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PBS Ombudsman

End of the Rainbow

Last Friday, Aug. 28, was the last broadcast of "Reading Rainbow," among the most venerable and durable children's weekday series within PBS's long history of high-quality programming for young people.

It has had an extraordinary run — 26 years and hundreds of awards, including more than two dozen Emmys. It ranked only behind the icons of "Sesame Street" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" in the pantheon of PBS's longest-running children's programs, and was widely recognized as the top reading program and was used in classrooms nationwide. The program was not meant to teach youngsters how to read but rather why they should read. It was meant to ignite enthusiasm and excitement, a love of books and stories by youngsters who already knew how to read. The program was produced and originated from WNED-TV in Buffalo, N.Y., and was hosted and guided by Emmy-award winning actor LeVar Burton.

Yet, despite its recognition and longevity, the program fell on hard times in recent years, a victim, for sure, of funding problems but maybe also of changing directions in such programming as emphasis from government, in particular, has switched ever more toward teaching children the basic mechanics of reading, which can be tested and measured. And, it may also simply have run out of gas with young viewers after an extraordinarily long run.

In one sense, the program went quietly. No new episodes of the program had been produced for the past three years (only repeats of earlier shows have been aired) and, perhaps not surprisingly, viewership "has declined dramatically," say PBS officials, far below even the average rating for kids' shows generally and many times lower than top PBS children's shows now such as "Curious George" and "Super Why!"

Recent "carriage" reports, according to PBS, that measure how many member stations carry specific programs and at what time indicate viewership for "Rainbow" at only about one-third of the core weekday series of kids' programs on PBS.

There has not been any PBS-related funding of the program since April 2006, when Educate Inc., a Baltimore-based educational services company, bought into the production rights for the program and reportedly committed to funding 52 new episodes, according to a report in the Atlanta Business Chronicle and another in The Buffalo News. But the funding for those new episodes never came together, according to John Grant, chief content officer for WNED, and what funding was available was used to keep the series alive through repeats of earlier shows, a process that also costs money.

Grant also pointed out that the program won't die completely and that it will live on in various non-broadcast Web and video formats, although the "Reading Rainbow" Web site on pbskids.org will end in December.

But in Another Sense . . .

The demise of "Reading Rainbow" has not been quietly received, however, by about 80 or so viewers who wrote to PBS headquarters or Viewer Services or to me to protest the end of the series and to urge for it to be supported. Some of the letters to me are printed below, as is the official response that PBS's Viewer Services is sending to the e-mailers.

The end of a long-running program is not a usual topic for an ombudsman. It doesn't deal with the editorial standards of a specific broadcast that I usually get involved with, and it does deal with internal business and funding decisions that I normally would not get involved with. Yet the letters to me on this subject seemed so much to reflect this sense of loss that I felt they were worth recording in this space. You can question how much of this is from people who still watch the program, or if it contains at least a bit of nostalgia for a well-remembered program. But it still seems sincere and important as I read it.

Officials at headquarters here say they understand this allegiance but, in response to some of the criticism, they say that PBS did step up to the plate for two decades of support for this program, that 26 years is many times longer than what is generally perceived as a hit show on television, and that many of the newer children's programs are about words and literacy meant to make reading interesting and exciting.

Nevertheless, new grant projects to PBS such as the U.S. Department of Education's Ready to Learn Literacy Framework, based on the recommendations of the National Reading Panel, focus heavily on pre-reading and reading language and word skills that are measurable, and many PBS children's programs focus, at least in part, on all the sub-categories of measurement. This is undoubtedly important and augments what one is supposed to learn in school. But who will get kids hooked on the sheer joy of discovering and reading a great story?

Here Are the Letters

I am writing to say that ending the production of Reading Rainbow is a crime against literacy. During my 31-year career as an elementary classroom teacher, I taught hundreds of children to read. Learning the nuts and bolts of phonics and skills happens appropriately and efficiently in classroom instruction. What is often more difficult is helping children 1) to develop background knowledge of themselves and the world around them necessary for understanding what they read, and 2) to develop a love of reading so that they will practice sufficiently to become highly skilled. Reading Rainbow helped with both of these. To replace it with skill and drill on the screen is to sell a birthright for a mess of pottage. Shame on PBS.

Wendy Swanson, Portland, OR

As a librarian for 35 years, I know how influential READING RAINBOW was on children!

Beverly Ellingwood, Webster, NY

After 26 years of superlative programming, as attested to by its winning more than two-dozen Emmys, news of the cancellation of "Reading Rainbow" came as a complete surprise and is truly a tragedy for those of us who have enjoyed this program for so many years. As an educator, I know that the program has provided both students and teachers with a source of inspiration about reading, as well as a means of modeling the behavior of effective readers and critical thinkers.

If the NCLB [No Child Left Behind] agenda of reducing reading to sounding out phonemes (e.g., DISTAR, DIBELs, and skilling and drilling) continues to reign, without a doubt our dream of becoming a "Nation of Readers" will most likely become one more of the unreachable "Dreams" that Langston Hughes so aptly described many years ago. I implore PBS and the foundations that have funded "Reading Rainbow" over the years in its very successful trajectory to reconsider their decision, and to renew the program for the sake of the children and adults who have benefited from it.

Mattituck, NY

I am absolutely shocked and very saddened at the decision to take Reading Rainbow off the air. As a teacher, I recognize the importance of programming designed to engage children in reading rather than in "drill and kill" (it kills the students' love of learning and love of school) isolated phonics and spelling. Programs such as Super Why? which actually engage students in a meaningful story as well as in embedded phonics activities are great, and programs like Reading Rainbow only further this learning and serve to help our children understand why they should read as well as expose them to peers who love to read. If we are only concerned with programming that drills skills into our children, we will have a nation of students well versed in phonics skills who have been taught by scripted curriculums and who loathe reading. They may not even understand why they should read and they certainly will not want to read for pleasure. I am appalled at this decision and call for PBS to reinstate Reading Rainbow as a developmentally appropriate program that peaked students' interest in and love for reading.

