LeVar Burton on Bringing 'Reading Rainbow'—the TV Show of Your Childhood—to the Tech of Today

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Take a look, it's on an iPad.

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It's difficult for someone from my generation to write an objective review of the Reading Rainbow iPad app. It seems akin to a comic-book purist reviewing the Watchmen movie, or a sports nut reviewing the MLB At Bat app. Had LeVar brought out a plate of warm chocolate-chip cookies and simply served them to us on an iPad, some reviewers would most certainly spend 1000 words describing the taste and texture of the cookies, another 500 on the origins and history of the recipe, and finish up with a note that the app is probably great as well. And I will not pretend that my own iPad did not tremor the least bit in my hands as I sat down earlier this week and discussed the future of my childhood dreams with the man himself, LeVar Burton.

With us were Mark Wolfe and Sangita Patel of RRKidz, the company that became the new steward of the Reading Rainbow brand after the show was dropped from PBS due to a lack of funding and, some said, the Bush administration's insistence on programs which focused on phonetics and grammar rather than teaching kids why they should read. PBS stated that their research backed this up, the show stopped production in 2006, and the final episode aired in 2009. Almost immediately thereafter Burton decided to move forward with a new vision for the show based around "webisodes for adults" and given a working title: "Reading Rainbow 2.0". Later that year, he partnered with Wolfe, according to this interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation, where he first mentions Wolfe's name in association with the company.

Since then, Burton and his team have been planning the next phase of the Reading Rainbow brand. This involved first moving from the public to the private sector, where they could pursue a long-term strategy and guarantee the show's financial stability. After the iPad came out, it shifted to focus on bringing children's books to the device. Yesterday, at a press event at Studio 450 in New York City, the company presented the first public demonstration of the app, which became available on the App Store late last night.

The Reading Rainbow iPad app is, at its core, a reading app for children's books -- though some light gamification is included in the form of a simple memory game and virtual stickers awarded for finishing books. The app will include one free book, after which parents will have to purchase a subscription. The price includes unlimited access to the 150 books currently in the app through a library model, and new releases will be included as the library grows. Up to five books can be checked out at once and added to the user's "backpack", which can be customized to suit each child's obsession. 

Books have been adapted and enhanced with simple animations reminiscent of motion comics, and kids also have access to a huge library of multimedia content with LeVar's famous video field trips. The company took great pains to ensure that the additional content did not detract from the reading experience, which is central to the app's mission -- not to mention its business model.

Unsurprisingly, the event included not only a beautiful arrangement of multicolored chairs, but also some playtime with the app for reporters, as well as a tiny table and beanbag chairs for the children in attendance to do some hallway usability testing. This last element was essential because, as a passing attendee noted, "It really doesn't matter what the adults do with it." While there was a handler present assisting some of the younger ones, for the most part the kids seemed to get into it fairly easily. One reader even fulfilled every parents' ultimate fantasy and let her cake sit unfinished while she wrapped up a book. (Had the app been available to the children in the marshmallow experiment, the results might have looked markedly different.)

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As for the app itself: it's a beautiful -- if imperfect -- translation of the Reading Rainbow experience. The interface passed my own stress tests (think lots of tapping, swiping, and generally acting as though only my right hand is having a seizure) without crashing, and scroll views were zippy even when scrolling through hundreds of titles. (The app will include one free book, after which parents are required to purchase a subscription for $10 per month. The price includes unlimited access to the 150 books currently in the app, and presumably to new releases as the library grows.) I was able to use it for about five to ten minutes without it dying from memory overuse. The team clearly worked hard to create a stable, responsive app, especially important given that the target market includes small children. Unfortunately for some parents, after testing with Apple's VoiceOver screen-reader I verified that the app is not fully accessible, so vision-impaired users will have to wait. Wolfe assured me that this was a top priority for the team, and that an update would be forthcoming.

In addition, the app suffers from an issue that plagues most iPad publications: books are stored as raster images, and hence take quite some time to download. The app does not appear to be fully optimized for retina screens, and on the studio's WiFi -- which, admittedly, was being used simultaneously by several demo units on the floor -- one book showed up as unavailable, and another took many minutes to load.

