Mind Of The Geek covered the Reading Rainbow app way back in June. On Election Day in November, I had a chance to speak with LeVar Burton about Reading Rainbow’s success, his storied career in television and just a little bit about politics. When I asked what he’d heard about Mind Of The Geek he said, with a chuckle, “I have heard that you guys are rocketing to the top of everyone’s consciousness.” I laughed, and thanked him. “Congratulations on that,” he said. “The buzz is out. Y’all are killin’ it.”
TE: How is the Reading Rainbow app doing this holiday season?
LB: This is the season of the tablet, man. This Christmas is going to be all about the tablet computer. My point is, “Great! What are you going to put on it for your kids?” My suggestion would be the Reading Rainbow app. [Laughs] I make that suggestion from a purely selfish perspective and point of view, but I do believe that what we’re offering is something of value to children and their families. We just found out today that, to date, in the five months we’ve been up, we’ve had 500,000 reads of books by kids on our service. Isn’t that crazy? We’re ecstatic over here. We’re doing the happy dance. And it’s Election Day.
TE: Why do you think Reading Rainbow, as an entity, is better served through a tablet, or a more technological presence?
LB: That’s where kids are these days, right? Television was the medium that we used back in the 80s to reach kids, because that’s where kids were hanging out. But this generation of digital natives, the television screen only occupies a small percentage of their screen time these days. These kids are on mobile and tablet computers. Mobile devices, and tablet computers. That’s where they are. If you want to reach them, that’s where you need to be. So we’re pretty proud at having been able to successfully translate that television experience into an app. Not easy to do, especially when you’re dealing with a brand people feel familiar with, know and love. We’re very proud of how we translated Reading Rainbow into a tablet experience for kids. And for us, the great news is that it’s working. Kids are reading. They’re just gobbling it up, and it’s fantastic. It’s great to see, and it’s great to experience.
TE: When it comes to entertainment – whether it’s tablet, mobile, television, film, whatever – do you feel that pop culture is inherently, and I know it’s a subjective term, but do you feel that it’s better if there’s some form of positive educational aspect to it?
LB: You know what? In a free market, there’s room for everything. But as a producer of content, I’m going to be responsible for that which I produce, and the stuff that I want to produce is enriching for kids, because I see a need for that in the marketplace, quite frankly. And I’m happy to be able to offer a brand that I’ve helped build over, it’ll be 30 years, next year, since Reading Rainbow first came on the air. I agree with what Reading Rainbow stands for, which is why I’ve invested so much of life into it.
TE: One of your more famous roles has a great deal to do with advanced technologies …
LB: You bet.
LB: Kunte Kinte and the iPad is a very famous image that’s just burned into the mind of pop culture fans all over the world. [Laughs]
TE: I don’t know what I would’ve done if I hadn’t seen Kunte Kinte with his iPad all those years go.
LB: And now you can’t unsee it. [Laughs]
TE: Did it ever occur to you, while filming Star Trek: The Next Generation, that technology would catch up as fast as it has?
LB: You know? It didn’t. But what did catch me off guard was that I was, kind of, involved in that translation from the imagination into real world applications, you know what I mean? It’s one thing to observe it happening and think, “Oh, that makes perfect sense!” It’s another thing to, sort of, be a part of the physical representation of that. It’s weird, but I loved being Geordi.
TE: You, personally, as the host of Reading Rainbow – you’ve got the character of Kunte Kinte, you’ve got Geordi La Forge – those are cultural inspirations. Do you feel that responsibility weigh on you? Do you feel you shoulder it well, or is it just “another job,” for lack of a better term?
LB: The roles that I’ve done, I’ve done because they’ve come my way. It’s not like I’ve had this grand plan. I’m not one of those guys can do what they want to do. There are very few Harrison Fords on the planet. I’ve done the things that I’ve done because they’ve been put in my path, and I’m enormously grateful. I’ve had an amazing life, and an astounding career full of, probably, the hardest thing to get in show business: Respect and longevity. And over the 35 years I’ve been doing this I’ve been very, very lucky. Very fortunate. Very blessed.
