Educate Inc., the publicly traded company that tutors thousands of schoolchildren through its Sylvan Learning Centers and sells Hooked on Phonics curricular materials to consumers, recently acquired Reading Rainbow, the PBS children’s literacy series that has languished for lack of funding.
Within a year the company plans to give PBS a proposal for revamping the series and making it with a new creative team, said Jinny Goldstein, former PBS senior v.p. of education and recently named v.p. of education and strategy for Educate Products Division.
Twila Liggitt, longtime producer of Reading Rainbow, will leave the series after completing five programs funded by PBS. She will join the faculty of Marymount Manhattan College in New York City, where she will train future teachers in literacy education and media.
In a multilayered deal designed to bring new financing to the 23-year-old program, Nebraska’s NET network early this month sold its interest in Reading Rainbow, along with its entire Great Plains National library of instructional media—once a major classroom video asset for public TV. The state-owned network will invest the $2.5 million it received in a program endowment fund.
WNED in Buffalo, N.Y.—NET’s longtime partner in producing Reading Rainbow—retains its interest in the show and has entered a partnership with Baltimore-based Educate to co-produce new TV programs and related products.
"Reading Rainbow was the crown jewel in our library and a point of pride for us, but if we remained static in the way we were doing business, something drastic was going to happen,” said Rod Bates, NET executive director.
Under Reading Rainbow’s existing contract with PBS, which expires in fall 2007, producers will deliver five new episodes of the series this year. In preparation for renewal talks with PBS, Educate and WNED will pitch a revised show with at least 52 episodes, using a new creative team and perhaps new talent, according to Goldstein.
"We hope that in six to nine months we will have a proposal for PBS to review and make decisions in terms of where Reading Rainbow fits in the future of PBS Kids,” said Goldstein. “Our hope is that it will continue to be part of PBS for many years to come.”
WNED President Donald Boswell and Goldstein said their goals in reformatting the show are to address changes in literacy education and technology as well as to make the program more engaging for children.
Producers have struggled to keep Reading Rainbow going since Barnes & Noble ended its corporate sponsorship in 2001. After LeVar Burton, host and executive producer, made a public appeal for funding at the 2003 Daytime Emmy Awards, a new sponsor signed on, but for only one year. The last batch of five new episodes was produced in 2004, according to Liggitt.
Support from public TV’s grantmakers also was winding down. Through its past contract to manage the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready to Learn program, PBS gave the show three grants totaling $1.5 million, but new grant criteria established for RTL last year disqualified Reading Rainbow for additional funding, Bates said. In addition CPB’s television program fund turned down a grant proposal because Reading Rainbow didn’t fit into its strategic priority to invest in fresh new concepts for children’s programs, Bates said.
“There was nobody to turn to, so Buffalo and Nebraska began to look outside,” Bates said.
Educate hired Goldstein as a consultant last year as it sought to expand into educational media that would complement its existing product lines. “Since my days at PBS I had great admiration of Reading Rainbow but was also aware of its long-term funding struggle,” she said. When she considered Educate’s ambitions to expand, Reading Rainbow “jumped out in terms of its visibility and its strong and trusted brand,” she said.
Educate Inc. is a stockholder-owned education services company operating three major divisions: Sylvan Learning Center, with more than 1,000 K-12 tutoring sites in the United States and 900 in Europe; Hooked on Phonics, a product line marketed to consumers that supports basic reading, math and study skills; and Catapult Learning, which provides tutoring services to schools that fail to meet the student achievement standards of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Goldstein joined Educate as v.p. two months ago, but the company recently added another former PBS exec to its management team. Dan Hamby, former v.p. of PBS consumer products, was hired as general manager of GPN.
A from-the-heart Internet petition drive has hit its goal of obtaining 10,000 signatures voicing support for Reading Rainbow, and the long-running series’ executive producer hopes to use the support as collateral to secure new underwriters.
PBS will fund five new episodes of the 23-year stalwart for 2006, but beyond that its future is uncertain. Reading Rainbow’s funding has been shaky for many years, and host/co-executive producer LeVar Burton made an impassioned plea to keep it alive at the 2003 Daytime Emmys. (The series has won 24 in all, including its ninth Emmy as top children’s series in May.)
The series is “in dire need of funds to produce new shows ...,” warns the website SaveReadingRainbow.org. “Without new episodes, this wonderful series WILL go off the air.”
The Virginia-based Just for Mom Foundation, a support organization for mothers, launched the site in October to collect names—and money—for the show. Laurie Wing, the foundation’s media advisor, said the group read that the show was in jeopardy and sent e-mails to educator mailing lists and had just over 10,000 signatures as of late last week. (The website hawks T-shirts but doesn’t emphasize donations; it has accrued just $350, Wing said.)
The petition drive is “really kind of heartwarming,” said Twila Liggett, series founder and co-executive producer. “What appealed to me was the value of being able to say to a potential funder, ‘If you can get 10,000 people excited in a month . . .’”
Buffalo’s WNED, which co-produces the show with Nebraska ETV—didn’t learn of the existence of the website and petition drive until it received media inquires about it, said John Grant, chief program officer. At first station execs feared the website was soliciting funds without permission but later learned that Liggett and Burton let SaveReadingRainbow.org use their names and bios, he said. They are also a little irked that the website doesn’t mention the new shows slated for 2006, he added.
Although Reading Rainbow has been showered with awards over the years, the series didn’t even qualify for 2005 Emmys because it didn’t produce and air three new shows, said Liggett. It fell short in 2003 as well.
GPN director Steve Lenzen said he would consider 10 episodes an “ideal” season for the series, which has eked out just five shows most seasons lately. The PBS money covers production of five 2006 shows but not the cost of teachers’ materials, he said.
The Children’s Place, a clothing retailer, stepped up as an underwriter after Burton’s plea in 2003, but the chain has not renewed its contract, Liggett said.
Both she and Lenzen point out that Nielsen’s ratings don’t reflect school usage—Reading Rainbow is the most-used PBS program in schools, according to CPB surveys.
Although the show received $1.5 million in Ready to Learn funding from the U.S. Education Department during the previous five-year funding cycle, it was not included in PBS’s most recent funding proposal to the feds. A PBS spokeswoman said the network submitted only proposals for new shows designed to meet revised RTL grant criteria.
Web page posted March 22, 2006
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