I spoke with Burton, Wolfe, and Patel at length yesterday about the app's development, why they chose to go iPad first, and some of the challenges they faced in bringing a public television series to a completely new medium. Here's an edited transcript of our conversation:

Eric Schmidt recently drew criticism over his prediction this past January that "six months from now" developers would be making apps for Android first. When choosing a platform, what made you decide to launch exclusively on the iPad rather than on Android or for both tablets? Was it purely a matter of market share?

BURTON: Um, it was a couple of things. Market share did weigh heavily into our decision. It was really a no-brainer for us. And we are currently working on porting over to certain Android devices. The Android market is kind of, um... [searches for the word] schizophrenic, and so part of the client's decision was to wait until there was a shake-out that happened and the readers emerged. And you have to understand that, you know when we embarked on this journey the iPad hadn't come out yet and, and the Kindle Fire certainly hadn't come out yet. So now there's more stability in that market, and we are really eager and excited about our Android version.

Let's talk about timing. NPR reported in 2009 -- almost a year before the launch of the iPad -- that "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." Why release an app now? Was it a matter of development time, getting enough publishers on board, or were other factors at play?

BURTON: All of them. All of them. We had to raise money [chuckles], we had to identify and hire a team. We had to build it. We had to figure out how to produce books in a cost-effective way. We had a lot [of variables] to solve for.

MARK WOLFE: When you say now, you mean now versus when?

Now, I should say it's now two years after the launch of the iPad, a lot of apps have come out, I'm just curious, I mean, I don't necessarily expect that you guys would launch on day one with the iPad, I'm just curious where most of the production time ended up?

BURTON: Coding.

WOLFE: Coding and book production.

BURTON: Coding and book production. Absolutely.

WOLFE: The production of each book is really important to us to make sure that as we launched with our own thing it maintains the integrity of each book.

BURTON: We're launching with 150 books. You can't make 150 books and take them from print to digital overnight.

WOLFE: Well, you could, but we won't.

BURTON: Yeah. Right. You could publish PDFs, right? But that's not what we're doing.

WOLFE: If you're going to stamp something with the brand that everyone knows and loves [holds up branded earphone case that was distributed for the demo], it has to live up to that brand. And it has to honor ... it has to honor the history of the brand, and it has to honor the consumers -- parents -- and their expectations for it. So we...

BURTON: We were committed to not launching until we were ready.

WOLFE: That's right.

Publishers are terrified of mobile devices. How did you convince them to embrace the Reading Rainbow app on a subscription model, where revenues are uncertain and margins are considerably lower than print or traditional e-book publishing?

[Chuckles as Wolfe looks across the room and motions to Patel]

WOLFE: I'm gonna invite Sangita Patel over there. This is our president of publishing.

I'll repeat the question... [repeats previous question].

SANGITA PATEL: Well we realized that -- I actually question that comment that publishers are terrified of digital, because actually now -- you'd be surprised, publishers are embracing digital.

I should clarify... I didn't say "terrified of digital", I said "terrified of mobile".

PATEL: Oh, mobile? Okay. Well I think the reason that publishers were excited about Reading Rainbow is one, trusted brand, more importantly discovery. I think for publishers, even though you can go in the bookstore, when a child goes in a bookstore they are able to have an experience that they can't really have anywhere on the Internet, or on devices now, because discovery of a book in the App Store is virtually impossible. There are so many out there --

WOLFE: Unless you know the title, right?

PATEL: Unless you know the title of the book. So what publishers found very interesting is, they said, "We do not have a discovery platform there, with curation", and so LeVar, LeVar's brand, the Reading Rainbow brand, was a perfect fit for them. And we convinced publishers for a subscription model because they realized that with LeVar's brand, with the fact that he has 1.8 million Twitter followers, is it? [Editor's note: At time of writing the number stands at a little more than 1.75 million.] As well as all of the publicity and all of the brand behind it that even if they got, you know a thousand downloads, they would make money off these books.

How significant do you expect the revenue from the subscription for publishers to be in the larger context of their quarterly or yearly revenues?

