LaVar Burton on reviving ‘Reading Rainbow,’ mentor William Shatner and being the butt of the joke
TheWrap.com - LeVar Burton wants more people to read, which is just fine by us at TheWrap. However, his “Reading Rainbow” target audience is admittedly slightly younger than our demo.
Burton, also of “Star Trek” and “Roots” fame, recently raised more than a million dollars in less than a day on Kickstarter to revive his popular PBS project from the '80s. This time around, “Reading Rainbow” has taken the form of an interactive, multi-platform app intended for home and the classroom.
At the time of this writing, Burton's project had generated over $3.6 million. He still has 20 days to go to reach his revised goal of $5 million.
TheWrap talked with with TV icon about his literacy program and app (which he now owns the rights too), crowdfunding, and being the butt of the joke:
TheWrap: You've played yourself on a lot of different shows: “Family Guy,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Community”: Do you like being in on the joke when it comes to your status as a pop culture icon? Does it get tiring or is it fun?
Burton: My friend Bill Shatner is really a role model for me, in that regard, because as iconic as he is… when he started taking the piss, if you will, out of that iconic status — his popularity just augmented exponentially. And, I think it's healthy. You can't take yourself too seriously. If you do, then you're really boring.
Why [bring back "Reading Rainbow"] now?
Well, I guess it's confluence of timing and opportunity. It's a full digital technology renaissance that we're in. It's certainly given us some unforeseen opportunities — especially where education is concerned.
We know that these devices are tremendously engaging. We all want to spend time on them. I love my gadgets and I love my tablet, almost more than any other gadget I have. But, in a world of smartphones and tablets — and you know, 97 percent of our families in America have access to the web — if you don't use this technology to educate our kids, I think we're missing a huge opportunity. So, that combined with just the real sweet spot that “Reading Rainbow” seems to occupy in the memories of a whole lot of adults now, who were kids and grew up on this show.
The nostalgia factor must help with raising funds. You know, I don't have a similar franchise from my childhood that, so it's kind of difficult for me to relate. But, I think, you know, if Fred [Rogers of "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood"] were alive and going into the digital medium and if he went to Kickstarter… I would be absolutely the first to go into my pocket.
I really do believe that “Reading Rainbow” was an example of television at its best. That PBS model really was valuable for providing quality enriching entertainment. Our parents, their generation, knew that whatever they sat us down in front of on PBS, they didn't need to know what the show was, because they knew that it was good, and it was going to be healthy and it was going to add value to their kids’ lives, and that really means something.
What is the new “Reading Rainbow” going to look like? What can we expect to see?
Well, the app that's currently available on the iPad and the Kindle Fire is a library of books, hundreds of books, and video field trips. Remember, “Reading Rainbow” was very, very famous [for] and quite successful at tying the real world back to the literature that the kids were reading through the video field trip with LeVar. And that's a very important part of what we are offering now in the “Reading Rainbow” app.
So, the library of hundreds of books and hundreds of video field trips, brand new content, brand new video field trips with LeVar, just like the original television series. So, this digital realm gives us the ability to deliver that content, all wrapped in an experience of exploration and discovery.
The child is in the cockpit of their own hot air balloon, and out there, they'll find islands in the sky that are themed, and it is on those themed islands that they will go and find books that they'll want to read and videos that they'll want to watch. If you want to read about animals, you'll go to Animal Kingdom Island. If you want to read biographies of famous people, then go to Awesome People Island. So, it's a self-guided, self-directed, self-selected experience for the child around the written word.
Crowdfunding is also a product of the digital age. Were there other more traditional avenues you were looking into, or was it crowdfunding all the way when you wanted to do this?
No, no, no. We were able to get some seed funding from the [Ewing Marion] Kauffman Foundation and a private investor. That got us to where we are now. We were able to build a team, develop the product and release the “Reading Rainbow” app two years ago this summer. And that's what the seed money was designed to do, to help us prove out our concept, which I believe we've done quite successfully.
Kids come to the app and read about 139,000 books a week. Now, that's significant, number one, because there isn't a bricks and mortar library on the planet that can deliver that many books to kids in a week's time, and number two, what it says is that kids will come to this very engaging technology to read. Not just play games, they're coming to read, and that's a game changer for me.
Did you ever consider making it a traditional television show like before?
Not initially. When I went and acquired the rights to the brand, I knew that we could always go back to television, but digital media was really beginning to heat up. This was going back over three years ago now, four years ago, actually. And when we started this journey, the iPad hadn't even come out. When it did, we were able to drill down. Now, we know what our vertical is, now we know we can do books and video, and we just had to figure out what the mechanics of that was, what it looked like.
The new goal for fundraising is 5 million? That's important to us because one of the things we were looking to raise the first million for was a) Get it to the web, we were looking to expand our footprint, get it to the web, and b) develop a product specifically for the classroom.
“Reading Rainbow,” the television show, was really loved by teachers for its content. And teachers, they're already using the consumer version of the product, but it's not designed for that. We want to give teachers all the bells and whistles they need. First of all, they need to track the progress of 30-35 kids in their classroom, not just the five profiles that you can currently have on the app. So, that was really important to us.
And, it gave us that ability, that first million, to give the product away, identify 1,500 classrooms in need, and give the product to them, free of charge. With this new goal, we've expanded that number to 7,500 classrooms and it gets us absolute, universal access. It gives us the ability to get the product on Android, that's really important. That's a huge market. Mobile is a huge market. Gaming consoles, how many of our kids these days consume their content on gaming platforms, Xbox, Playstation. So, universal access is really what this is about, and the product for schools, and giving it away, making that a part of our mission, as well.