Actor-director-host LeVar Burton

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The winner of numerous Emmy Awards, Burton explains the relaunch of Reading Rainbow as a mobile app.

LeVar Burton was an acting student at the University of Southern California when, on his first professional audition, he won the role of Kunta Kinte in the landmark Roots miniseries. He went on to star in a string of telefilms and direct several TV shows, including numerous episodes of the Star Trek series—in which he starred and directed more episodes than any other regular cast member. A passionate supporter of children's literacy, he hosted the Peabody Award-winning PBS Reading Rainbow series, which ran for 23 seasons, and formed a new media company that has reimagined the program for the new millennium. Burton is also author of the sci-fi novel, Aftermath.


Tavis: For 30 years, actor LeVar Burton has devoted much of his time to making sure kids experience the joy of reading. “Reading Rainbow” was, until just a few years ago, a staple of course here on public television, but leaving PBS did not mean leaving the mission.

Instead, LeVar turned to a new delivery system which is appropriate for this age – an app, putting together 72,000 books a week in front of young readers. LeVar, as always, an honor to have you on this program.

LeVar Burton: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you, man.

Burton: Always good to see you, always.

Tavis: I was joking before we came on the air about the fact that we always find a way.

Burton: Yes, we do.

Tavis: You’ve got to be creative.

Burton: You have to be creative, and when PBS pulled “Reading Rainbow” out of the ready-to-learn lineup in 2009, it was a sad thing, but it also – they say one door closes, another one opens.

It became an opportunity for my business partner, Mark Wolfe, and I to really go after and finally secure, gather up and then secure all the rights. When I was here last, and I think it was 2010, right?

Tavis: Mm-hmm.

Burton: I wasn’t – we were in the process of doing that, and I think I hinted, alluded that there was something going on with “Reading Rainbow.” It may not have breathed its last breath yet. Mark and I spent 18, 19 months gathering up the rights, securing the rights, making a deal with WNED in Buffalo, New York, the PBS station that owns the rights, and we now have the world-wide, perpetual and exclusive rights to the brand, and the “Reading Rainbow” app is our first product in the marketplace.

Tavis: Tell me more about the application.

Burton: It is a mobile library for tablets for kids. We’re on the iOS platform and the Kindle Fire platform right now. Our immediate plans are to get to the Web as soon as we can, so that our product can be enjoyed more ubiquitously.

However, we are a mobile library on the tablet. A library of 300-plus books and growing, and 75-plus videos, new video content. Original video field trips with LeVar, just like the original television series. We deliver it all in an environment that kids are really excited about exploring, so that they can discover books they want to read.

Tavis: To your point about a door closing and another opening, that is true in all of our lives, I think, if we but see it that way.

Burton: If we see it that way.

Tavis: In the moment, oftentimes we don’t see it that way. But it seems to me that, with all due respect to PBS, this may very well be the wave of the future anyway, since everywhere I look I see kids playing with devices.

Burton: Here’s the deal: In the ’80s, when “Reading Rainbow” was created, television was the technology we used to reach kids. You want to reach kids today, you have to be on a mobile device, because the television screen is just one that they use in the course of the day, right?

So we feel like we are right there at the intersection of education and technology and opportunity.

Tavis: How do parents make the connect for their kids via the app?

Burton: Well, we believe, and our sign-up process is designed to encourage parent-child together. We’re talking about the entry-level reading age child. Four to eight is really our sweet spot, but we bleed a little on either side, as most children’s products do.

So we assume that the parent and child are signing up together, because we require a parent’s email address at sign-in, and we are a subscription model. So what that means is that $10 a month buys you unlimited content to all of our books and videos.

For $29.99 for six months, which breaks down to $5 a month, your child can have access to the finest quality video and literature, I think, that we can possibly provide. It’s all curated by me and my team.

Tavis: I’m glad you mentioned who it’s curated by –

Burton: Yes.

Tavis: – which raises two questions. One, I assume this means, and I thought I heard you intimate earlier or suggest earlier that that means there’s new video.

Burton: Oh, yes.

Tavis: You (unintelligible) shooting – this is new content.

Burton: It’s all new content. We are all over the place. We’ve been to the White House twice. We were the first cameras allowed into the National Archives post 9/11 to shoot the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

We’ve been underneath the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Nobody’s ever recorded their story before. We met these guards. We tell the story of the men who do that duty, who perform the ceremony around the clock, 24/7/365.

“Reading Rainbow” has always been famous for that all-access, backstage experience of life as it relates to the literature that we read, and we always connect the real world for kids to their imaginations, to let them know that nothing is beyond their limits.

Tavis: To your point, your audience is considerably younger than the audience of the point that I’m about to make, relative to the point that I’m about to make now. There is a movie out now that is getting all kinds of – that has created a lot of controversy because of some sex scenes in the movie with these two young kids.

There’s a big controversy – you all know the controversy that exists now about this film and whether or not kids ought to go see this movie where these two young kids are lovers, two girls, in this case.

I raise that only because we live in a world now where kids are exposed to, more young people are exposed to more now than ever before. So your age bracket couldn’t get in to see this movie even if they wanted to.

Burton: True.

Tavis: But I’m getting to a point here, which is as you curate the material for these kids through this app, how do you go about knowing what’s appropriate for kids in this era? Does that make sense?

