Tuesday, September 08, 2009

At the Rainbow’s End

By Lauren Barack -- School Library Journal, 9/3/2009 8:08:00 AM

Unwilling to let the book close on the Emmy Award-winning Reading Rainbow, many in the educational community are signing petitions, donating money, and encouraging viewers to speak up in the hope of getting their beloved program back on the air.

Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton taped his last show in 2006.

“There’s nothing like it,” says Anne Dean Mackintosh, a retired teacher from Haddonfield, NJ, who started one such petition late last month when news broke that the show would stop running as of Aug. 31. “The show connects to kids without talking down to them, and makes it cool to read.”

Public television station WNED, which owns the rights to Reading Rainbow, pulled the plug on the show after underwriting grants that paid the publishing and residual fees ran out, says John Grant, one of the executive producers for the program and the chief content officer for the station.

Those fees just kept 155 old episodes in rotation, says Grant who added that a new production would have cost $2 million to $3 million a year. Even though Reading Rainbow stopped taping new shows in 2006, with host LeVar Burton officially stepping down in January 2007, costs still ran about $250,000 to $300,000 each year to keep it on the air for the last two years. “There were a number of [financial] obligations attached to the show,” Grant explains.

While the program remained in rotation, executives at WNED and PBS suspected it was more popular with educators than with general viewers.

Still, those librarians and teachers who continue to champion the 30-minute episodes are a passionate lot, launching a Facebook group, Wiki, a petition and an online pledge drive to try and get Reading Rainbow back on air.

“I don’t think $250,000 sounds like a lot to me,” says Mackintosh. “If the word had gone out earlier, I think they could have raised that.”

But while Grant says the outpouring for the 26-year-old show has been heartwarming, he is trying not to encourage viewers to send in small donations in hopes it will run again. “We’re not going to be able to bring it back at $50 a person,” he says.

Yet, although fans can continue to buy copies, or view episodes they taped from air for one-year after recording them, others aren’t yet willing to give up the possibility of resurrecting the program. “It affected a lot of adults as well as kids and there are a large number of people who feel strongly,” says Mackintosh.

Reading Rainbow, which celebrated reading by having Burton and other celebrities like Bill Cosby and Flavor Flav narrate stories, and featured children reviewing the books on air, is a distinct departure from the now-trendy programming that pushes phonics to teach kids how to read. And that may have been its death knell, in the end.

“Reading Rainbow was born out of the desire to encourage the love of reading,” says Grant. “And that wasn’t the priority anymore.”

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