BURTON AND PATEL, ALMOST IN UNISON: Better than they would have been without us.

PATEL: Exactly. That's exactly what I was going to say.

BURTON: [Lets out a massive, earth-shattering howl of a laugh].

PATEL: And I wish you would have asked some of the publishers here, they're very excited about what we have to offer. And they trusted us. And they won't be disappointed.

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Excellent, excellent. I'll move on to the next question. So, LeVar, how do you feel the iPad might enhance the reading experience if authors take full advantage of the device's capabilities, for example, real-time 3D rendering or location awareness?

Devices like the iPad and other tablets enable the kinds of tools for storytelling the likes of which we've never associated literature with before.

BURTON: There are so many innovations that are on the horizon that it's difficult to wrap, you know, my arms around them all. I think we're in a new era, because -- well obviously we're in a new era, and it really began with consumer versions of camcorders. Because storytelling, and visual storytelling, was put in the hands of everybody, and we have all now become storytellers. And with the advent of mobile devices that have cameras, we have all become journalists and we're all publishing, we're all sharing our pictures, our point of view. I do believe that that same sea change is moving to the written word, and devices like the iPad and other tablets enable the kinds of tools for storytelling the likes of which we've never associated literature with before. So it's just an exciting time.

WOLFE: You know with [inaudible] we were talking yesterday, the day before that stories, you know, start on cave paintings, then they wind up as heiroglyphics, and then they are written on papyrus, and eventually on sheep vellum, then trees, now here you go [points to iPad]. The device -- the delivery of the device doesn't make stories. It can help augment them in a certain way, but a good story's a good story no matter whether it's on papyrus, or electronic.

So, next questions. This might be best for you, Mark. I saw the app has a "read out loud" mode. What was the testing process like? Did you test the app's user interface with vision-impaired, hearing-impaired, or dislexic users, or other people with disabilities?

WOLFE: Oh yes, oh yes [pauses for a beat]. You have to start somewhere, and we met early on with Apple, and they talked to us about their accessibility -- the elements of accessibility that are built into iPad. And what we all realized together was that you have to start -- especially with books for kids because to some extent all the issues that face everyone that you just talked about, dyslexia and those things, are all things that young readers, with no particular interface yet -- they're still learning to sound out words, they're learning phonics -- [but] the "ready to learn", the "ready to read" group, what we're able to offer them is narration, words that are nice and large, those kinds of things that tie pictures and sounds into it, those will help them get into the reading experience. Then, as we go forward, we'll be able to add in kids who are hard of hearing, vision-impaired, etc.

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Next question's for LeVar. What was it like moving from public television -- a medium with both financial and political constraints -- straight into app development, a medium with an entirely different set of technical and design constraints?

I really look at this project as what I'm gonna leave behind, and -- and it's good. It's really, really good.

BURTON: It's very liberating, and incredibly frightening [chuckles]. Because we had to raise the money ourselves -- and, obviously, working for myself is a real joy, having spent 30 years working for other people. Every ounce of what we have all put into this is going to benefit on some level us and our families. I really look at this project as what I'm gonna leave behind, and -- and it's good. It's really, really good.

And what did you have the most difficulty with during that transition?

BURTON: [Pauses to reflect, drums fingers of left hand on arm of chair]. Well, raising money wasn't easy. It wasn't, it's a very difficult environment in which to raise money [referring to publishing], economically. ... [Also,] anticipating the unexpected. Very difficult. Almost -- next to impossible to do. We've done a lot of pivoting, throughout this process.

WOLFE: I kind of have one. I think that the difficulty was, when you do something over a long period of time, like 18 months, whatever it takes, the world changes beneath you as you're going. So you start driving here but the world changes, especially the tech world changes so fast, and so we're lucky that people like Oscar, who understand this world -- because god knows LeVar and I do not -- help us kind of shift with the sands as the world changes. And it's, you know, "Oh, it's iPad 2! Oh, it's iPad 3! Oh, it's this! Oh, it's that! Oh, but we were heading in that direction." And so there's a lot of fast shifting, and in movies and television, where LeVar and I come from, it doesn't change in a year and a half; it changes over half a century.

