By now you’ve likely heard the news that Reading Rainbow, the classic children’s show that fostered a love of reading in its audience and featured one of the catchiest tunes in theme-song history, is coming back. No, not to your local PBS station; it’s going straight to the Web. And if LeVar Burton — host of the original series, who purchased the rights to the brand when the show was cancelled in 2009 — has his way, the series will be coming to a cell phone, video game console, and set-top box near you as well.
At least that’s the plan if Burton’s current Kickstarter campaign can raise another $1 million over the next eight days. Which may sound like a lot, until you learn that the campaign generated its first $1 million (its total original goal) within 11 hours of its launch on May 28th. With the days ticking by and the dollars adding up, Rolling Stone spoke with Burton about Reading Rainbow‘s legacy, putting his reputation on the line, and what Zach Braff taught him about crowdfunding.
How and when did the idea of utilizing Kickstarter come about for bringing Reading Rainbow back?
I noticed Kickstarter when it first came on the scene a couple of years ago and I’ve watched it mature. But our journey really began when my daughter, Michaela, who will be 20 in a couple of weeks, said, “You know dad, you should really look at doing a Kickstarter for Reading Rainbow.”
Had you been trying to utilize more traditional methods of fundraising to bring the show back?
Oh. God. Yes. We spent a lot of time — maybe 18 to 20 months — looking for money. [People] had been very slow to respond. They had some hesitancy about the relevance of the brand and our mission. I think that the venture capital community knows a lot about a lot of things, but they don’t know much about education. So we just kept slugging and kept slugging. And the bloodier our knees got, the more we warmed to the idea of crowdfunding.
Which makes sense as Kickstarter has really become a modern-day version of PBS. They’re both audience-supported.
Exactly. That was one of the things that we identified with very early on. PBS has always been “supported by viewers like you.” So we felt like we were going back to the roots of the PBS model in a modern sense. That’s exactly what crowdfunding is in my view.
Has the success of the campaign allowed for any of those “ha ha” moments with those people who were originally dragging their feet on financing?
It could have been, but it’s really not because now all those people are calling back [laughs]. It’s because we have demonstrated the relevance for the mission and the strength of the brand. Now we don’t need their money — so of course they’re calling. Isn’t that always the way?
In business, you have to be willing to take risks. And for me, on a very personal level, it was risky to take this 30-year-old platinum brand and very publicly ask for money. If it had not been successful it could have spelled the end. So there was considerable risk. I’m very much identified with this brand — and the brand with me — so on a personal level, I was all in on this deal. I pushed all my chips to the center of the table.
The entertainment world is all about timing. What made you believe that now was the right time to do this?
The success of Zach Braff’s movie and the Veronica Mars project definitely got my attention. I went and talked to Zach right after he raised his funding on Kickstarter. I had seen some of the throwback and the negative stuff, but I also wanted to ask him about the positives. I wanted to ask him what his experience was like, because he had had been through it. And I really wanted to gain his insight.
What was the best advice he gave you?
Hire an expert, which we did. In terms of the rewards: Do as many digital rewards as you can. He indicated that his shipping costs for T-shirts and things was considerable, and was something that he had not considered going into it.
Your original goal of $1 million was met less than 12 hours after going live. Is that something you at all anticipated?
No. That was a huge and complete surprise. It was a shock, actually — albeit a good one. Every day of my life, people come up to me and tell me how much Reading Rainbow has meant to them. So I knew that there was love for the brand. I was just not prepared for how deep that love would run.
And now you’re working on your stretch goal of $5 million. Did you always have that in mind? No. No. No. No. [Laughs] Everything that’s happened after day one has been us responding to the situation as it has unfolded. I think that’s a testament to our team. I have a great team. And we’re a small company—we’re still a start-up — so we’re small enough to be able to quickly respond to an emerging and shifting reality.
The new $5 million goal will allow you to have Reading Rainbow on mobile devices, game consoles, and set-top boxes. Will that allow you to reach a different audience than what the straight online app might do?
For us, it’s about universal access. We believe that in order to reach kids, you need to be where they are. And whether that’s on a handheld or a tablet or a game console, the point is to be in front of them on the devices that they choose to be on. So it’s not a different audience, it’s just the audience. The audience that can’t afford an iPad may be on the Web or if you don’t have an Android, you probably have access to the technology in school.
The original show ran on PBS from 1983 to 2006, then continued in reruns for another three years. What ultimately caused the show to end?
We were a victim of No Child Left Behind, in that the shift in the governmental policy made a choice between teaching kids how to read and fostering a love of reading. And teaching kids how to read was the direction that No Child Left Behind mandated. We have never been about the rudiments of reading, so we were left on the minus side of that equation.
On your Kickstarter page, you note that as of 2011, America is the only free-market country where the current generation is less well educated than the one before. Why do you think that is?
Because we’ve taken our eyes off the prize. We have taken how America has traditionally educated our kids for granted. And we have invested an awful lot of money in war and the machinery of war.
How do you think that technology has changed how kids read, what they read, and even if they read?
I have to say, as a fan of technology, I guess I’ve always thought counterintuitively about this because with Reading Rainbow the television series, the debate 31 years ago — when we first began this journey — was: Is television the enemy of education? And I thought, here in television lies a great assist and a great ally in educating our kids. I feel the same way about the current digital media. I think that this is a tremendous opportunity for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that these gadgets that we all carry around are so engaging. We want to spend time on them, we want to interact with them, and that interaction is something television does not offer. So I’m really excited about the potential for technology being a great tool in the education process.
How will the “new” Reading Rainbow address the tech-savvy nature of today’s kids?
We’re doing the same thing that we always did: We’re highlighting books and we’re giving kids access to them. That’s the thing that we can do now that we couldn’t do on television. On TV, we’d feature one selection per show and then have kids review three or four other books. The Reading Rainbow app is a library; we have over 400 books and counting. We’ve always been known for the video field trip, which ties the real world to the literature the kids are interested in reading. Being in the digital realm gives us the perfect opportunity to deliver both of those assets — the book asset and the video asset — directly to the child, all on the device that he or she wants to be on. It’s just great. Kids are reading 184,000 books a week on the Reading Rainbow app. That’s serious business.
What point in the process are you at with the show right now?
We are shooting content for the app constantly. I am packing right now to go to Las Vegas, where we are shooting eight segments for the app over the next four days. We’re doing the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, the history of vertical flight, all kinds of things.
What are some of your most memorable episodes from the original series?
Oh my! Well I learned how to fly a plane and scuba dive. We did a segment with Stomp, which I love. This is the 31st anniversary of the brand, but for the 26 years that we were in production I got to travel around and do amazing things, all in the service of turning kids on to literature.
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More than 83,000 people have backed the campaign so far. Do you have any idea of who the typical backer is?
I would say that the typical backer is in their early twenties to thirties and they grew up on the show. They have a set of values that definitely includes altruism and a personal responsibility for the world in which they live.
The Kickstarter campaign has also generated some negative reactions from places, most notably The Washington Post . You’ve been an actor for a long time so certainly understand that there will always be critics. Have you spent much reading or responding to any of the criticism?
When it comes up, I address it. Otherwise I just keep walking. I did not read The Washington Post article myself, but from what’s been pointed out to me it was clear that the writer did not read the Kickstarter page nor did he watch the video, just based on some of the criticisms that were written. It’s all good though. Freedom of the press is an important part of the freedom that we enjoy here.
Reading Rainbow was all about teaching kids, but what’s the most important lesson you learned?
Never trust a goat.