Even after Reading Rainbow ended its 26-year-long run in 2009, series host LeVar Burton wasn't ready to drop its mission of promoting reading habits and literacy. He brought the series back as an iPad app two years ago, to much acclaim, but Burton still hasn't been satisfied with what it's been able to accomplish. "97 percent of the families in [the United States] have access to the web," Burton tells The Verge by phone. But tablets — where Reading Rainbow now lives — are far more limited: "Only about 33 percent have access to tablet computing."
"The nature of the show really lends itself ideally to the digital realm."Burton and his company RRKidz now want to bring Reading Rainbow to nearly everyone, and they're launching a Kickstarter campaign today to fund a version that's built for the web, allowing it to reach far more kids across the globe. "You take advantage of where kids are. Back in the ’80s that was in front of the television set," Burton says. "Today, you have to have access to the web. Universal access is really what this effort is all about."
The Kickstarter is looking to raise $1 million and wants to accomplish three goals: bringing Reading Rainbow to the web, creating a version meant for teachers' use in classrooms, and setting up a not-for-profit with the goal of giving Reading Rainbow away to low-income schools for free. Other schools and individual families will still be able to use Reading Rainbow on the web, but they'll have to pay a subscription to access it — for personal use of the iPad app, that's about $60 per year.
"I'm really proud of the way we've translated the television show into a tablet app for kids," Burton says. "The nature of the show really lends itself ideally to the digital realm."
The web version of Reading Rainbow should look a lot like the iPad version, which Burton likes because it allows kids to read a book on their own or choose to watch an actor read a book to them in addition to taking them on "field trips," just like the show has always done. "It's not rocket science," Burton says. "We have the formula. We know what works. And Reading Rainbow has always worked." On the iPad app, he says that kids are currently reading around 139,000 books each week.
"Our educational system — the way we educate our kids — is failing our children."Burton believes that bringing back Reading Rainbow in a big way is increasingly important due to a dearth of quality educational programming for kids, as well as the United States' sluggish economy making it harder for its government to invest in education.
"We have this idea of ourselves as Americans that we offer the best education available and that we can compete on a world level with anybody, with any nation, any time, any year," Burton says. "That is, these days, much more an outdated image of ourselves rather than the reality. We are in trouble. Our educational system — the way we educate our kids — is failing our children."
Going to Kickstarter — especially for such a large amount of money — is always a risk, but Burton is excited for it and becomes increasingly animated as he explains just how much it'll let his company get done. He's hopeful the campaign will strike something inside of adults who grew up on the show. That's not simply because they might have fond memories. It's because they should already be aware that the series is funded and has always relied on "viewers like you."
Still, it'll be a harder sell than other Kickstarters, which are effectively used to take preorders on unfinished products. "Unlike the Pebble, I can't send you a watch," Burton says. You can get a subscription to the app, but that won't be valuable to everyone who Burton hopes will support the project. "I'm really asking you to donate to a cause that you may not get a direct benefit from in the immediate sense."
"Long term, I know if we're successful we're going to have a better educated populace in America, and we'll be better prepared to compete going forward," Burton says. He suspects there are plenty of adults who can attest to Reading Rainbow's success, and he sincerely hopes that they will, because when it comes to education, he says, "We're getting our assess kicked right now."
Update May 28th, 8:04 PM: The project has blown by its funding goal, and now sits at $1,025,584. It's still climbing quickly.