The cast of Reading Rainbow Live sit together on set
Reading Rainbow Live is hosted by a group of 20 somethings dubbed “The Rainbows.” [Courtesy of Reading Rainbow Live]

‘Reading Rainbow’ is getting a reboot but without LeVar Burton

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (NPR) — Reading Rainbow is about to get a reboot tailored to a generation of kids who rarely get their entertainment from broadcast TV. Streaming live this Sunday on the platform Looped, Reading Rainbow Live is described as an interactive “event” full of music, dancing and games.

One glaring omission: LeVar Burton who helped make the brand famous.

“Butterflies in the sky…” was the musical cue for young fans that another episode of the original Reading Rainbow was about to start. Beginning in 1983, the PBS series was on the air for more than 20 years, winning multiple Emmys and a Peabody Award.

The reading rainbow live logo has an open book with a rainbow coming out of the pages
The producers behind the original Reading Rainbow are launching a new, live “event” on the streaming platform Looped on Sunday. [Monica Foley with support from Christopher Hyzy | Courtesy of Reading Rainbow Live]
This time around, Reading Rainbow Live will be hosted by a handful of 20 somethings, dubbed The Rainbows. Creative director Amy Guglielmo says young viewers will be able to interact with the cast. “We have an opportunity through Looped to have kids pop in from home, sort of like a souped up Zoom party,” she says.

Sunday’s event is produced by Buffalo Toronto Public Media, the umbrella for WNED, the same PBS station behind the original. Executive Vice President Nancy Hammond says this reboot will not be broadcast. “Kids generally don’t sit down in front of a television to watch TV at an appointed time,” says Hammond, “Kids are watching content on mobile devices. They’re streaming it on their tablets.”

Meeting kids where they are is something LeVar Burton understood a decade ago. After the TV show was canceled, Burton signed a licensing agreement with WNED to develop digital products for the Reading Rainbow brand. Through his company RRKidz, he launched the Reading Rainbow app. Then he began a Kickstarter campaign under the banner “Bring Reading Rainbow Back.” Within 24 hours the campaign reached its goal of $1 million. At the time, it was the most backed Kickstarter campaign ever. It ended up raising more than $5 million.

In the Kickstarter campaign’s FAQ, Burton wrote that the extra money raised would bring Reading Rainbow to more kids: “And no matter how much the Kickstarter raises, ALL of the money will be spent on the same two goals: making Reading Rainbow accessible EVERYWHERE (on as many platforms and devices as possible), and to EVERY CHILD (by providing free subscriptions to US/Canadian classrooms that can’t afford it).”

LeVar Burton participates in storybook readings during an announcement of Disney Junior's "Give A Book, Get A Book" program.
LeVar Burton participates in storybook readings during an announcement of Disney Junior’s “Give A Book, Get A Book” program. [Todd Wawrychuk | Disney Junior via Getty Images]
But the folks at WNED did not share Burton’s excitement. They sued him, alleging contract and trademark violations. They said he created new Reading Rainbow episodes and talked to Netflix without their permission. They even took issue with the fact that he was still using the catch phrase, “But, you don’t have to take my word for it.”

After a couple of years of bitter legal battles, the parties settled. Burton changed the name of his company to LeVar Burton Kids.

It’s not clear how all of the Kickstarter money has been used. Burton started Skybrary, a digital library of books and videos which today is operated by the nonprofit Reading Is Fundamental. And he’s got a podcast called LeVar Burton Reads. Burton declined to be interviewed.

Meantime, WNED is set to bring Reading Rainbow Live to a new generation with a new cast, a new theme song and a new platform.

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