“Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high. Take a look, it’s in a book, a Reading Rainbow…”
You may not remember the specific stories, but you probably remember the lilting tune of the introduction to PBS’s beloved show, Reading Rainbow.
Hosted by LeVar Burton, Reading Rainbow was the third-longest-running children’s television show in PBS history, after Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. But after a 26-year run, during which it amassed a number of devoted fans, the show was pulled off the air.
Given its fame and success, why would a treasured show like Reading Rainbow get canceled? Keep reading for what you need to know.
Why did 'Reading Rainbow' get canceled?
Reading Rainbow premiered in 1983 with a simple premise. Each episode revolved around a single theme and featured a children’s book that inspired an adventure with host LeVar Burton, and at the end of the story, children gave their own reviews of the book.
The show explored a number of topics like poverty, prison, and even the 9/11 attacks. Each episode also featured a guest celebrity reading a story. Over the show’s 26-year run, it featured cameos from the likes of Julia Child, Jim Henson (as Kermit the Frog), and even LeVar’s Star Trek co-star, Patrick Stewart.
But in January 2007, LeVar revealed that the show was coming to an end and that he’d already shot Reading Rainbow's last episode. Although he was tight-lipped about the exact reason for the show’s end, he suggested that he wasn’t happy with the "direction that the new producers were taking the program."
It was later revealed that the show was ending for two reasons. One was that no one wanted to put up the several hundred thousand dollars that were needed to renew the show’s broadcast rights, which included licensing books to read on the air. The second was related to the funding issue, which was the direct result of a policy change that started with the Department of Education.
The key objective of Reading Rainbow was to foster a love for reading in children. When it was developed in the early 1980s, showrunners were trying to create a program that would encourage kids to stop watching so much TV and pick up a book instead.
John Grant, then-director of Reading Rainbow’s home station, WNED Buffalo, said, “Reading Rainbow taught kids why to read. You know, the love of reading — [the show] encouraged kids to pick up a book and to read.”
But under the Bush administration, the No Child Left Behind education policy shifted the emphasis on teaching children how to read. Under these new guidelines, the Department of Education put its funding behind programming that was teaching children the basics of reading, with an emphasis on tools like phonics and spelling.
Since Reading Rainbow assumed their audience had already mastered basic reading skills and was focused on creating a love for books, it wasn’t deemed necessary in the fight for literacy and lost its funding.
LeVar has been gunning for a Reading Rainbow revival since the show’s cancelation in 2008, but for now, audiences can tune into his podcast, LeVar Burton Reads.