'Reading Rainbow' Reaches Its Final Chapter After 26 years, the beloved children's show hosted by LeVar Burton will disappear from the airwaves. Today, educational funding favors programs that teach kids how to read, rather than why to read.

'Reading Rainbow' Reaches Its Final Chapter

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One of public television's most popular children's program concludes a 26-year run today. "Reading Rainbow" has entertained millions of kids and won scores of awards. The decision to end the show signals a change in philosophy as to how television should teach reading, as Ben Calhoun reports.

BEN CALHOUN: Even if you can't remember a specific "Reading Rainbow" episode, chances are the theme song is still stuck in your head somewhere.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high.

CALHOUN: "Reading Rainbow" started in 1983, hosted by actor LeVar Burton. If you don't know Burton from "Reading Rainbow", he's also famous for his role as Kunta Kinte in "Roots" or the chrome-visored Geordi La Forge on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Reading Rainbow")

Mr. LEVAR BURTON (Actor): Hey, I'm glad you're here.

CALHOUN: Each episode of "Reading Rainbow" had the same basic elements. There was a featured children's book and then an adventure with Burton that related back to the featured book. The third part to all of this was the book reviews. Towards the end of the show kids appeared on screen and recommended books to each other.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Reading Rainbow")

(Soundbite of music)

PETE: Yo, my name is Pete and I got a book for you. It's all about music and I think you'll dig it too.

LOUISE DELGADO: Hi there. My name is Louise Delgado(ph) and I'm here today to tell you about a very special book I've just finished reading.

CARLOS RODRIGUEZ: Hello, up there in outer space. My name is Carlos Rodriguez(ph). Boy, have I got a book for you.

(Soundbite of music)

CALHOUN: But it wasn't just the structure of the show that made it stand out. It was the substance.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Reading Rainbow")

Mr. BURTON: We're going on a hayride down the Smiley Hollow for a good old fashion Tennessee barn dance.

CALHOUN: The show had light themes like barn dances and honey bees, but it never shied away from tougher issues.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Reading Rainbow")

Mr. BURTON: Not all of us have experienced what it's like to have a parent in prison, but millions of children have.

CALHOUN: In 26 years, "Reading Rainbow" won more than two dozen Emmys and became the third-longest running children's show in PBS history. It's topped only by "Sesame Street" and "Mister Rogers".

Mr. JOHN GRANT (WNED): The series resonates with so many people.

CALHOUN: John Grant is in charge of content at WNED, "Reading Rainbow"s home station. Grant says "Reading Rainbow" is ending today because nobody - not the station, not PBS, not CPB - nobody's putting up the money to renew the show's broadcast rights, a cost of several hundred thousand dollars. He says that partially has to do with a funding crunch, but more interesting, Grant says the decision to end "Reading Rainbow" can also be traced back to a philosophical change about TV and reading. He says the change started with the Department of Education under the Bush administration, which wanted to see a much heavier focus on things like phonics and spelling, the basic tools of reading.

Mr. GRANT: And so PBS and CPB and the Department of Education all put significant funding really toward the idea of programming that would teach kids how to read.

CALHOUN: "Reading Rainbow" was not what they wanted.

Mr. GRANT: That was never what "Reading Rainbow" did. "Reading Rainbow" taught kids why to read, you know, the love of reading, encouraged kids to pick up a book and to read.

Ms. LINDA SIMENSKY (Vice President, Children's Programming, PBS): I think in many ways "Reading Rainbow," in terms of literacy, represents the era that it was developed in.

CALHOUN: Linda Simensky is the vice president of children's programming at PBS.

Ms. SIMENSKY: I think may be in the early '80s the thought was how do we get kids to read books?

CALHOUN: Simensky says "Reading Rainbow" came up against research that shows teaching the mechanics of reading should be the network's priority.

Ms. SIMENSKY: We've been able to identify the earliest steps that we need to take. You know, now we know what we need to do first. Even just from five years ago, I think we all know so much more about how to use television to teach.

CALHOUN: It sounds like to me that the research has directed people towards phonics fundamentals as the frontline of the literacy fight, and "Reading Rainbow" occupied a little bit more luxurious space — assuming those skills and being a show that was about reveling in the joy of reading.

Ms. SIMENSKY: Exactly, exactly.

CALHOUN: Kind of off the frontline.

Ms. SIMENSKY: Yeah. Exactly.

CALHOUN: Simensky calls "Reading Rainbow"'s 26-year run miraculous — and calls its end bittersweet. Still, talking to others in children's programming, it seems "Reading Rainbow"'s impending absence hangs like an open question about the literacy challenges that still exist and the role television should play to meet those challenges.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Calhoun in New York.

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