Holly J. Matthews, Nashville, TN

I am writing to implore you to keep Reading Rainbow in your programming and in production. It's one of your best shows for children. I am an artist, teacher, and mother of an avid reader. Reading Rainbow books have inspired us at home and in the classroom. The love of reading and the love of stories is what this show is all about. Without the passion for a good story, we'll never entice children to learn to read. It's this connection — to place, to story, and to the incredibly talented authors and illustrators who create the books — that makes Reading Rainbow a unique and special public broadcast offering. Please tell us you've changed your mind. I can still recall favorite episodes such as Ox Cart Man. Hearing the children give book reviews is yet another aspect of this show that is unique and powerful. Articulate children expressing enthusiastic reviews for books is something largely absent from media. Please save Reading Rainbow, one of the great treasures of children's broadcasting. I look forward to hearing from you on this issue.

Robin E. Brooks, Augusta, ME

'Enough Phonics'

I believe you are wrong to take Reading Rainbow off the air. It has inspired children to read for years. They get enough phonics in school and you are ignoring an essential part of reading . . . motivation. Teaching children to love books was a big part of what Reading Rainbow was all about. This is another sign that children's programming has gone downhill on PBS. In one word . . . boring!!!

Nancy Bailey, Collierville, TN

As Ombudsman I felt you might be the one to hear my comment. I am sadly disappointed in PBS for canceling Reading Rainbow. It appears that the educators on your staff were hoodwinked into believing that the NCLB Act under the Bush Administration is supportive of our children. This act was written based on data from Texas when Bush was governor. Talk to the teachers there. I have. The data was false and erroneous and did not improve their schools or drop out rates. There has been a push for early literacy, let's teach two-year-olds how to spell. What happened to play time? Kids are marked from their pre-K screening test now if they don't know how to spell their names or read when entering Kindergarten. We're creating kids with extreme anxiety before first grade! Reading Rainbow was created to give children a love of books so when their time comes to enter school, they have been exposed to the wonderful world of literature and be eager to learn. It was never intended to "teach" children how to read. That is the job of our educators, not a TV program or even a reading program. People teach. Programs are tools.

By canceling RR you will now create a generation of children who have never been exposed to books at all. Parents who don't read to their kids, impoverished parents who don't have time in between their three jobs count on programs such as RR to expose their children to literature and begin that love of learning. My own brother-in-law sat and watched it with his son daily because he was embarrassed by his own reading skills and knew how important it was to expose my nephew to books. Sesame Street helps kids learn how to read — it did me; I walked into Kindergarten already reading because of that program. Reading Rainbow filled a whole different set of needs. I work with fifth graders who have never heard nursery rhymes. I wonder how long it will take before Kindergarten teachers are saying they are shocked that a child has never seen a book or has been read to.

I wish that PBS, of all stations, recognized the importance of children just sitting down and listening to a story being read to them to develop imagination, listening skills and a love of learning. The program didn't require prior knowledge. You didn't have to watch the day before. You don't have to interact. You just sit and enjoy a book. Everyone loves to be read to no matter what age. Even my seniors love it. And if it never happens for a student, they won't know what they're missing but there will be a huge hole in their lives!

Shannon Murdoch, Lynnwood, WA

I am saddened to hear Reading Rainbow with LeVar Burton is being cancelled after today. Teaching the love of reading is as important as teaching the building blocks of reading, such as phonics, etc. I hope PBS can find it in their budget to continue this very beneficial and educational program. My children are now grown, but loved this program when they were young.

Carolyn Solomon, Haslett, MI

Here's the PBS Response

PBS and member station WNED, the producer of READING RAINBOW, have been contacted by individuals inquiring about returning the series to our schedule. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to do this.

Production ended on READING RAINBOW several years ago, viewership for the show had declined dramatically and now broadcast rights have expired. Off-air educational rights for the series are still currently available for the classroom and remain in effect for a year following the last broadcast of each episode.

Nationally-recognized stories authored by children for the Reading Rainbow Young Writers and Illustrators Contest will be available online until December 2009, at which point the READING RAINBOW Web site on pbskids.org will end. PBS and WNED are discussing plans to continue the contest on a national level as well as plans to build a literacy Web site for school age children.

PBS KIDS continues to be committed to leveraging the power of media to further children's development cognitively, socially, emotionally and physically. As a non-profit media enterprise, our limited financial resources are focused on new and current productions that promote literacy education as well as math, science, the arts and overall healthy living. Series such as SUPER WHY!, WORDGIRL, MARTHA SPEAKS, the all-new THE ELECTRIC COMPANY and others encourage a love of reading and books and help guide children through literacy skill development.

(Ombudsman's Note: An earlier response to viewers also included these paragraphs.)

Through new series and websites created in alignment with the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Education's National Reading Panel of 2000's research assessment on reading instruction, several PBS KIDS series are dedicated to fulfilling these research-based reading practices, including SUPER WHY! and the all-new THE ELECTRIC COMPANY, among many others.

In addition, two recent studies funded by the Department of Education on SUPER WHY! proved that children, especially those from low-income families, are learning core early literacy skills from the TV series and its educational support materials.  For more information about PBS literacy programs, please visit PBSKids.org, PBSParents.org and PBSTeachers.org for new and updated resources.

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