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'Reading Rainbow' to end unless it finds a pot of gold

After 20 years of getting children excited about books, the PBS show, lacking a merchandising hook, could vanish due to inadequate funding.

May 27, 2003|David Bauder | Associated Press

NEW YORK — In a plea for the life of "Reading Rainbow," host LeVar Burton returned to a familiar setting: the stage where he picked up the PBS show's seventh Emmy Award for best children's television series.

"If you are a wealthy philanthropist out there, I'm not that difficult to find," said Burton, the show's executive producer and host since it began in 1983.

He's still waiting. And "Reading Rainbow," which has counterintuitively used television to introduce children to a world of books, may only have a few months to live.

"Reading Rainbow" has several strikes against it in the battle for funding.

For starters, it has no access to merchandise licensing deals, an increasingly important part of PBS' funding scheme for children's shows. There are no "Reading Rainbow" action figures to sell, no "Reading Rainbow" jammies to keep kids warm at night.

The series is also 20 years old when many corporate benefactors prefer being involved with something new. And the show's narrow audience -- children 6 to 8 who are just learning to read -- doesn't give sponsors the broad exposure they're seeking, said Amy Jordan, senior researcher on children and the media at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Other programs, such as "Clifford the Big Red Dog," have book series attached to them. But "Reading Rainbow" is the only one that introduces children to a wide range of literature, Jordan said.

"What 'Reading Rainbow' saw, before anybody else saw it, is that you can use this medium of television to get kids excited about reading," she said.

Over the last several years, Burton and his backers have been producing fewer "Reading Rainbow" episodes because money was short. This season, only four new shows were made. The production company has a $2-million annual budget and no money to go forward, he said.

"We have pieced it together by hook or by crook every year," said Burton, who helped start the series so children, during summer months away from school, could retain what they had learned.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has contributed to the show in the past. But it generally doesn't foot the bill alone, said John Wilson, chief programming executive at PBS. PBS wants to keep the show alive, and will have the summer to hunt for more money before a decision must be made.

"It's difficult to get them all funded," Wilson said. "That is the state of kids' programming right now."

Burton, who memorably portrayed Kunta Kinte in the television series "Roots," says there have been times in recent months when he figured the money problems were a sign to call it quits. Then he'd have an experience like he had recently when speaking to students at his alma mater, USC. They spontaneously serenaded him with the "Reading Rainbow" theme.

"It is clear we have had an impact," Burton said. "Not a day goes by where someone doesn't come up to me and mention how important the show has been for their children or themselves in terms of encouraging them to read."

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