TechCrunch has an article and an 18-minute video segment (embedded below) about the new Reading Rainbow iPad app, launched by Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton’s and producer James Wolfe’s startup RRKidz. The literacy-promoting show ended its 26-year run a couple of years ago, but Burton and Wolfe didn’t stand still. Looking at TV as the technology of the eighties, they asked themselves what Reading Rainbow would have been if it had been launched today, and proceeded to make that.
In building the app, the RRKidz team saw an opportunity to reach kids in a new medium. At the same time, Burton said they wanted to make sure “books are the heart and soul” of the experience. In other words, they were willing to add some bells and whistles to keep users engaged, but they didn’t want to bury the books under layers of new technology. To that end, the company has signed deals with a number of children’s book publishers — including Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; Holiday House; Charlesbridge Publishing; Kane Press; Sleeping Bear Press; Peachtree Publishers; and Shenanigan Books — to include their titles in the app. Kids can read books on their own, or they can follow along with narration provided by Burton and other storytellers.
The books will feature some of those bells and whistles, such as kids receiving a sticker when they read a new title, video field trip segments with Burton in the style of the old show, and other graphical enhancements, but nothing that should overwhelm the actual text. There’s also some stuff for parents, such as the ability to track their kids’ reading activity through a website. And the app does not require a constantly-on Internet connection, as content can be downloaded for offline use.
The app itself will be free, providing access to one book and one set of videos. After that, content will cost $9.99 per month for unlimited access to as many books as kids using the app want to read.
Perhaps most tellingly, the last line in the TechCrunch story is:
If the app is a hit, might we see a return of Reading Rainbow to television? Burton said no: “Why would we?”
It made me chuckle—Burton clearly has the right idea. Reading Rainbow was never about putting books on TV except as a means to the end of getting kids to read more. Tablets are the new technology now, and you go where your audience is.
Of course, thanks to the affiliation with PBS, the old show was free over the air. On the other hand, the app provides direct access to the books themselves, rather than simply seeing them read on a screen, and parents might see $10 a month for an all-you-can-read service, compared to the cost of buying separate children’s books (or children’s e-books), as a bargain.