Reading Rainbow (1983–2006)


Reading Rainbow (TV Series 1983–2006)

LeVar Burton introduces an appropriate subject for each episode to go with the featured children's book that is read in its entirety. This is followed by suggestions of other books for further reading.
IMDb   8.4 /10
TheMovieDb    8.8 /10
Creator Larry Lancit
Creator Mark Mannucci
Creator Ellen Schecter
Creator Ronnie Krauss
Release Date1983-06-06
Content RatingTV-Y (TV-Y)
AwardsNominated for 2 Primetime Emmys. Another 37 wins & 90 nominations.
CompanyGreat Plains National Television Library, WNED-TV Buffalo, Lancit Media Entertainment
Self - Host 152 episodes, 1983-2006

Reading Rainbow

Reading Rainbow is an American half-hour educational children's television series that premiered nationally on PBS Kids on July 11, 1983 and broadcast until August 28, 2009. (It was first seen in a preliminary broadcast in Nebraska and Buffalo, New York.) New episodes were broadcast through November 10, 2006, with a total of 155 half-hour episodes spanning over 21 seasons followed by reruns until August 28, 2009.

The show encouraged children to read. In 2012, an iPad and Kindle Fire educational interactive book reading and video field trip application was launched bearing the name of the program.

The public television series garnered over 200 broadcast awards, including a Peabody Award and 26 Emmy Awards, 10 of which were in the "Outstanding Children's Series" category. The concept of a reading series for children originated with Twila Liggett, PhD who in partnership with Cecily Truett Lancit and Larry Lancit, at Lancit Media Productions in New York created the television series. The original team also included Lynne Brenner Ganek, Ellen Schecter, and host LeVar Burton.

Each episode centered on a topic from a featured children's book which was explored through a number of on-location segments or stories. The show also recommended books for children to look for when they went to the library. It is the third-longest running children's series in PBS history, after Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. It was also one of the first PBS shows to be broadcast in stereo.

After the show's cancellation on November 10, 2006, reruns aired until August 28, 2009, when it was pulled off from the schedule. On June 20, 2012, the Reading Rainbow App was released for the iPad and, within 36 hours, became the #1 most-downloaded educational app in the iTunes App Store. Built from the ground up by LeVar Burton and his company, RRKIDZ, the app allows children to read unlimited books, explore video field trips starring Burton, and earn rewards for reading. The week of June 11, 2013, Reading Rainbow celebrated its 30th anniversary.

In May 2014, a Kickstarter campaign was launched to raise funds to make the app available online, Android, game consoles, smartphones, and other streaming devices along with creating a classroom version with the subscription fee waived for up to 13,000 disadvantaged classrooms. The effort met its initial fundraising goal of $1,000,000 in 11 hours, and ended a few days later at $5,408,916 from 105,857 backers. This campaign lead to the launch of Skybrary by Reading Rainbow, a web-based expansion of the Reading Rainbow app experience.

Due to a legal dispute, licensing of the Reading Rainbow brand was revoked from RRKidz in October 2017, and all its platforms (including Skybrary) were rebranded to LeVar Burton Kids.

Show details

Reading Rainbow was hosted by actor and executive producer LeVar Burton, who at the time was known for his role in Roots. The show was produced first by Lancit Media Entertainment (1983-2001), and then, by On-Screen Entertainment (2002-2006). Every episode featured a different book, often narrated by a celebrity. The featured story's illustrations were scanned by the camera in a technique known as "iconographic animation" of each page shown in succession, although on certain occasions the shots would be animated.

After the featured story, Burton visited many places relating to the episode's theme, often featuring interviews with guests. One episode featured a behind-the-scenes look at Star Trek: The Next Generation. The last segment of each show, called Book Reviews, recommended by children, began with Burton's introductory catchphrase, "But you don't have to take my word for it," and featured children giving capsule reviews of books they liked. At the end of almost every episode, Burton signs-off with "I'll see you next time."

The series' pilot, which aired as the show's 8th episode in 1983, featured the book Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and was narrated by Doug Parvin. It was created and produced in 1981. The daughters of producer Larry Lancit, Shaune and Caitlin Lancit, were often featured in the series, notably as the children thanking the sponsors at the beginning and end of the show.

Theme song and opening sequence

The show's theme song was written by Steve Horelick, Dennis Neil Kleinman, and Janet Weir; Horelick also served as the series' music director and composer for all 155 episodes and received an Emmy nomination in 2007 for his work on the series. Over the show's 23-year run, it went through three different versions of the theme song. The original theme (used from 1983 to 1998) was performed by Tina Fabrique and featured one of the first uses of the Buchla synthesizer in a TV theme song. The original opening sequence, which consisted of an animated butterfly transforming the surroundings of young children reading books into animated fantasy lands, was used until August 1999. The introductory animation was drawn at Oldfather Studios in Lawrence, Kansas on the University of Kansas campus and animated by the late Michael Sporn.