Burton: It does. It absolutely does. Actually, I’m writing my first book for children, and I’m writing it in response to all of these situations that we continue to find ourselves in, where there are shootings in public places in schools, in theaters; tornados, tremendous loss of life and property.

These events are scary for us as adults, so I really wanted to address, for an audience of children, why – try to put into context why bad things sometimes happen to good people.

I’m a firm believer and always have been that there aren’t all that many things that you should not express to children in an age-appropriate manner, and as a parent, that is your job – to be discerning as to whether or not your child can handle the information, provided you have the ability to express yourself in, as I say, that age-appropriate way.

You can break down anything for a child, and you have to know what your child is ready for and what your child is not.

Tavis: But nowadays, though, and I suspect it’s always been this way, though, that is obviously an individual parental decision.

Burton: Yeah.

Tavis: Because parents are all over the map now about what they think their kids should and should not be exposed to, I’m just wondering how much more difficult it makes your job, to make sure that you curate stuff that people can agree on.

Burton: For me, a good children’s book is a good children’s book is a good children’s book.

Tavis: Right.

Burton: Right. As my title at the company is “curator-in-chief,” I am the last and final authority on whether or not it goes in or stays out.

Tavis: You mentioned since you were here last this app has been developed and now it’s out there, and we’re glad to have you on to celebrate that, so that “Reading Rainbow” does, in fact, have a life post-PBS.

Since the last time you were here, a few other things have happened as well, and I want to get your take on it in the few minutes I have left with you. If there’s been one, there’s been two or three movies about the slave narrative, if I can put it that way.

Quentin Tarantino I guess a year ago won for best original screenplay for “Django,” all kind of controversy around that. Now we have “12 Years a Slave.” You were there first as Kunta Kinte with “Roots.”

Mr. Tarantino sort of dissed – not “sort of;” in fact, dissed “Roots” when he did “Django Unchained,” and I suspect that probably didn’t make you or the other people in “Roots” happy.

Burton: Well, I didn’t think he dissed it by the making of it.

Tavis: Yeah, not about the making, but his words –

Burton: His words, yes.

Tavis: Yeah.

Burton: But in saying that it was more real than “Roots,” that pissed me off. Or should I say, I took umbrage. I took umbrage, because it just struck a nerve. Because “Django” was not real. “Django” is not real. “Django” is satire, and taken as such, I enjoyed it.

I laughed at what I thought were all the funny places in the movie, but I was under no illusion. “Django” was satire.

Tavis: Now we have “12 Years a Slave”

Burton: Yes, which is a beautiful film.

Tavis: It is.

Burton: I think it’s a beautiful film.

Tavis: I agree, I agree.

Burton: Remarkable film.

Tavis: Yeah. Tell me more, though, about what you think is causing this – I’m scared to use the word but “renaissance” in the slave narrative, and whether or not you think that’s justified, legitimate, necessary.

Burton: Tavis, I’m going to be honest with you. At this age in my life I feel like I have been able to notice throughout the incremental march of history during the course of my own lifetime patterns emerging, and there is, if you look at it, there’s a sort of a rubber band effect that happens where social growth and change is concerned.

I think that the last snap of the band was the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States, and in the intervening years there’s that reverberation is what we’re feeling – the sort of retrenchment against all sense.

So I just think that it’s a part of the inevitable march of history. There are steps forward and there are steps backward.

Tavis: A retrenchment because there is a Black man in the White House?

Burton: In part as a result (unintelligible) yes.

Tavis: Yeah.

Burton: Because it’s a point of focus for everything you want to complain about and make wrong in your world, yeah.

Tavis: In lieu of, or in light of, I should say – in light of all of these new films about the slave narrative, when you look back on “Roots” all these years later, you think what?

Burton: I’m proud.

Tavis: Yeah.

Burton: Absolutely. Because it was the first time that the story of slavery in America, our common story, white America and Black America, had been told from the point of view of the Africans.

We now all have a different frame of reference when we talk about slavery in America as a result of “Roots.”

Tavis: I raised your name the other day in conversation on my radio show. I interviewed this young lady, Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Patsy –

Burton: Oh, yes.

Tavis: – in “12 Years a Slave.”

Burton: In “12 Years a Slave,” yes.

Tavis: I raised your name in my public radio conversation with her, because she’s just out of Yale. I thought about you at USC.

Burton: I was a sophomore at USC, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Exactly. Now your daughter is –

Burton: My daughter is an acting major at the University of Michigan. She’s in her second year of college.

Tavis: So she’s a sophomore, too. (Laughter)

Burton: She’s a sophomore. She’s the same age I was when I was cast in “Roots,” yeah, which is particularly thrilling for her father, yeah.

Tavis: I’m sure it is, and for her as well.

Burton: I would hope so. It’s costing us enough. (Laughter)

Tavis: I am always delighted to have LeVar Burton on this show. We always have a great conversation. The new – I’ll let you – there’s your camera. Talk about the app one more time.

Burton: The “Reading Rainbow” app – the “Reading Rainbow” app. It is available on the iOS, the Kindle Fire, and the Apple iPad. Download it. It’s a mobile library for your kids, all curated by us.

Tavis: There you go.

Burton: Yeah.

Tavis: Good to have you back, man.

Burton: Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: Congratulations.

Burton: Yeah, man, thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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Last modified: January 27, 2014 at 1:39 pm