Over 26 years and 150 episodes, the public broadcasting mainstay Reading Rainbow sought to teach kids, not how to read, but to love reading. That distinction is at the heart of an extensive oral history of the show published by Mental Floss, which covers everything from the show’s genesis to its eventual death and legally fraught current reincarnation. Despite the noble goal, constant critical acclaim, and adoration of children and educators everywhere, the show constantly struggled to find the funding it needed, and in the end, according to its producers, it was that prime mission—to encourage a love of reading—that led to its cancellation.
According to co-creator Tony Buttino, the idea for the show came out of a desire to keep kids reading throughout the summer, since studies showed their lapse during vacation forced teachers to spend time bringing them back to speed once school started back up. He and co-creator Twila Liggett helped nail down the show’s core tenets. “I wanted to do something to mirror what I did in the classroom,” Liggett said, “which was read to kids out loud, get kids involved in the experience of reading, and have kids talk to each other about reading. Those became the three basic elements of Reading Rainbow.”
The Corporation For Public Broadcasting agreed to provide half the budget for the first season, and the show’s producers were left canvasing corporations for the rest. The Kellogg’s Foundation would eventually come on board, but the difficulty the show had finding this initial funding would follow it for the next 26 years as it burned through corporate partners and lacked the marketable characters other publicly broadcasted shows used for merchandising. Still, it persisted, largely on the passion of its creators and host, LeVar Burton, who would film Reading Rainbow on the weekends between his days shooting Star Trek: The Next Generation. “I think Reading Rainbow always had a guardian angel that was looking out for us,” Burton said.
Mental Floss’ history is full of fun stories from filming, like the time an elephant sneezed all over Burton, but it’s ultimately a pretty dispiriting profile of a scrappy show that was eventually crippled by politics. According to its producers, the infamous Bush-era policies of The No Child Left Behind Act was what finally did Reading Rainbow in. “The money was marked for the rudiments of reading,” Burton said. “There was no mandate for encouraging a love of reading. All the sources we had come to depend on were no longer able to help us.”
After the show went off the air in 2009, it was Burton who tried to revitalize it. He reached a deal with WNED, the station that owns the rights to the show, and put together a tremendously successful Kickstarter to launch a modern version on the web and mobile devices. Known as Skybrary, it’s available as a subscription service full of digital books and accompanying videos, just like the original show. But even now, money troubles hound Reading Rainbow. Burton’s RRKidz organization and WNED are stuck in an ongoing legal battle over his new iteration. It’s like LeVar said to Mental Floss: “Everyone is obviously in support of reading and literacy—until you start asking for money.”