Reading Rainbow might not be a show that anyone out of the United States will necessarily be familiar with but it was an institution in America and ran for 23 years before it was canceled in 2003. The focus of the show was to encourage children to read and during it’s run, Reading Rainbow won a Peabody Award and twenty-six Emmy Awards, ten of which were in the “Outstanding Children’s Series” category.
The show was presented by LeVar Burton who is best known for playing Geordi LaForge on Star Trek The Next Generation. His company RRKIDZ has developed and launched a Reading Rainbow App that allows children to read and interact with books, as well as go on video field trips and earn rewards for reading. WhatCulture was lucky to spend some time with the all around nice guy, LeVar Burton, not to have an interview but more of a chat about the Reading Rainbow app, Star Trek The Next Generation and how Wesley Snipes was nearly the Chief Engineer of the USS Enterprise.
WC: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
LB: My Pleasure.
Reading Rainbow was not a show that found its way over to our shores, why don’t you tell us a bit about it.
LB: No, it never got a broadcast run in the UK but it was part of the armed forces network. It was very popular with American ex-pats living over there.
It was on the same channel as Sesame Street wasn’t it?
LB: Yes and Mr Rodgers.
The show ran for 23 years, is the app a continuation of Reading Rainbow in a different form?
LB: Well what we really wanted to do was to reinvent the show for a whole new generation of kids who don’t watch TV as much but spend time on digital devices. The show was created back in the 80′s and it was really unique that it used the medium of television to address an audience of children about books and the world that would open up when you open a book. We were for many years very successful in educating about reading in a time when television was the dominant, entertainment screen choice for most of American kids, well that has rapidly changed as we all know and the intention was to take the best of the show, reading books in a traditional way, combined with video field trips it seemed natural for the brand.
Well it appears to work. I handed it to my son who is autistic and getting him to focus on a book can be difficult but he was immediately hooked on the app. Is that something that was thought about when developing it?
LB: You are not the first person with an autistic child to say that, we have tried to develop a real quality product and we spent a lot of time thinking about that, a lot of time, so the books are done in a very specific way and it’s all reflective of the brand and what we are excited about sharing the app with the release of the app in the UK, Australia and New Zealand is that they dont know the brand Reading Rainbow but this is a quality product and download it for free and check it out. How many of us got tablets for Christmas and we know that children are going to use them so my question is, what are you going to put on your brand new tablet for your kids?
I was impressed by the range of books available, I’m guessing children’s book publishers must be quite interested in the app.
LB: Absolutely, absolutely, the publishers are over the moon. We launched over here in the US in mid-June, to date, over 750,000 books have been read by kids through our app. 750,000, that’s over 30,000 books a week are being read by kids in our app, so we know that it’s working, we can educate them about literature around this new technology.
As I used the app, I was thinking it could also be quite a good platform for unpublished children’s authors.
LB: You’re right, one thing we are look at is out own digital blueprint. A combination of writers and illustrators that will be able to create those unpublished gems, for those who have talent and a vision for a book. Overall we are thinking of imaginative ways to engage children in literature and give parents a product they know they can trust.
Your mother was teacher wasn’t she? She must have been very happy when you got the job on Reading Rainbow, it all links up with the whole teaching thing.
LB: All this work has been a love poem to my mom, she is the one who inspired me to become a reader and all this work has been done in her honour.
I’m afraid we have to talk a bit about Star Trek The Next Generation if that is OK? My inner nerd is raging.
LB: [laughs] Yes great! Brilliant!
The second season of TNG is being released soon in HD, i’ve seen it and it’s just as impressive as the first. How did it feel seeing the show and yourself in high definition for the first time?
LB: I just love it, I just love watching the episodes. The work they have done adds to the already great storytelling and I love watching them.
It makes it feel like a brand new show when you watch it in HD.
LB: Yes, and they also produced some great bonus material. Do you remember the Criterion Collection on laserdisc?
Yes I do, but you had to be pretty rich to own it if I remember correctly.
LB: You had the normal release and then you had the Criterion Collectors Edition and they always had hours of wonderful bonus tracks and now you have it on these releases, they have done a wonderful job over at CBS, a wonderful job.
