Reading Rainbow began its 26-year run on PBS as a way to combat summer mind decay. Now it's taking the same goal to a different medium.
"What were [kids] doing in the 80s? Sitting in front of the television," explains Levar Burton, who hosted the show. "So we went where they were to steer them back in the direction of where we wanted them to go."
While television still accounts for the largest amount of children's screen time, it's not the only screen in town anymore. About half of children under 8 have access to some sort of mobile device.
Kids are on tablets, and, as of Tuesday, so is Reading Rainbow.
The new iPad app incorporates classic Reading Rainbow segments, 16 new video "field trips" starring Burton and 150 narrated interactive books. Kids navigate through themed "islands" such as "Animal Kingdom" and "Action Adventures & Magical Tales" where they can discover age-appropriate books and media. For $9.99 a month, their parents can purchase unlimited access to this content, which will be updated regularly.
Burton, who is also known for roles in Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation, and former film and television producer Mark Wolfe co-founded the company that created the app, RRKidz, and holds the rights to the Reading Rainbow brand.
Their app makes good business sense. Many children who grew up watching the television show now have children within the app's target age range of 3 to 9 — giving Reading Rainbow a clear nostalgic edge over other children's books in the App Store.
But the project is also a sincere attempt to encourage reading. Its digital enhancements of children's books look more like the subtle, story-building interactivity of pop-up books than distracting bells and whistles.
Where the app most departs from its television roots is in the virtual world outside of its books. Each story, for instance, comes with games and puzzles. Kids design their own virtual backpacks, can track the minutes they've read from a dashboard and receive digital stickers as rewards for finishing new titles.
The strategy is the same as it was when Reading Rainbow was a TV show. By meeting young people in a new medium, the brand hopes they'll pick up an old one.
According to a 2007 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, the number of 13-year-olds who were daily readers dropped 14 percent between 1984 and 2004. A more recent study in the UK suggested that when children do read, they're more likely to read text messages, magazines, websites and emails than literature.
Mom and dad's nostalgia may drive subscription purchases to the app at first, but can an app geared toward reading compete with the constant, instant gratification of Angry Birds?
If you take Burton's word for it, yes.
"We're not going to convince kids to not pick up tablets…We would rather be here as an alternative to some of the things that aren't as enriching," he says. "I believe all content is educational. The question is, what are you teaching?"