shirts and coffee mugs; to date, that comes to around $100,000, Boswell said. And he believes the groundswell of support is evidence that the time may be right for a new TV version.

Since the Kickstarter campaign began, “not a day goes by that I don’t get 10 calls from all over about doing the television show, from both individual viewers and other stations,” Boswell said, adding that he makes clear to all callers that the current online campaign is strictly for the digital version.

Boswell said he’s waiting for the Kickstarter campaign to conclude July 2 to gauge interest in an on-air resurrection. “Then we’ll start our crusade,” he said.

Burton is also optimistic about reviving the TV series. “All this may lead to Reading Rainbow back on PBS,” he said — adding that, yes, he’d be open to hosting.

“I’ll see you next time”
Burton in the pilot episode, 1983. (Photo: WNED)

Burton in the pilot episode, 1983. (Photo: WNED)

The television program originally grew out of WNED’s local Reading Rocket back in the 1970s; an intern at the station later came up with the name Reading Rainbow, Boswell said.

The station partnered with NET Nebraska, which then distributed instructional TV programming to classrooms, to take the show national. Executive Producer Twila Liggett developed the half-hour show at NET, and it premiered on PBS in 1983. In addition to pubTV broadcasts, NET initially distributed it through audiovisual tapes to schools and libraries across the country, according to an NET spokesperson.

When CPB fielded a study of educational media in the late ’90s, Reading Rainbow ranked among the top public TV programs for classroom use by elementary-school teachers.

In each episode, host Burton and celebrity guests read books to children and Burton took viewers along on fun video field trips to experience stories firsthand. Children also contributed to programs by reviewing books they liked. Episodes featured a catchy theme song, lots of rainbows and butterflies, and Burton’s friendly sign-off: “I’ll see you next time.”

The program wasn’t about the nuts and bolts of teaching kids to read, Liggett said. “It celebrated the pleasure and joy of reading, and educationally really got at retention and comprehension.”

But the revenue model that supported the show — a combination of corporate sponsorships, federal grants, instructional TV distribution and PBS funding — began to fall apart in 2001. When NET sold its instructional video business in 2006, it transferred brand rights to WNED.

By the time production ended in 2006, the series had won more than 200 awards, including a Peabody and 26 Emmys. Repeats continued to air on some stations until broadcast rights expired in August 2009.

When the show went off the air, “we saw that as an opportunity,” Burton said.

Just six months later, Burton went onstage at the Macworld tech conference in San Francisco to announce that he had raised seed money to develop the Reading Rainbow app.

Now, each week, kids read more than 139,000 books through it, Burton said.

“We’ve shown that it’s possible to use engaging technologies to get kids to read,” he said. “We want to expand that footprint and go after universal access.” Even kids who can’t afford mobile devices work on computers at school, he noted.

Running after the money
More than 15 million books and videos have been accessed by kids using the Reading Rainbow app, which launched in 2012. (Image: RRKidz)

More than 15 million books and videos have been accessed by kids using the Reading Rainbow app, which launched in 2012. (Image: RRKidz)

Burton’s push to bring Reading Rainbow’s digital content to more children through a for-profit company is not without criticism. On May 28, the Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey wrote in a blog post: “Crowdfunding is theoretically supposed to bolster charities, start-ups, independent artists, small-business owners and other projects that actually need the financial support of the masses to succeed. It’s not supposed to be co-opted by companies with profit motives and private investors of their own — which, despite Burton’s charisma, is exactly what the Rainbow reboot is.”

But Burton insisted that Kickstarter is the right venue for broadening financial support for the public-private partnership. “The traditional venture-capital world has been very slow to get on board with projects like this,” he said. “Education isn’t sexy. We’re not producing a product or a new technology, we’re utilizing existing technology.”

“I believe very strongly in a public-private partnership,” he added. “Government funding can no longer do it all. And it’s incumbent upon us to figure it out.”

Liggett agreed, citing the for-profit Sesame Workshop, which produces Sesame Street, as an example. “When you don’t have a steady income stream, you’re constantly running after money to fund the show,” she said. Having a for-profit unit developing the brand “is very smart.”

“Content does not create itself,” Burton said. “Neither is it free to create. We have employees to pay, engineers, artists, coders. We have a financial obligation to publishers and a fiduciary responsibility to writers and illustrators for worldwide distribution of their intellectual property. None of this happens in an economic vacuum.”

Currently, the Reading Rainbow app is free to download and comes with five books and several videos. Monthly subscriptions for unlimited access start at $9.99. A spokesperson for RRKidz declined to discuss revenues or subscription numbers.

The original TV production bore large overhead costs from securing rights for books, Boswell said. “One way to save money now would be using self-published books that still reach our high educational standards,” Boswell said.

Boswell estimates that producing a new pubTV Reading Rainbow would cost between $125,000 and $150,000 per episode. He’d like to bring a fully funded proposal to PBS, which will be tricky, because underwriters first want assurance of national distribution. PBS spokesperson Jan McNamara told Current that PBS “is always interested in discussing ideas for programming with our stations.”

But if public television passed on the new Reading Rainbow, Boswell said, he’d consider pitching to other venues such as the Disney Channel. “But my first commitment would be to PBS,” he added.

Questions, comments, tips? sefton@current.org

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