Re-Reading Rainbow: an interview with LeVar Burton

LeVar Burton has to take a moment. He pauses, dabs his eyes with a tissue, taking it all in: the washed-out white room, over-exposed by the sun, filled with journalists, industry reps and friends in rows of folding chairs, red, orange, yellow, green and blue. Large balloons hang from the corners of the room, dressed up like hot air balloons, carrying small, empty baskets. A guitar sits next to an amp off the corner of the stage while the Reading Rainbow logo beams on a flatscreen monitor, largely unchanged since its heyday a quarter-century ago. Burton, too, appears mostly unchanged since those days, aside from closer-cropped hair, more neatly manicured facial hair and a smart, mustard suit jacket.

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There's plenty to be emotional about, of course, hitting the stage on the tail of an introduction by producer Mark Wolfe, who calls Burton, "my best friend." The return of Reading Rainbow - now in the form of an iPad app - has been a long time coming, the beloved children's series having been largely MIA since being pulled from the airwaves in 2009, after a 26-year run. "This is two years in the making," Burton begins in his familiarly gentle cadence as we sit down for an interview roughly an hour later, "and I'm really just overwhelmed with the response. It's like making a movie. You're just so close to it and you sometimes lose perspective, you can't see the forest for the trees, that sort of thing. There's so much that's gone into it, so much work, so much sweat, so much blood."

A lot, certainly, has gone into the launch, Burton singling out theme song composer Steve Horelick and singer Tina Fabrique in the audience. "It's my first time meeting her in-person," he explains, extending a hand to bring her up on stage. "Butterfly in the sky," she begins, as though not a single day had passed in the last two and a half decades that she didn't wake up singing that line. "I can go twice as high," Burton joins in. By "take a look, it's in a book," nearly everyone in attendance adds to the chorus. It's a surreal sight placed up against the standard fare of tech press conferences, where bloggers elbow one another to shoot tablets on stands behind bulletproof plexiglass, and before the crowd finishes singing "a Reading Rainbow," Burton's eyes aren't the only misty ones in the house.

After the song, Burton offers up a "one more thing" to the crowd, staff members opening up the back wall to reveal the second half of the room, as a man picks up the guitar at the side of the stage, for an instrumental jam. Several iPads sit atop kiosks, spread out across the sun-drenched white room. In one corner is a giant sheet cake, designed by Cake Boss Buddy Valastro, a rainbow leaping from an open book into an edible iPad. At the center the room, a culturally diverse group of children sit around a table on rainbow-colored beanbag chairs, flitting through the new app. There's not a sour note during the whole event, even as the iPad conks out a moment in the middle of the demo, Burton (né La Forge) playing it off with a "I'm not the chief engineer, I just play one on TV."

Burton's longstanding commitment to literacy, naturally, goes a fair bit deeper. "My mother was an English teacher," Burton tells me. "I feel it's pretty much the family business." The job of hosting began in 1983, with Burton, then best-known for the role of Kunta Kinte in the Emmy-winning ABC miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley's Roots, at the helm of a new sort of PBS kids show. The show's segments, narrated readings, with slow pans across the page, book reviews from kid readers and "field trips" to exciting locales, would all become Reading Rainbow signatures.

It would go on to help teach a generation to read, those who were weaned on the early days of the program are now well into their adult years. Writers and teachers often take the opportunity to thank Burton for his role in their early education - something I take a moment to do, toward the end of our interview. It's the most someone in such a position could ever possibly hope for: a show with a real and lasting impact on its viewers. It's also equally nerve-wracking. After two and a half decades, how do you adapt one of the most beloved properties in children's television?

"The idea of translating that into a new experience for kids was a little daunting," admits Burton. "Because it would have been so easy to fail to meet the expectations because people are so familiar with the brand and the brand is a hallmark in the childhood of a whole generation of folks." And if Burton needed a reminder during the presentation just how elemental the program was to those covering the event, he got it in the form of a reporter who asked if the "book reports" from the show were coming to the app (they are). %Gallery-158652%

Rather than closing the proverbial book on the property when PBS pulled the plug, Burton and team got to work, briefly considering the possibility of simply moving the show to a different station - a plan they quickly decided would be out-of-step with its demographic in the early 21st century. "They say that when a door closes, another one opens," says Burton, "and what really got our attention was that there was a real reaction from people when Reading Rainbow went off the air. I was kind of surprised, but I thought immediately, there's something here. It's not over for the brand."

The answer to striking that balance between the beloved property and the changing tastes of youth culture arrived in a soon-to-be-released technology. "What would a new version of Reading Rainbow look like? Television was the medium that we used in the '80s and '90s, because that's where our nation's kids were hanging out, and this generation of digital natives, they get only a portion of their entertainment from television now. And then the iPad came out." It was a technology that, for Burton, was a long time coming. "I've been a science fiction fan all my life," he says with a smile "and it's amazing to recognize that there are so many devices that were imagined for Star Trek that are actually a part of our lives today, and the iPad is one of them. The chief engineer Geordi carried around a pad, not unlike an iPad."

And so, Steve Jobs' Star Trek-esque pad was chosen as the future home for the series. Once that decision was made, it was a journey that would take two years to realize. "Translating a television show into a multi-dimensional experience in and out is no small task," explains Burton, "and then with the added pressure of being able to figure out how to include elements that would make it really familiar to someone who had seen the show before, there were just a lot of problems that we had to solve for and that's before you get to the technology of actually making books and building a back end and a structure for all of this, the ones and zeroes." -158604%

Chief amongst the user interaction concerns was how exactly to drive the discovery of books, the concept behind Reading Rainbow in its original from. "There are a lot of people who are getting into the space of educational tech and books for kids, and for the most part, they're bookshelves," says Burton. "We wanted to do an experience. We wanted to take the discovery of books and make it an adventure for kids, like Reading Rainbow was. So we hit upon the island theme - there will be islands with different themes and a kid could go to an island based on how they felt about what was there." The initial group of islands - "My Friends and Family," "Animal Kingdom," "Genius Academy" (science and math) and "Action Adventures & Magic Tales" - are coupled with videos, old and new, maintaining the field trips of the original series in the form of shorts.%Gallery-158604%

The books themselves, meanwhile, have optional narration and short, unobtrusive animations to help engage young readers, a way of harnessing the technology without overwhelming the reading experience. "We know that these are incredibly engaging devices and we know that kids want to be on them and we know that there's an expectation that they have when they get on them, that they'll be able to interact with them in very specific ways and that's great," Burton tells me. "And books do give us the opportunity to enhance the narrative with animations and the like. We give them those in a way that we feel is appropriate, so as not to interrupt the narrative, to actually support the narrative - we're Reading Rainbow, after all."

Two years into the process, the big day arrives with singing, laughter and a few tears. And as much as Burton would like to view the event as the finish line, he admits that he's only getting started. "We're here at launch which is just another starting line because now it's up to us to iterate and to listen to our customers. So, as exhausted as we are to get to this point, you know, we're really just beginning." There's also the matter of getting the word out there - but with a generation of nostalgia-filled fans raising kids of their own, Burton and company no doubt have word-of-mouth on their side. "It's exciting to know that it is that first generation of Reading Rainbow watchers and lovers that's really going to help us spread the word and preach the gospel," says Burton, because, as ever, you don't have to take his word for it.

Zach Honig contributed to this report.