LeVar Burton celebrates success of 'Reading Rainbow' 2.0

06/24/2013 12:00 AM

06/27/2013 9:44 AM

The Public Broadcasting Service may have pulled the plug on "Reading Rainbow" in 2009, but host and former Sacramento resident LeVar Burton wasn't about to quit encouraging kids to pick up books.

Instead, he began adapting the classic children's TV show to the digital age.

"We started immediately thinking, 'What would "Reading Rainbow" today be? What would "Reading Rainbow 2.0" be?' " said Burton, 56. "And that was the beginning of what became the 'Reading Rainbow' app. That's what got it all started."

"Reading Rainbow," which debuted in 1983, celebrates its 30th anniversary this month. And according to Burton, the future of "Rainbow" has never been brighter.

Co-founding RRKidz with veteran entertainment producer Mark Wolfe, Burton and his company secured the "Reading Rainbow" rights in 2011. RRKidz released the "Reading Rainbow" app for Apple last year. The app debuted on the Kindle Fire three weeks ago.

The app is No. 1 in the educational category on Kindle and remains in the top five on iTunes. It can be purchased for $10 a month or $29.99 for six months.

"The brand is still viable," Burton said. "This is a whole new generation of kids who don't watch the amount of television that kids in the '80s and '90s watched. The television screen is only one screen in their lives. So if you want to be where kids are today, if you want to reach them, you've got to be on mobile devices. Tablet computers are what's up."

The app gives children unlimited access to more than 300 books and "field trip" videos. Every week, new materials are added. According to Burton, kids read more than 47,000 books a week with the app.

"Think about that," Burton said. "There isn't a brick-and-mortar library that can deliver 47,000 books a week to kids – it's just not possible."

Since the app launched last year, more than 2.5 million books and videos have been viewed. Burton said he's proud to help pioneer a method to get children to read.

"The child has the ability to choose his or her journey of exploration in the app," Burton explained, adding that the more passive and linear experience of television is becoming outmoded. "It's part of that engagement factor that makes this technology so much more powerful than television."

"Reading Rainbow" brings a multigenerational interest, Burton said. Most children who watched the show in its early days are adults and have children. They remember the show as being a positive and fun part of their childhood learning experience.

"That's the way education needs to be, going forward," Burton said. "We have to find a way to make learning an absolute joy for kids. I'm convinced that part of the way to do it is to put whatever content we want to teach on tablet devices and engage them in storytelling with some light games. I think we can move mountains; we can make miracles happen."

Education plays a large role for Burton and his family. His mother, older sister, son and two nieces all work in education.

"It's like a family business," said Burton, known for his acting roles on the TV miniseries "Roots" as well as the series "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

Burton's mother worked as a high school English teacher in Missouri. She later moved from the Midwest with her three children to Sacramento and started a second career with the Sacramento County welfare department.

Burton attended several Catholic schools in the Sacramento area.

"One reason my mother had her eye on Sacramento as a place where she wanted to raise her children was because of the quality educational system in Sacramento at that time," Burton said.

As a child, Burton was an active reader. The bookmobile coming through his neighborhood was a big deal, Burton said.

Now he offers a similar, updated experience. The books aren't arriving on four wheels – they're reaching kids via tablet computers.

"I'm working harder than I've ever worked, and having more fun than I ever have," Burton said.

"I really love what we're doing. I'm really proud of what we're doing. Our mission is quite simple: We're looking to change the world one children's book at a time."

Call The Bee's Kristopher Rivera, (916) 321-1101. On Twitter: @kgrivera

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