Will the ‘Reading Rainbow’ reboot be just as magical without LeVar Burton?
The new hosts have some big shoes to fill.
Elder millennials remember learning about books on public television, not from TikTok. It was a simpler time, and LeVar Burton held our hands as “Butterfly in the Sky” played to announce another episode of Reading Rainbow. But for a new generation, the cult classic WNED PBS literacy program is finally getting an update. Reading Rainbow Live, which begins streaming on Sunday, March 6 on Looped, will be an interactive show with dancing and games hosted by a gaggle of twenty-somethings called “The Rainbows.” Creative director Amy Guglielmo said of the new format, "We have an opportunity through Looped to have kids pop in from home, sort of like a souped up Zoom party.”
It’s certainly a deviation from the original show, which began in 1983 and won multiple Emmys and a Peabody Award. This new iteration definitely sounds like it’s marketed towards kids who grew up with iPads, but that’s kind of the point. It’s not so much a show, but an “event,” as it’s being called. It describes itself as, “inspired by the values of the original Reading Rainbow program: that through books we can go anywhere, and be anything ... Each event consists of a 25-minute show with singing, dancing, field trips, and special guests, followed by a 25-minute Reading Rainbow Live After Show Experience, where those who have purchased an Interactive Ticket can hang out with the Rainbows, meet some of our special guests, and more.” Very 21st century.
OG reading king LeVar Burton isn’t likely to be catching this singing, dancing, reading event, though. Burton attempted to keep the 20-year work of Reading Rainbow alive after its cancellation through a Reading Rainbow app that was originally licensed with WNED and put out through Burton’s company RRKidz. But after a Kickstarter campaign raised over $5 million with the mission of bringing the app to as many children as possible, Burton ended up in a contentious legal battle with WNED. The broadcast network alleged contract and trademark violations and accused Burton of making new Reading Rainbow episodes and talking to Netflix without permission. WNED said Burton was “illicitly and methodically” attempting to take over the Reading Rainbow brand. The two parties eventually settled, with Burton changing the name of his company to LeVar Burton Kids. Burton now has a subscription library called Skybrary and a reading podcast for adults.
The Reading Rainbow Live events will be produced by Buffalo Toronto Public Media, the parent of WNED, which broadcasted the original show. Executive Vice President Nancy Hammond remarked to NPR on the rebranding, “Kids generally don't sit down in front of a television to watch TV at an appointed time. ... Kids are watching content on mobile devices. They're streaming it on their tablets.” If they’re using that time to learn to love reading, then so be it. We’ll see if The Rainbows can fill Burton’s very large shoes, but for the new generation of kids watching, it doesn’t really matter if the new show meets the standard of the old. The mission of Reading Rainbow Live seems to be to evolve the franchise, not to revive it.