In September 1999, episodes began using a new live-action opening sequence and featured CGI in a space-themed world, with a new arrangement of the original song by Steve Horelick and performed by Johnny Kemp. A third intro was used starting in May 2000, with a rerecorded version performed by R&B artist Chaka Khan. This opening sequence is mostly the same as the second one, but features footage of Burton in place of some of the animated elements. The third intro also had the same theme song (from 1983-1999) --and with the original lyrics—but sung by Chaka Khan.

Final years as a TV series (2005–06)

Original production of the series was to have ended after April 4, 2005, with the show continuing to air in reruns, but host LeVar Burton said on February 7, 2006, that five new episodes of the show would be shot in 2006 despite the continuing financial issues of PBS. The show aired its final original episode on November 10, 2006 and continued to air reruns until 2009.

Relaunch as an app

Announcement and early developments (2010–14)

Former executive producer LeVar Burton announced on his Twitter feed on March 19, 2010, that "Reading Rainbow 2.0 is in the works." In 2011, WNED, the PBS affiliate in Buffalo, New York that owns the Reading Rainbow brand, licensed rights to the brand to Burton and his company, RRKidz. On March 4, 2012, he 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. It became available in Apple's iTunes Store on June 20, 2012, and within 36 hours was the #1 educational app. In January 2014, the Reading Rainbow App surpassed 10M books read and video field trips watched by children in 18 months.

Kickstarter revival campaign and aftermath (2014–17)

On May 28, 2014, LeVar Burton started a Kickstarter fund to revive the show and materials. In under 12 hours the show had reached its $1 million goal. The new goal is to create an educational version for schools to use, free of cost to those schools in need, and help America get back to high literacy rates. They are also going to create a website for students to use to assist them with learning how to read. The following day, May 29, 2014, they reached two million dollars (double their goal) at 1:15 pm. PST. The campaign raised $5,408,916 on Kickstarter with another one million from Family Guy creator/animator Seth MacFarlane, and $70,000 raised via direct contributions. The grand total was $6,478,916.

With 105,857 backers, the campaign holds Kickstarter's record for most backers and is the 8th highest amount raised on Kickstarter (as of June 1, 2015).

"Reading Rainbow Theme song"
Sample of "Reading Rainbow Theme Song"

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The first product of the Kickstarter campaign was Skybrary by Reading Rainbow. Launched in May 2015, it was a web based subscription service that duplicated the Reading Rainbow app experience. In addition to narrating many of the books, Burton hosted video fieldtrips which connected kids to real world experiences at places like NASA HQ and Niagara Falls.

In March 2016, RRKidz launched a new online educational service called Reading Rainbow Skybrary for Schools that follows the same mission of the television series, while expanding to integrate into classroom curriculums.

In August 2017, WNED filed a wide-ranging lawsuit against Burton and RRKidz that demanded Burton's company hand over administrative access to other websites and social media accounts. The lawsuit also sought to enjoin Burton from using the Reading Rainbow catchphrase, "But you don't have to take my word for it," on his podcast.

In October 2017, WNED and RRKidz settled out of court. While the exact terms were confidential, the end result was that RRKidz was no longer a licensee of the Reading Rainbow brand. RRKidz was rebranded LeVar Burton Kids and its services (including Skybrary) removed references to Reading Rainbow. In addition, Burton was allowed to continue using the Reading Rainbow catchphrase. Visiting the official Reading Rainbow website provided a page that stated "Recent legal disputes between WNED and LeVar Burton/RRKIDZ have been resolved and RRKIDZ no longer licenses the Reading Rainbow brand from WNED. WNED is currently working on the next chapter of Reading Rainbow and will continue its mission of fostering education for a new generation."

WNED announced in November 2018 that research and development had begun on a new Reading Rainbow program thanks to a $200,000 grant from The John R. Oishei Foundation.

Skybrary was acquired by Reading is Fundamental in March 2019.

Animation producers

Feature Book filming

The photographing of the Feature Book segments was by:

  • Centron Films (1983–87; renamed in 1986 to "Centron Productions Inc.")
  • Loren Dolezal (1988–98; renamed in 1995 to "Dolezal Animation"); Take Ten Animation teamed up with Dolezal from 1995 to 1998.
  • On Screen Entertainment (2000–06)
  • Roger Holden, designer of the digital animation photography system used by Centron Films to film the Feature Book segments (1983–87)

Writing and illustrating contest

In 1995, the creators launched the first contest called "Reading Rainbow Young Writers and Illustrators Contest". The annual writing and illustrating competition for children grades K through 3 continued until 2009 when it was relaunched as "PBS Kids Go! Writers Contest". Then in 2014, it was renamed to "PBS Kids Writers Contest", due to the revamped brand.