TE: Do you feel that it’s all luck? I understand there’s a difference between what you have to do as an actor to make a living, and what you want to be a part of so it stands the test of time. You said earlier you’re willing to stand behind what Reading Rainbow represents, for example. Do you try to choose your roles based on what challenges you, or what you think people will respect? What sort of considerations do you have?
LB: I guess the biggest consideration is, looking back on it, it all seems like it was such a good idea at the time [Laughs]. You never know how it’s going to turn out, but it seemed like it was a good idea at the time. Yeah, “this” makes sense. You know? Say, “yes,” to “this,” right? It seems to be coming your way, don’t screw it up. Be grateful and keep going. You never know how things are going to turn out.
TE: Is there more Perception coming? [Burton plays the recurring character Paul Haley on the TNT original program Perception, due to return next summer.]
LB: Yeah. Second season of Perception is very exciting. I love the show and I’m happy to be on it. Love the idea. Love what were talking about: Mental health in America. I love Eric McCormack, and I love working with him, and watching him work. It’s ideal. I love it.
TE: If you had your choice, if you could pick and choose, what sort of projects would you want to do? What would you put yourself behind, and what you represent to the culture?
LB: I’ve had some pretty cool gigs in my career. Chief engineer of the starship Enterprise: Not a bad gig. Host of Reading Rainbow: Great gig. Great gig. Founder and “Curator-in-Chief” of RRKidz? This is best job I’ve ever had. We’re the company that brought Reading Rainbow back as an app. [Pauses] And we’re just getting started.
TE: As it expands, do you have any other plans to, possibly, brand it as a series of physical books, or…?
LB: Oh, we have all kinds of plans. All sorts of plans. Stay tuned. This is just the first in a series of products and services for children and their families that are enriching, you know? That are entertaining and enriching at the same time. This is just the beginning for us.
TE: Are there any plans to expand… Right now, the app is only available on the iPad? It’s not available for Android at all?
LB: It will be available on an Android-based device after the first of the year. And we just released internationally [for the iPad]. We’re in Great Britain, now, and Australia, New Zealand. It’s all good. And the original episodes of Reading Rainbow are available to download on iTunes, and if you’ve got Amazon Prime, you can get a number of episodes, as well.
TE: Are they any plans, or a plan you can talk about, that has to do with integrating the iPad app with the original episodes?
LB: There are snippets in the app from the original, from what we call Classic Reading Rainbow, yeah, in the “Videos” section. Go to the “Videos” section, and every “Island” has at least one video field trip from Classic Reading Rainbow. But most of the video is new, stuff we’ve been shooting for a year now. See, that’s the point. We’ve translated the television show, which means “books,” right? And “video,” right? Video field trips with LeVar, just like on the television series. That’s what in the app. You got to download it, man, and check it out. [Laughs] There’s a free version you can download, you can download one book, you can cruise around, you can see the concept of the Islands as where the books are, where kids find them. Just go ahead, download it, and cruise around. Have fun!
TE: Are there any plans to venture back into television, do you think?
LB: With Reading Rainbow? Not at this time. No. No. No. This is where kids are [Laughs].
TE: What tablet do you carry?
LB: I have an iPad. And I have a [Microsoft Surface]. It’s very colorful. I like the interface. I like the UI. I really do. I think it makes sense. I’m trying to get it to sync up with my Windows phone, but I’m having some connectivity issues. But I think I’m on the pathway to getting them worked out, and when I do, I’m really excited about the way those two devices could sync up, share information, and display it to me all in a real, seamless, easy to access fashion. I like their UI a lot.
TE: Have you had a chance to vote today?
LB: I have, indeed. Yes, indeed, I did. I voted.
TE: I know this is an app, and Reading Rainbow hasn’t been involved with public television directly for some time, but do have any thoughts about the recent concern over funding possibly getting cut from public television?
LB: I’ve been on record. I spoke with Bill O’Reilly about it and some other outlets. [Pauses] You know, PBS has been around for a long time and it’s done a lot of good. One of the things it hasn’t done very well at is changing with the times; shifting economic reality in America, different and more innovative ways to reach our children where education is concerned. And so, I’m happy to talk about the Reading Rainbow story because it’s a success story. Like Sesame Workshop, it’s a success story of something having come out of that incubator of public broadcasting into the free market and it will be able to sustain itself going forward, Reading Rainbow will. And that’s a good thing.