BURTON: Right.

WOLFE: Right. So the shifting sands I think really, really were challenging for us to -- to maintain a clear vision about the product they wanted now, and yet escape the surface of the shifting sands.

BURTON: I agree.

Given an unlimited budget, the best talent available and as much time as you needed, what would your ideal reading app look like?

BURTON: We just debuted it. ... I don't think ... I wouldn't change a thing. I wouldn't change a thing.

WOLFE: When you look downstairs at all the kids, they were playing with it, smiling -- we've achieved it. That's the goal.

BURTON: That was the goal.

WOLFE: Kids wanted to read. They actually wanted to read a book.

LeVar, I'd like to know what media you consume when you wake up on a Sunday, where you consume it, and how? So, is it a physical newspaper or magazine, an iPad app, a website in a browser, an online video series, a podcast? Any or all of the above?

BURTON: Sunday morning is a traditional day for laying in bed, a little while -- much longer than a normal day -- and, you know my iPad charges on my nightstand, so it's the first thing I reach for. Generally the first thing I do is check emails and then Twitter feed, and on Sunday morning, you know I like to play with Flipboard, and just sort of check in to the world and I can do that without having to get up. And I like that, I like that idea a lot. We get to the newspaper, but that's not until we get upstairs. We get the Sunday paper, I like arranging it on the kitchen counter, section by section, and different members of the family come and grab their favorite section, and that's kind of a ritual, but the ritual begins in bed with the iPad.

This is working out so perfectly. So my next question is --

WOLFE: We wrote your questions in advance [Editor's note: completely untrue].

[Chuckles]. So my next question is, LeVar, from your Twitter feed, it appears that you're somewhat invested in social media. Do you find yourself reading less, more, or differently now that you have so many sources of information vying for your attention?

BURTON: I read fewer -- I used to read the newspaper every day. I get most of my news updates from electronic and social media. I don't read a newspaper anymore, I don't -- I think I've watched TV news less, certainly. I like the immediacy of Twitter, and -- yeah, I really, I do read the newspaper less.

So, a follow-up to that: kids are growing up with social media as a part of their daily lives now, and you mentioned before that everyone is a reporter now. On the other hand, there's a lot of issues on Twitter with citizen journalists not acting like journalists, so to speak? Things like kneejerk retweets, and reacting without doing fact-checking --

BURTON: Sure, sure.

So my question is, do you think that correct use of social media is something that should be taught in schools?

I think that we have to continue to expand the areas in which we want our kids to be literate.

BURTON: Yeah. I do. I think that we have to continue to expand the areas in which we want our kids to be literate. And social media's going to be a part of their lives. And why not? Why not give them a sense of what the rules of the road are?

Steve Jobs famously dreamt of bringing The Beatles catalog to the iTunes Store for many years before Jeff Jones at Apple Records finally made the deal happen, and that moment was widely regarded as the point at which digital music distribution crossed a line in the sand --

BURTON AND WOLFE: Took off.

And took off. What children's book would you most like to see brought to the iPad?

BURTON: I don't think that there's a single one. I don't think that the two mediums can really be compared. The Beatles catalog was how old when it was ported to Apple? Not more than 30 years, right?

30 to 40 years, I think.

BURTON: 30 to 40 years. So that's a relatively new catalog of work. Literature's been around for a long, long time. I guess I'd love to see somebody really, really sink their teeth into something like The Iliad -- the Joyce [catalog], right? Think of what you could do with Shakespeare's works on an iPad, in a multimedia, multidimensional experience.

What aspects of the iPad feel most like magic to you?

BURTON: Pinch and zoom... [pauses to think] Turning it on, and just making things happen with my finger. It all feels like magic [lets out another massive chuckle].

Ender's Game or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

BURTON: Hitchhiker's Guide.

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Note: Thanks to Child's Play PR for scheduling an interview on extremely short notice, and Apple Developer Relations for initially making the connection to RRKidz.

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Benjamin Jackson is a writer and app developer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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