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Talking with LeVar Burton About Reading Rainbow (The Next Generation)

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LeVar Burton is known to many science fiction fans as blind engineer Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The series aired on from 1987 to 1994, reprising the role in four subsequent Star Trek movies. His first major role, playing the Kunta Kinte in the 1977 mini-series Roots, garnered Burton an Emmy nomination.

To many 20-somethings, LeVar Burton is most beloved as the host of PBS’ long-running children’s show, Reading Rainbow, for which he also served as executive producer. The award-winning, innovative half-hour series helped create a generation of lifetime readers long beginning long before Harry Potter happened on the scene. And then by showcasing good children books and exploring the themes of those books through a variety of methods, including video field trips.” Burton told me during a phone interview earlier this week, “we created a connection between literature and real-world experience.”

A staple of PBS’ wonderful stable of educational entertainment programming for children, the show was cancelled in 2006. But not for too long; the future of Reading Rainbow was far from cancellation.

Burton and his partners have now re-invented Reading Rainbow in a sort of 2.0 version, designed to meet 21st Century children where they are now—in the digital world of tablet devices. Introduced at this summer’s Apple’s WWDC, the Worldwide Developers’ Conference, the Reading Rainbow iPad app quickly became best seller, introducing the iconic edutainment concept to the children of the Reading Rainbow’s generation, now beginning to have children of their own. “For that generation who really watched the show and grew up with it, [Reading Rainbow is] like one of those sweet spots in your childhood,” Burton noted.

No coincidence, then, that Burton has now decided to take Reading Rainbow into the hottest medium of the decade at this moment in time. “When PBS pulled the-the show out of Ready to Learn lineup, which is basically the sort of a core curriculum block of programming for early childhood education on PBS, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.” That first generation of Reading Rainbow kids were upset because the show would not be there for their own kids. “There was sort of an outcry, outpouring of sentiment. There was the opportunity to reinvent the show for a new generation of kids whose parents did in fact have familiarity with the brand and what we accomplished in their lives.”

Introducing the app at the WWDC was huge. “It’s a great honor,” Burton acknowledged. “To be asked to unveil the app at WWDC, put us in an extraordinary position. We needed to work very, very closely with Apple to release the app, you know. It was a gigantic task, and-and we got it done. We launched two months ago. And we’re at the very beginning of our journey.”

The choice of releasing this next generation of Reading Rainbow on iPad, and not other platforms used by children, was carefully considered. “I believe in the very core of my being that the tablet computer is the device of the future, where the intersection of entertainment and education will exist. When the iPad came out I knew that’s where I wanted Reading Rainbow to be. Our kids are on these tablets, devices, and mobile devices for the foreseeable future.” With all the content available for the iPad (and other tablets), there’s a lot to consume. “And,” added Burton, not all of it is healthy. Not all of it is contributing anything to their lives.”

The Reading Rainbow iPad app has much in common with the original series. In translating the iconic television series to tablet, there “were two absolutely must-haves” they had to get just right, said Burton, “the presenting the theme of the book,” and of course the video field trip to a themed island. “So, once-once we solved for that, right? We don’t have a half an hour to explore the theme of one book [as we did on the television series], but [the app has] theme guidance for kids to find books that they like based on the themes of the island.” There are more than 150 books already embedded into the app’s library, but they’re adding more all the time. “It’s our responsibility to continue to refresh our content.” One of the main differences, of course, and only possible with this sort of technology is to actually include the books within the experience. Rather than a passive pursuit as with a television show, children can actually read (or have read to them) any of the books, which come alive with “hot spots” that trigger sound effects or animations.

The possibilities are endless, not only for the individual user, but in education. “This is what I’m excited about, is taking this model and moving it into education itself. If you combine storytelling with a very engaging interactive device, there’s nothing you can’t teach,” explained Burton with tremendous passion for both the product and the idea of how much you can have an impact on learning with new technology and media. “And more to the point,” he added, “there’s nothing that a human being can’t learn on their own if they are literate in at least one language. Now you’ve created the most dangerous animal on the planet. A human being who is free, because they can learn anything on their own.”

There are plans in the works for expanding the audience for Reading Rainbow in education, and even adult education. But that’s not something Burton was prepared to talk about just yet. For now, Burton is concerned about assuring universal access to the new Reading Rainbow.

“I’m talking about putting a tablet computer in the hands of every child in this nation. When I say universal access, let’s be clear about what my definition is.” To Burton, it’s all about planting the seeds in children to love reading—to love learning. But how do you accomplish that? “Well, it’s got to [start with] a coalition. All the potential companies then to make a contribution to buy in. You’ve got to bring together the Apples, the Microsofts, the Intels, the Sonys of the world. We have the ability. We just need to marshal the will to get it done.”

This is something Burton and his partners are actively working on. It’s an ambitious dream, but hearing the passion in Burton’s voice, and seeing what he’s already accomplished over the past many years, I’m sure it’s attainable.

In addition to his front-and-center role in re-launching Reading Rainbow, Burton can be seen these days on television playing the chancellor of a fictitious Chicago university (which reminds me suspiciously of the University of Chicago). Perception, which stars Edward McCormack (Will and Grace) airs on TNT Monday nights.

“It is interesting. It’s fun too, to follow along, to be a part of it. It’s awesome. It really is. I love Eric. He’s such a good actor; he’s a marvel to watch, and he’s also a producer of the show, so he’s wearing two hats and-and very successfully I might add. I know the creator, Ken Biller, from my Star Trek days (Biller was a writer/producer on Star Trek Voyager, for which Burton directed several episodes). Perception real smart, cleverly written look into mental health, and I guess the conversation that we really should be having in this country today.”

Burton is also in the thick of this year’s 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation. “This year and next there is a reunion tour happening for the Next Generation. We began it in Calgary back in April or May, and we have a couple dates closing out this year in Austin, Texas and I think San Francisco, and then next year many dates in Canada and in the US. So that’s exciting. I get to see some of my best friends.”

The cast has stayed close all these years, as Burton notes. “We are a very, very close cast. We’re a family. You don’t often get a chance to hang out and have dinner and drink and laugh and reminisce.” So, keep an eye on more information on the tour, and if you have children or grandchildren, make sure you check out the Reading Rainbow iPad app, free (with limited free content) in the App Store. Subscription plans are also available.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • Bill Otten

    I think it is so great that LeVar is so dedicated to getting kids to read.Great idea to upgrade Reading Rainbow to an app. He is one of the most talented actors out there today!

  • Augie

    Lavar Burton’s project sounds fantastic.
    Is there a way to contact him? I’m involved with Poetry and Mystery Writers who will host in the San Gabriel Valley area a festival that would showcase authors Feb. 2013.
    It would be great if he could contact our group.
    Thank you

  • barbara barnett

    Hi Augie. I would suggest tweeting him at @levarburton