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'Reading Rainbow' and its elusive pot of gold

By / July 10, 2003



MEDFORD, N.J.

It's wholesome, bright, and unpolluted by advertising tie-in gimmicks; it promotes literacy, and my children benefit from it enormously, so it's only natural that the PBS show "Reading Rainbow" is about to lose its signature butterfly wings due to a lack of funding.

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The show, a coproduction of WNED-TV and GPN/Nebraska has won more than 150 awards in 19 years of programming. In May, the show won an Emmy - its 19th - for Outstanding Children's Program. During his acceptance speech, program host LeVar Burton begged for help to find the $5 million it would take to keep the show running for two more years.

The theme song of the program tells children, "Butterfly in the sky. I can go twice as high! Take a look. It's in a book. A Reading Rainbow. I can go anywhere.... I can do anything...."

But the show itself can't go anywhere until it gets past the guards at the vaults of corporate America, which uses a rigid rule that high Nielsen ratings equals funding - period.

As a parent and a children's book author, I hold this show close to my heart because it has never become less substantive and more high-tech as other PBS shows have in order to survive, like "Sesame Street" with its faster pace and flashier graphics. These shows receive corporate support more readily because they are seen as product-friendly (think Arthur lunchboxes and Elmo T-shirts).

"Reading Rainbow" simply uses what my grandmother lovingly called "the idiot box" in an intelligent way: to introduce children to new books, help them learn to read, and instill a love of the printed word. It also promotes family literacy workshops and young author and illustrator contests. According to the show's creator, Twila Liggett, more than 50,000 children nationwide participated in the contest this year.

This is the grass-roots aspect unseen and unappreciated by corporate sponsors, such as Barnes & Noble, which recently pulled the funding plug.

"Since then we've been furiously, desperately, quietly trying to get some funding into place," Ms. Liggett said in a phone interview.

Then Mr. Burton blew the lid off the problem at the Emmys. Some corporations did come forward, only to be turned off by low ratings. "Reading Rainbow" - carried by 85 percent of PBS stations - has never made Nielsen's top 10 of all children's shows. (Other PBS programs, such as "Clifford" and "Arthur," are frequently among the top five shows.)

But "Reading Rainbow" is the No. 1 PBS program used in classrooms. Apparently, the fact that 50,000 youngsters stretched their literary and artistic wings as a result of the show's presence is not potent enough to get corporate sponsors off the dime. If the show is canceled, so are all the outreach programs.

The response from "viewers like you" - as the PBS saying goes - was overwhelmingly supportive, according to Liggett. People all over America are writing in to John Wilson (VP, Programming, PBS, 1320 Braddock Pl., Alexandria, VA 22314), telling him why the show should stay on the air. In response, PBS kicked in money to produce four new episodes, which could stretch the show through the fall season.

While that provided some breathing room, Liggett says the best thing would be for a philanthropist to step up and foot the bill. Next best would be finding a corporation that still holds to traditional family and public-television values, seeing past simple numbers to the complex network of educators, parents, and children who absorb and integrate this program into their daily lives and learning process.

I didn't know I was a hue in this extended rainbow until I told my son Ian, age 8, about the show's problem. Behind his spectacles his green eyes blazed, "No way! That's wrong! What can I do? I'll tell my teacher. I'll call my friends."

"Reading Rainbow" is how he was brought together with a favorite book, "Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie," by Connie Roop and Peter Roop. He added, "They give you a lot of facts on that show. It's a true story. My teacher showed a tape of the show in class. If they hadn't done it, I would never have known about that book!"

He was right. That book in particular is not as widely publicized as, say, Harry Potter. The program chooses books, not by big publishing names or media blitz, but by individual merit - giving the more obscure works a chance to shine.

While corporate America and the wealthy get plenty of government support these days, they show little interest in what many citizens value and need.

There is no pot of gold at the end of the "Reading Rainbow," just the currency created by building a generation of motivated, literate, and inquisitive citizens.

If only there were an American corporation left that recognized the return our country reaps from that kind of investment, I'd buy what they're selling.

Lisa Suhay is a freelance writer and author of 'Tell Me a Story.'

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