‘Reading Rainbow’ fades this month

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PBS comes to the end of the Rainbow Aug. 28 when broadcast rights for one of the system’s longest-running kids’ programs expire and Reading Rainbow leaves the network’s satellite feed.

Only Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood have had longer PBS kidvid careers. In 26 years, Reading Rainbow won 24 national Emmys, including 10 for best children’s series.

“Its real core support has always been in the education community,” says John Grant, chief content officer of Buffalo’s WNED, co-producing station for the show since its debut in July 1983.

Grant is talking with PBS about extending the life of the popular spinoff Reading Rainbow Young Writers & Illustrators Contest. This year’s contest, which announced its winners last month, involved more than 90 stations.

“We’re confident we can put money together to keep the contest running in 2010 and beyond,” Grant says. “PBS is being very supportive.” [Plans to revive the contest were announced in November 2009.]

Reading Rainbow “was and continues to be a greatly loved PBS series,” Grant says. He wants to see what can be done with the franchise in new media.

A funding shortage put the show off the air. “Primarily, there was no money to pay the fees for re-upping the rights,” Grant says. Renewing the rights would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, mostly for Writers Guild of America fees, he figures.

PBS also was asking the producers to refresh the show. Episodes were built around host LeVar Burton’s reading of a children’s book — a live-action show among PBS Kids’ many animated hits. “They wanted us to make the focus clearer,” Grant recalls.

Though U.S. Department of Education TV money is concentrated ever more precisely on preparing little kids to read, the show had lost the Ready to Learn funds that had helped in past years.

“PBS and CPB have gone in a different direction,” Grant says. “They now focus on teaching how to read” — the mechanics of vowels and syllables. In contrast, he says, Reading Rainbow demonstrated the pleasures of reading to motivate kids.

Twila Liggett, the show’s executive producer since the beginning and now an education professor at Marymount Manhattan College, says the show also plays its own vital role helping the new reader comprehend printed words — even though print seldom appears on screen. By hearing Burton read a story, children absorb so much that it helps them make the connection between words and meaning.

“When children hit the third or fourth grade, and they get to ‘fat books,’ as the kids call them, and the pictures go away, comprehension becomes a real issue,” Liggett says.

That’s consistent with the theory behind a project being tried in libraries by another PBS literacy show, Between the Lions. Chris Cerf, a creator of Lions, says the show has been testing the advantage that kids get when they have their own copies of the book being read, and they can start puzzling it out immediately after hearing an adult (or a lion) read it.

With a child development research grant from the National Institutes of Health, the Lions team has experimented with  “Lions Dens” in libraries where multiple copies of the book are on hand.

Between the Lions — now shooting its 10th season — does its bit with the mechanics of reading, too.

Reading Rainbow was a more motivational show, but an excellent one,” says Cerf. “One of the things I loved about it was LeVar getting kids to review books.” Liggett and her crew “have done an incredible job,” Cerf says. “They really forged a link between the literary tradition and television.”

“It’s a sad moment for me,” says Liggett — hearing that the series was going off the air. “I don’t own any part of Rainbow, but my heart still did,” she says.

Her job and the series had gradually faded away in recent years, and the last shows were produced in 2006 or 2007.

With funders scarce and the show’s budget shrinking, “we kept making it for less and less,” she recalls. Though the producers liked such locations as volcanos and coral reefs for field production, the settings of later episodes clustered closer and closer to New York City, where Liggett and the producers were based.

Burton, who signed on as the original Rainbow host six years after starring in the breakthrough ABC miniseries Roots, stayed with it to the end.

Liggett recalls his “mesmerizing” audition back at Nebraska ETV, where she was working then and where the show was born. “You can see the camera just loved him. To this day, I don’t expect to see people who can connect to the extent he did.”

The producers never knew for sure if they were making the last episode, says Orly Wiseman, who produced recent years of the series with her production partner Nikki Silver.

“We had many goodbyes,” Wiseman says, “and we always thought we’d see each other in a few months.”

A change in ownership didn’t help. In 2006, Nebraska ETV, which became WNED’s perennial partner in the series, sold its instructional video distributor, GPN, to Educate Inc., parent company of Hooked on Phonics and the tutoring chain Sylvan Learning Centers. Liggett left the series and WNED licensed the shows to Educate, Grant says.

The plan was to propose an overhauled Rainbow to PBS. WNED said it hoped to make 52 episodes a year, compared to seven a year that the series had averaged.

“Both WNED and Educate went into this new arrangement with every good intention,” says Jinny Goldstein, a former PBS education official who joined Educate for a period.

At the time, Grant says, getting an injection of funds seemed the only way to revive the show. “Ultimately, it didn’t work,” he says.

Grant says WNED will soon regain full control of the series except for school sales, which Educate retains.

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