The return of one of public TV’s preeminent reading programs after more than a decade of silence can be pinned on a lawyer in New York City.
Steven Beer, a partner at Lewis Brisbois and national chair of the firm’s entertainment, media and sports practice, wanted to create an educational program that could stick with kids during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. As a father of three, he experienced firsthand the difficulties children and guardians face adapting to remote learning prompted by widespread school closures.
“A lot of folks I know had a quarantine project,” Beer said. “Mine was immersing in the world of media and technology.”
As he thought about new children’s content in 2020, Beer turned to Buffalo Toronto Public Media, for which he serves as outside legal counsel. Beer considered that the station, which owns the rights to Reading Rainbow, could work with him to take the program in a new direction while maintaining its core educational mission. The result of those conversations is Reading Rainbow Live, premiering Sunday.
Reading Rainbow Live will not be available on broadcast in any form, at least for now. The program, geared towards children ages 4 to 8, will instead be streamed using Looped, a virtual venue with live chat rooms. With its interactive capabilities, Looped is more like Twitch or Zoom than streaming services such as Netflix or Hulu.
The idea is that viewers will watch the 25-minute taped program, interact with peers during brief intermissions between segments, then stick around after the show to speak with the program’s hosts, nicknamed “Rainbows.” The strategy aims to emulate a classroom environment while also taking advantage of modern technology.
“Parents today grew up in the Reading Rainbow generation,” Beer said. “Reading Rainbow Live will appeal to parents who … came home to watch Reading Rainbow after school and will really appeal to the kids, too,” he said, adding that the new program combines “the magic of books” with dancing and music.
PBS and CPB “are aware” of Reading Rainbow Live but are not involved in its production and have not provided funding, said Nancy Hammond, EVP and COO for Buffalo Toronto Public Media. Ohana Pictures, a production company, hired the crew and staff, while Buffalo Toronto Public Media is an advisor licensing its intellectual property. The station will receive royalties and helped create a limited liability corporation, Reading Rainbow Live LLC, for the initiative.
The “live” approach contrasts with Reading Rainbow’s history. The program debuted on public TV in 1983 and was propelled by its famous host, LeVar Burton, who had starred in the television series Roots and would go on to appear in Star Trek: The Next Generation. New Reading Rainbow broadcasts graced television sets in schools and homes until its original run ended in 2006, though reruns continued to air on public television stations until 2009.
In 2011, Burton announced that he had raised $3 million to partner with WNED-TV, which later became part of Buffalo Toronto Public Media, for a new reading program through RRKidz, a free app for iPads and Android devices that would offer books via a subscription service. He later raised an additional $5 million for the program. But Burton and WNED traded lawsuits over the licensing of Reading Rainbow, with WNED at one point accusing the former host of hijacking an online library and unlawfully transferring the show’s distribution rights to a friend.
The legal matter was settled in 2017 after the licensing deal was terminated. In 2019, former Buffalo Toronto Public Media CEO Donald K. Boswell said the station was exploring a Reading Rainbow reboot.
The key figures involved in Reading Rainbow Live include creative director Amy Guglielmo. The educator and children’s book author started working with Beer and Buffalo Toronto Public Media COO Nancy Hammond in early 2021. She has focused on speaking with educators, social workers and consultants to create a book list for Reading Rainbow Live. Guglielmo said her role is the equivalent of “Chief Literary Officer.”
The creative producer for Reading Rainbow Live is Mustapha Khan, who has directed for Sesame Street, winning one Daytime Emmy Award and receiving additional nominations. Khan, who wrote scripts and turned the team’s early ideas into reality, said Saturday Night Live is in part the inspiration for Reading Rainbow Live’s format of skits and segments.
Reading Rainbow Live features a diverse group of eight hosts in their 20s and 30s, rather than relying on one marquee name. They include Maya Lê, a teacher who posts children’s book content on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, while several others, including Zoë Olson and Kendall Joseph, have performing arts backgrounds.
“We wanted our viewers to see themselves in the ‘Rainbows,’ and we want these to be aspirational characters. These are talented young professionals who sing and dance and do improv and comedy,” Guglielmo said. “It was really important for us to be inclusive and diverse and have people see themselves in the show.”
The challenges Reading Rainbow faced when it ceased broadcasting in 2009 differ from the producers’ current concerns. A decade ago, WNED-TV lacked funding to renew the show’s rights. PBS was also pushing the program’s producers to refresh the show; meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education had reduced its Ready To Learn funding over time.
Hammond and Beer said today’s pain points center more on technology. They are optimistic that Looped will withstand any technical glitches and have performed tests and rehearsals as a precaution. They also said the platform is safe for kids to use.
“As owners of the brand, one thing we were very concerned about was security. We’re bringing kids into this platform, so we want to make sure that it’s secure, that nobody that we don’t know is lurking around,” Hammond said. “We’re completely comfortable with the security elements that Looped has integrated into its system. Amy and the rest of the team have worked extensively with Looped to make sure this is a premium experience and safe.”
Viewers can access Reading Rainbow Live events on the program’s website, where they will pay for each live episode on Looped. Episodes without interactive capabilities cost about $10, while the interactive option costs $15. Both options can be bundled with a copy of the book that will be read during the events.
Each episode will focus on a theme. The first episode, about “Kid Inventors,” features the books Be a Maker; Look, Grandma! Ni, Elisi!; and Inspire the World: A Kid’s Journey to Making a Difference. Beer estimated that 10 live episodes will premiere in 2022, about one each month.
Given Reading Rainbow’s brand recognition, the program’s creators see opportunities for growth. Guglielmo hasn’t ruled out the potential for live audiences for future episodes, while Beer said another option could be partnering with educators to stream the program inside classrooms.
“Access for everybody is a paramount priority,” Beer said. “We welcome partnerships with school districts and organizations that can facilitate access to a broad audience.”
It’s an important time for a new iteration of Reading Rainbow, Guglielmo said. In recent months, parents and politicians have pushed for new book bans, causing concern among some experts about children’s access to books that promote diversity, equity and inclusion.
“If we can help in any way to encourage reading and access, then that’s our goal. We want to feature books that have kids asking questions and learning about different cultures,” Guglielmo said. “The time is right for Reading Rainbow Live.”