Q&A: How Reading Rainbow Soared Back, and How It Will Reach Its $5 Million Goal

Behind the scenes with the team making it happen

Things are looking sunnier than ever for Reading Rainbow.

After the show's Kickstarter hit its $1 million goal in just 11 hours, the creators set their sights on a new butterfly in the sky: $5 million. With one week left, the Kickstarter is currently at $4 million in pledges from more than 83,000 backers.

We caught up with Reading Rainbow co-founder and CEO Mark Wolfe (who wrote and directed the Kickstarter video) and chief marketing advisor Teri Rousseau to find out how they've remained authentic to their brand while reinventing Reading Rainbow for a new generation of digital natives.

AdFreak: Tell me a bit about the brand after Reading Rainbow left public television.

CEO Mark Wolfe with LeVar Burton

Rousseau: The original mission when LeVar and Mark formed RR Kids was to bring back Reading Rainbow for this generation and LeVar very much felt that the way to bring that back was through digital technology. Our original app was for the Kindle Fire and iPad, and it went really well. We had kids reading over 150,000 books a week. It was a top-downloaded app.

Wolfe: I think we're just lucky that parents are looking for something. Kids want to spend time in front of an electronic device. When television was the medium, kids wanted to be in front of it, and now it's a tablet. You can't mitigate that; you just have to utilize that as best as possible. Parents are confronted with so many choices, and not many of them are positive choices.

Rousseau: We recognize we're competing against the Angry Birds of the world. One of our special elements in the app is our aesthetic. We've developed these beautiful islands where you can discover the books on: Animal Island, Awesome People Island (that's the nonfiction), National Geographic Island. It's fun to just explore that world and it becomes very game-like. Children want fun. Parents want quality content. That's a challenge and that’s a challenge to any family brand: making sure you meet the mark with parents and children both. We had to make it very interactive while making sure we maintained the principles of the linear show.

So preserving the credibility of the Reading Rainbow brand was key in the creation of the app?

Marketing advisor Teri Rousseau

Rousseau: We were very careful with our development. We did do focus testing with both kids and parents. Our mission was bringing the brand back for digital and there's no doubt it resonates with today's families. At the same time, we didn't want to disappoint anyone’s memory of what it was.

You had an existing fan base from another generation that you didn’t want to alienate.

Rousseau: Those classic episodes still hold up and are available on iTunes. Teachers still use them in the classroom. But I think the opportunity to bring back such a beloved and icon brand has been a once and a lifetime opportunity. Now we know we did it right. We've proved that Reading Rainbow works in this new form, and what we needed to do to bring it to the next level was get help from the community.

What's the next level beyond the app?

Rousseau: We were hearing, "Is it on Android?" and, "Is it in classrooms?" Teachers were finding it themselves and paying for the app out of their own pocket. We needed to figure out a way to bring it to them in their own classrooms, and give access to schools free of charge for those in need.

So you created the Kickstarter campaign, and it’s been wildly successful.

Rousseau: The whole Kickstarter thing has been overwhelming. Beyond our wildest dreams.

Wolfe: We've been absolutely surprised by the response, we had a feeling we'd be successful in the campaign, to raise a million dollars because we believed the audience that was most likely to help is the audience in their 20s and 30s that grew up with the show, but we did not by any stretch of the imagination think we'd reach $1 million in 11 hours.

The video seems designed to appeal to more than just the Reading Rainbow fan base. There are also a lot of great nods in there to LeVar's career on Star Trek.

Wolfe: We wanted to hit as many groups as possible. The Star Trek fan audience is in their 40s, and if you're a Star Trek fan you appreciate the world of Gene Roddenberry. That world is a meritocracy where you're rewarded for how you help the team and that's an audience that appreciates literacy in society.

Beyond the message of Star Trek, LeVar himself seems to be a big advocate for literacy. Would you say this is LeVar’s labor of love?

Rousseau: Absolutely! This is a lifelong mission of his. The brand has been around 30 years. It's very much his life’s work.

Wolfe: When you get to know him personally, as I have for many years now, he's authentic. LeVar is the Reading Rainbow guy in real life. His mother was an English teacher, and he was raised with an emphasis on reading.

So it's that authenticity that shines through in the messaging.

Wolfe: Audiences have such a finely tuned radar for authenticity and for bullshit, and that's what's hard for all of us advertisers and filmmakers is to walk that fine line between entertainment and informing them and keep everything authentic, and we hit that sweet spot. And I think that helped the message become clearer and more embraced.

Did it help in the Kickstarter too?

Wolfe: We filmed it at an elementary school and this school gave us free run of their offices. All the teachers, all the parents were excited about doing it, because everyone loves Reading Rainbow. They weren't just a location; they said please come and please let us be part of something that helps us bring Reading Rainbow back for schools.

And that made the difference to the credibility. It really did seem like you'd just walked into a real school… apparently because you did.

Wolfe: The kids loved it. We were surrounded by love. The principal actually plays the teacher in the video, and she stayed late, till 10 p.m. because we were running late filming. She kept the school open for us. But nobody complained. Administrators, teachers, students, they all stayed late for us and I just think that’s huge. That made it so much fun for everybody. It felt like a group effort, that everyone was pulling for this.

Just like they are with the Kickstarter. Good luck with your $5 million goal.

Wolfe: Thanks. I think you’ll be hearing about it. There's definitely more to come.  

@rebeccacullers Rebecca Cullers is a contributor to Adweek.