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May 30th, 2014

‘Reading Rainbow’ is Back with a New Kickstarter Project. But Should it Be?

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by David Rogers

Reading Rainbow Kickstarter Emmy Awards Screenshot

A screenshot from the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter Campaign

In case you haven’t heard yet, the internet’s nostalgia-inducing topic du jour is “Reading Rainbow.” Former host Levar Burton has posted a Kickstarter project to fund a desktop computer app version of the long running children’s show that went off the air in 2009. The project reached it’s $1 million goal in a matter of hours, and as of this writing has raised well over $2.5 million with 33 days left before the final deadline.

The classic PBS television show first aired in 1983 and was cancelled in 2006, though it continued airing episodes until 2009.

But it didn’t stay away for long. Burton and the team at his company RRKIDZ bought the rights to the Reading Rainbow brand and brought it back as a tablet app in 2012. Like the show, the app encourages kids to read via read-alongs and educational video field trips inspired by the themes of books featured in the app.

The Reading Rainbow Kickstarter project will take the idea from the tablet app and develop it as a desktop computer app, aimed in part at classroom use. Schools will pay a subscription price for classroom use, though the project description points out that around 1,500 classrooms in underprivileged schools will receive free access to the app. It also is noted that one in four kids in the U.S. today will grow up illiterate – which in part brings us to the another side of the issue.

A Little More to Think About

There is no doubt that “Reading Rainbow” was and is a great resource for encouraging children to read. The childhood of yours truly – both in an educational and general sense - was greatly influenced by PBS programming, including “Reading Rainbow.” I am absolutely not the only one – and it may be worth noting that today I work at a book printer and currently am literally surrounded by books in my office.

While just about everyone (myself included) are swimming in the aforementioned nostalgia about having our Reading Rainbow back, it may be worth considering a couple of additional factors, as pointed out by a thoughtful article in the Washington Post by Caitlin Dewey titled “You might want to reconsider that donation to the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter.

A few points from the article:

-       RRKIDZ is a for-profit company, unlike the not-for-profit PBS that presented the show for all those years.

-       “Reading Rainbow” is designed to encourage reading by kids that already know how to read, rather than teach them how to read, and…

-       One of the causes of the original show’s downfall was a shift in Education Department funding from programs promoting reading to shows teaching reading.

Still, I point out (as does Dewey) that this does not mean that you should not donate to the site (despite her article’s clickbait-y headline), it’s just a few things to think about as we think about the future of today’s children and how best to plan for it.

Is Kickstarter the Place, Anyway?

Finally, there was another point from the Dewey article that got us thinking about not just “Reading Rainbow,” but once again about the overall purpose of Kickstarter. As important as we’ve seen the platform become to some of the self-published authors we print, it can be a bit confusing (disconcerting?) to see stars use the platform. Here’s how Dewey puts it:

All this adds up to a criticism that has been levied at high-profile Kickstarter campaigns before: Crowdfunding is theoretically supposed to bolster charities, start-ups, independent artists, small-business owners  and other projects that actually need the financial support of the masses to succeed. It’s not supposed to be co-opted by companies with profit motives and private investors of their own.

This is not the first time we’ve had to grapple with this quandary and won’t be the last. Just another consideration to make not just concerning this Burton Kickstarter, but with any star-studded campaigns. Are they taking money out of the hands of the next self-published author, or can both can Kickstarter projects from stars and from unknowns peacefully coexist?

Ponder away, folks. I will be, too.