LeVar Burton Launches The "Next Generation" Reading Rainbow App... And Returns to 'Community'!

Last night, I was chatting with a friend about the momentous events of my day, and capped it all off with, “And then I met LeVar Burton.” I sat back proudly, waiting for a jaw drop, a reaction, anything, but the friend, who is a bit younger, said, “Sorry, I don’t know who that is.”

“Reading Rainbow?” I said. “Star Trek: The Next Generation? Geordi LaForge?” Still, a blank look. Exasperated, I said, “The guy with the visor.” “Oh, okay, I think I remember him,” said the now ex-friend.

The point of this story isn’t to brag that I have friends, or that my friend is stupid and I hate her now, but rather to point out that other than a few guest spots here and there, Burton’s output – and fandom – hit a sweet spot when I was a kid. In particular, though I love ST:TNG with ever fiber of my nerdy being, my real intro to Burton was PBS’ Reading Rainbow, a show that - for those of you who hit a little closer to the age range of my “friend” – taught kids how exciting it was to read books, but on television.

And in particular, I loved the show so much that I bullied my parents into letting me audition for it. Reading Rainbow would have segments littered throughout where kids would present their favorite picture books, and talk about what made them so great. Mine was “The Monkey and the Crocodile,” by Paul Galdone, and I was so enthusiastic about the book, I got called back. It was down to me and two other kids, and – in one of my most vivid memories of childhood – I remember entering a small room, talking about it with some adults and a camera, and then… Never getting called back again.

As I headed to Burton and company’s Reading Rainbow iPad app launch yesterday morning, I was mulling over whether I should bring this up to Burton; whether telling a story about getting rejected by Reading Rainbow would come off as funny – which I meant it – or as weird, decades later sour grapes. Once I entered the studio space converted for the launch, though, all thoughts of rejection were washed from my mind, as I jumped back to feeling like a kid again.

There was the Reading Rainbow logo on posters. Mini hot air balloons flew everywhere, like the title sequence of the show. And a TV played old episodes of RR, which – despite very, very eighties looking costumes and dance numbers – were as fun as I remembered.

The capper on that, of course, was the presentation of the App, which was probably a far more emotional affair than any other App launch in history. From the Producer and Burton calling each other “best friends,” to a performance by Burton and Tina Fabrique – who sung the original theme song – dueting on Steve Horelick’s “Butterfly in the Sky,” the audience of bored tech reporters and business savvy book publishers were clapping, giving standing ovations, and some were in tears.

After everybody had a moment to compose themselves, the doors were flung open on iPad stations, so we could get hands on with the app, and gawk at a tasty rainbow cake. Kids were relaxing on bean bag chairs playing with the app too, allowing Burton to interact and chat with the kids, showing them how to use the newest iteration of Reading Rainbow.

And the App itself is a lot of fun. It basically works as a lending library, allowing you to hold five books at a time in your “backpack,” out of hundreds of selections. If you want a new book, you can download it to the App, and then return another book. It’s a great way of giving kids the library experience, prompting them to make choices, and also, I’m guessing, keeps the file size low so you don’t have kids maxing out your iPad.

It’s also animated, but in a nice, non-annoying way that’s fun for kids. The books can be read to you – 20% by Burton, 80% by other readers – or read by the kids. And certain areas have spot animations that emphasize the story rather than distracting from it. To use another touch point, this isn’t a motion comic, and it’s not a movie… It’s more like turning every book into a pull-the-tabs or Pop-up book, and that’s not a bad thing where child interactivity is concerned.

There’s also a nice interface that allows for easy expansion of the app, separating each subject area into animated islands. There’s one focusing on animals, one on science, one on fantasy, etc. And each island also has video “field trips” hosted by Burton, that give interesting learning experiences to flesh out the subjects of the books… Just like he used to do on the show. There were only a few videos available at launch time, but Burton promised that they’ll be adding more as time goes on, as well as classic segments from the show.

If there’s a downside to the app, it’s that its free to try, but $9.99 a month if you want the full App. Not bad for an e-book app for kids with hundreds of books and videos, but unfortunate given the pedigree of the show… This was a show on PBS, free for every kid to watch, and in particular something that reached out easily to diverse audiences of children encouraging them to read. Here, you’re already whittling down the audience by making them have to buy an iPad, and then the monthly subscription fee is another roadblock. I imagine – given how passionate the team is about the App – that they’ll be looking at ways of doing outreach, and I do hope that happens soon. It would be a shame if the kids with the least access to books were the ones who weren’t able to use this otherwise fun and exciting App.

Another – not bad – but interesting choice, Burton is on the App, but your guides are two animated characters named Jane and Austin. When we got a chance to chat with Burton after the presentation, he had a very clear reason why these two new characters were important. “Jane and Austin are the book buddies, and one of Oscar’s – our CEO – ideas from the very beginning was we wanted have book buddies, avatars that were much closer to the age of the kids. I’m no spring chicken!” said Burton with a laugh.

We then – because we couldn’t help it – brought up a segment from and old episode of Reading Rainbow that had just played before Burton hit the stage, talking about his work on Star Trek, and how technology has changed since then. “It’s definitely true that there are a lot of the devices we used on Star Trek, that came out the imagination of the writers, and the creators that are actually in the world today,” said Burton. “In that sense, we are living in the future. As the chief engineer, Geordie carried a pad very much like the iPad! It is cool… It’s the intersection of two of my worlds. You might even say this is the Next Generation for Reading Rainbow, being able to share it with a whole new crop of kids… This wired generation is kind of cool.”

I would like to note that hearing LeVar Burton say, “You might even say this is the Next Generation for Reading Rainbow,” was one of the biggest geek out moments of my life so far. Moving on, on a more serious bent, we asked him whether he had any concerns about the reading experience on the iPad, versus in physical books – particularly as the Reading Rainbow app is a potentially more guided experience.

“There are properties that are unique to each experience…” said Burton. “Reading a hard copy book, and reading a book on an iPad are slightly different experiences. What they both have in common though is that you must engage your imagination in the process. That is consistent. The other thing that’s also consistent is that it’s all about storytelling, and storytelling is as integral a part of the human experience as breathing. As long as we are engaged in storytelling that moves the culture forward, it doesn’t matter what format it is.”

Continuing, he said, “I genuinely believe there will come a time in our future where we make a conscious decision to stop cutting down trees to make books, and it will make books much more beneficial to us. We will treasure them more, and most of our reading will be done on electronic devices.”

And before we were done, we just had to check in on whether Burton would be returning to NBC’s Community, after his memorable appearance two seasons ago. Turns out, NBC may not have Britta’d EVERYTHING about the show: “We are working on another guest appearance…” said Burton. “That was a lot of fun for me, and I think it’s gonna happen.”

With that in mind, we grabbed a slice of rainbow cake, skipped out to the tune of “Butterfly in the Sky,” and purged thoughts of blown auditions from our minds. Sure, Reading Rainbow may have missed out on a generation during it’s brief hiatus, but this new App – with a few tweaks, and a good amount of outreach – should make fans of a whole new one.

The Reading Rainbow App launches today in the iTunes Store.