LeVar Burton on reviving 'Reading Rainbow' on iTunes and the iPad
If you’re a certain age, you probably know LeVar Burton best as Kunta Kinte in the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries Roots. If you’re younger, you may remember him better as Chief Engineer Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Most recently, you can catch him as Dean Paul Haley opposite Eric McCormack on the freshman TNT drama Perception.
But who are we kidding? LeVar Burton is known to multiple generations as the host of Reading Rainbow, the beloved PBS series about the power of reading that launched in 1983. Contract renewal issues ultimately led to the show’s cancellation in 2009, but earlier this year Reading Rainbow relaunched as an iPad app, and this month, for the first time ever, the entire series is available to the public, on iTunes. (The app is available as a free download, with a subscription to a full complement of children’s books for $9.99 a month.)
As someone who was raised on the show, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to chat up the 55-year-old actor, who spoke with me after spending the day lecturing at the University of Michigan, where his daughter is going to school. That’s only fitting, given Burton’s lifelong passion for education. But you don’t have to take my word for it…
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When the show ended in 2009, did you feel like it was over completely, or did you have a sense that it might go on in another form?
LEVAR BURTON: Well, [I was struck by] the fact that it was pulled out of the regular line-up at PBS and then the subsequent outpouring of emotion from that first generation of Reading Rainbow watchers who are now adults and contemplating having children of their own. They were in an uproar at the thought of not having Reading Rainbow there for their children the way it was for them when they were growing up. That’s when we figured, “Wow, the brand has not outlived its usefulness.” There’s still a lot of value in this brand. There’s a whole other generation of kids who have no reference to Reading Rainbow the show or Levar Burton, who in fact need the same kind of encouragement that the television show provided kids in the ’90s.
Were you involved were you in the development of the iPad app?
Absolutely. Mark Wolfe, my partner, and I have been at the center of the translation of the television show into an iPad app. Absolutely all over it.
What’s your favorite part of the app?
I love that we successfully translated the show’s experience, which was about literature and video, right? Video field trips all tied to real-world experiences. We have successfully brought all of those elements into the app, and I’m really proud of that. It is Reading Rainbow 2.0, if you will. Kids today, the wired generation — they’re not watching TV. Television only is a small portion of their screen-time in life, and it will continue to decrease the older they get.
And some of the video field trips on the app are new?
They are all new. In the app we do have — on every island, there’s at least one video from Reading Rainbow classic series, but all of the other video field trips we’ve been shooting for months now.
It’s interesting that this ended up on the iPad so quickly, especially since there’s a school of thought that says we’ll eventually we’re going to be receiving all of our literature is through some sort of screen.
I believe that to be true. The lion’s share of it, certainly. Sooner or later we’re going to have to face the fact that it is unsustainable going forward, to continue to cut down trees to make books, and once we get that notion into our heads, then the conversion is easy. We will never give up words printed on paper, but we will be consuming most of our reading on some sort of electronic or tablet device or another.
You know, it’s also yet another example of Star Trek predicting the future.
Well, there you go. I like how you said that, “Yet another example.” You look at the flip cell phone which is a direct descendant of the [Star Trek] communicator. You look at the bluetooth ear device, which is a direct descendant of the ear piece that Nichelle Nichols wore as Lieutenant Uhura. We carried iPads on the Enterprise-D everywhere [in Star Trek: The Next Generation]. The link between science fiction literature and that which we actually manifest in this realm is inextricable.
And now the television show is on iTunes. Have you watched some of the early episodes?
Was that the first time you’d seen them in a while?
No. DVDs [of the show] do exist. It’s still a pretty successful medium for watching content, and over the years I’ve had occasion [to see them]. Yes, there are episodes that I haven’t seen in 25 years, and it’s a little scary the permutations of hair and clothing, but there you have it.
Reading Rainbow was never sold to the consumer market. It was available — we sold first VHS cassettes and then DVDs to schools and educational institutions, libraries and such. But this is the first time it’s ever been available for consumers, and that’s a big deal because the show is a really treasured part of a lot of childhoods of people who are now adults.
I’m one of those adults whose childhood was very much connected to the show. I think my mother would kill me if I didn’t mention to you that she had taped episodes of the show off of the television, and then when we went on family road trips, my dad had jerry-rigged a rudimentary TV-VCR situation in our minivan and we would watch episodes of the show while we were driving.
I love that. I absolutely love that. So your mom and dad they were pioneers of the in-car entertainment, and their programming of choice for their children was Reading Rainbow. I love that.
Your daughter I’m sure is of this generation as well.
What was it like for you to show her these episodes of Reading Rainbow as she was growing up?
Her connection with Reading Rainbow — when she was really little, she used to call me Daddy Rainbow. It is kind of amazing when I think about it. So it’s always been a part of her life, and her media literacy has had to involve differentiating between the daddy on TV and the real daddy that reads to me at night.
Are there any episodes of the show that really jump out at you?
Yeah, there are definitely a couple. Certainly the ones with my family. Mica, my daughter, I think is in three episodes of the show. Some of my favorite episodes are “Amazing Grace,” because that the show where what we really talked about being an individual and the value of being who you are and owning that. We did a show one year after 9/11 at the elementary school closest to Ground Zero, and we really spent some time with that community, and it was an opportunity to speak directly to kids. One of the things that I’m most proud of Reading Rainbow is that over time, once we had developed a real, solid connection with our audience, we really began to explore the nature of the real world with them in an age-appropriate way. So for me, the 9/11 show is really representative of that effort.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about your upcoming appearance in The Big Bang Theory. You, Wil Wheaton and Brent Spiner have all appeared on the show, so is there any chance of your Next Generation colleagues will also show up?
I think there’s — I see a trend. I see a trend. [Big Bang exec producer] Bill Prady is a huge science fiction fan, and he loves Star Trek, and those of us who are fans of Star Trek, and those of us who are part of the Star Trek family, we love The Big Bang Theory, so it’s a good thing.
Is there anything else on your plate right now?
I’m running a business with my business partner Mark Wolfe. We’re really focused on not just the app but building a new enrichment plan for children and their families. That’s the end game for us. We are much more than a producer of apps. We have a large vision that really includes and involves helping to revolutionize the way we educate children in this country. I genuinely believe that we have the ability through storytelling on tablet computers to create a new model for how we educate kids. We can put anything in an app in terms of content. You want to teach math or science or geography or history. This is my belief: If you embed it in storytelling and take advantage of the technology that is tablet computing, you can have a tremendous and immediate impact on the quality of a child’s education. I’m really interested in being part of an effort that’s looking to use, again, the prevailing technology of the day to educate kids. Things we did on Reading Rainbow for 25 years. The mission is still the same. The message is still the same. It’s just the medium that’s shifted.