Growing up, Reading Rainbow was my favorite TV show — and not just because I was only allowed to watch PBS! Reading Rainbow wasn't comforting like Mister Rogers, or overly school-y like Square 1. Reading Rainbow was exciting. From the first bars of the opening theme, you were on an adventure. LeVar Burton was the best kind of host: as enthusiastic and genuinely interested as a friend, but with the reassuring presence of an adult. And the older kids who got to read the book reviews were something to aspire to: smart, poised, independent. In some ways, a TV show about reading is counterintuitive. But RR understood that the two need not be in conflict; that reading, for a young child, has an element of ownership and private accomplishment that nothing else can provide — and that TV is no substitute. In fact, I think the format — a real-life adventure, like a trip to a farm or the Statue of Liberty, combined with books that explored similar themes — was a really smart way of integrating reading into kids' lives. In later years, the show took on real issues: 9/11, poverty, incarceration — with a directness and lack of condescension that had always characterized the program.
Today marks the show's final episode after 26 years on PBS. Burton, the show's executive producer, has cited differences with the show's new parent company. Others have been less diplomatic. Said NPR,
[Director John] Grant says the funding crunch is partially to blame, but the decision to end Reading Rainbow can also be traced to a shift in the philosophy of educational television programming. The change started with the Department of Education under the Bush administration, he explains, which wanted to see a much heavier focus on the basic tools of reading — like phonics and spelling… Grant says that [the Public Broadcasting Service], [the Corporation for Public Broadcasting] and the Department of Education put significant funding toward programming that would teach kids how to read — but that's not what Reading Rainbow was trying to do. "Reading Rainbow taught kids why to read," Grant says. "You know, the love of reading — [the show] encouraged kids to pick up a book and to read."
That people can't see that the two are inextricably linked is sad, and upsetting. Reading Rainbow's future is uncertain, although in February Burton wrote on his Twitter that "I'm seriously moving forward with an idea for a new version of a Reading Rainbow like show. Webisodes for adults." That would be great, and I have a book report all ready to go, but I hate to think of kids growing up without the protective arc of Reading Rainbow. But, for now: I'll see you next time.
Did Education Dept.'s Shift Help Kill PBS's 'Reading Rainbow'? [Washington Post]
'Reading Rainbow' Reaches Its Final Chapter [NPR]
Old School Reading Rainbow Theme [YouTube]