It’s certainly one of the best up-conversions I’ve seen and paving the way for other shows like X-Files.
LB: Everyone who worked on it, loved working on it.
Was you a fan of Star Trek before you joined TNG?
LB:Oh yes I was. very much so. I watched the Original Series as a kid. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future really shaped my love for science-fiction literature.
So you must have been really excited when you got the phone call that they want you to audition for a part on TNG?
LB: Oh I will never forget the moment I thought I had the job, it was a grueling audition and not a lock by any means.
And Wesley Snipes was up for your role too.
LB: Yes there was a document circulated which has been identified as real. A Paramount memo from back in the days with potential actors for Geordi and yes indeed, Wesley Snipes was on that list.
LB: I think Wesley Snipes would have made an excellent Chief Engineer.
I find it hard to imagine him in the role for some reason.
I don’t think I can disassociate him from Demolition Man and Blade in my head.
LB: [Laughs] He would be a Chief Engineer who kills vampires.
What’s it been like spending time with the rest of the cast again as you celebrate the 25th anniversary of TNG this year? You have done a few conventions together this past year.
LB: It’d been the most fabulous gift of all, of all the wonderful gifts Star Trek has given all of us in our lives and those of us in the cast particularly, the biggest gift has been this 25th anniversary tour and the time spent together. You all have given us the opportunity to hang out together, it’s just been wonderful for us.
You seem like you are a tight group of friends which is more than some of the other Star Trek casts can say.
LB: I don’t know, i guess we all just like each other [laughs]
Do you still occasionally watch the odd episode of Next Generation? Some of the other cast say they don’t.
LB: I do I do! It’s impossible not to watch. 179 episodes we done so they are always on, so whenever I come across one on BBC America or wherever, America loves Star Trek.
It’s repeated endlessly over here.
LB: [Laughs] Yep, Christmas marathons, I love BBC America. So they are always easy to catch, and the other series too, when I see them, some of the episodes I directed on Voyager, DS9 and Enterprise.
What happened to the Visor? Were you happy to see the back of it or did they let you keep it?
LB: Lets just say, it’s in my possession. I didn’t give it back, so if you ever see anyone selling one, it’s not THE ONE.
I always think it must be a weird feeling as an actor to know that you inspired a whole generation of people to peruse a career in Engineering?
LB: As an actor yes but coming from a family of educators, not at all.
It must be an awesome feeling to know that from seeing you on TV, people have gone on to invent things that we all use. Combined with the Reading Rainbow, I think you can put your feet up and be proud of the work you have done.
LB: Thank you sir, It’s the circle of life is it not? even more than the circle of life, it’s the circle of culture and the circle of civilization. It’s a mark of a civilized society that really focuses on educating its kids and we have a lot of repairing to do. We have spent a lot of money on the machinery of war the last couple of decades and we have pretty much sacrificed a whole generation of kids where our commitment to their education is concerned. Technology has given us an opportunity to change the direction of education around the world. Tablets and storytelling is the key revolutionizing education on the planet.
As technology becomes cheaper, you give them the app and they can download books wherever they are and it becomes a way of educating and teaching.
LB: Absolutely. As a tool, we are feverishly working on a program that will enable us to share this app on that kind of basis. There is more to it than the library of books and videos which is a lot in today’s marketplace. Behind that effort such a great intent to do what exactly needs to be done with this technology, which is to put it in the hands of the kids and watch them strive.
Finally, getting back to Star Trek, did you see J.J Abrams movie? What did you think of it?
LB: Yes I did, I loved it! The first one, I loved it!
There are some Star Trek fans who are not happy with the more action centric nature of his version of Star Trek, it is less cerebral shall we say. What are your thoughts on that?
LB: Well, I enjoyed the reboot and now I’m interested in seeing what he wants to talk about with the next film. Now he’s got our attention and reestablished his timeline with his cast, now we will find what JJ wants to talk about, wont we?
Do you get a special preview before all of us do?
LB: No? Why would I!
I thought it might be a perk of the job, having been Chief Engineer on the Enterprise.
LB: It does, in J.J Abrams universe [Laughs]
Reading Rainbow App is available for download in the ITunes App Store with an Android version launching soon.
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