Reading Rainbow is Dead
The pancakes will be ready in a little while. Stop being such an irritating little shit. Get your favorite stuffed animal and a blanket and huddle up in front of the television while you wait. Blaze through all the channels looking for cartoons; anything but news or sports. Settle for PBS, as long as it isn't "This Old House." It isn't. In fact, it's... it's... YESSSS! OUTSTANDING! Close your eyes if you want and listen to the lyrics and the psycho synth as you rise up on a gentle draft of joy:



"Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high
Take a look, it's in a book - Reading Rainbow.

I can go anywhere!
Friends to know and ways to grow - Reading Rainbow.

I can be anything!
Take a look, it's in a book - Reading Rainbow."

Relax. It's all going to be okay for thirty minutes. No one will try and sell you anything. And you don't have to take anybody's word for it if you don't want to. We're all moody, irascible, and opinionated here. We're all intractable artists. Here, we're readers.


***


Never again. Gone forever. Did you hear the news? The Rainbow has evaporated. The oil slick it shimmered on has dried up into the concrete. No more butterfly. No more LeVar Burton. No more storybooks and pan-and-scan illustrations on PBS. Didn't you hear? The money is in CGI. The money is in math, computers, and phonics.

They ceased producing new episodes of Reading Rainbow in 2006 and now the show has been canceled completely, airing its last episode yesterday. The show will have no replacement, neither functionally nor philosophically, and this is an intentional government policy. The show has been taken off the air for political reasons. For educational reasons.

Here's NPR interviewing PBS content director John Grant, who explains why Reading Rainbow is going off the air:

"The show's run is ending, Grant explains, because no one â€" not the station, not PBS, not the Corporation for Public Broadcasting â€" will put up the several hundred thousand dollars needed to renew the show's broadcast rights.

"Grant says the funding crunch is partially to blame, but the decision to end Reading Rainbow can also be traced to a shift in the philosophy of educational television programming. The change started with the Department of Education under the Bush administration, he explains, which wanted to see a much heavier focus on the basic tools of reading â€" like phonics and spelling.

"Grant says that PBS, CPB and the Department of Education put significant funding toward programming that would teach kids how to read â€" but that's not what Reading Rainbow was trying to do.

"Reading Rainbow taught kids why to read," Grant says. "You know, the love of reading â€" [the show] encouraged kids to pick up a book and to read."

Yes, it did. It certainly encouraged me. And even if I didn't need encouragement, it lied to me, insisting that other kids across the country were also reading and loving books. Even if all the kids in my Texas elementary school were slack-jawed cruel illiterates (but good spellers), I saw that there were places in the world where kids were readers for the joy of it. Critics. Thinkers. Malcontents. Perverts. People who made up their own minds about things and liked books just because they were fun. Because nobody told you what to do or what to think in a book.

Reading didn't make you famous, or good, or smart. But it made you feel less alone.

Maybe we were few and far between, us readers. Maybe we still are. But Reading Rainbow was our show, nonetheless.

Reading Rainbow was only half about books. The rest of it was about all the other degenerate art forms, like dance, theater, sculpture, cartooning, and abstract painting. The show's host had an undeniable charisma: he was able to make anything look interesting, from visiting a box factory to baking bread overnight in a Manhattan kitchen.

He started with the fable. The magic story. And then he found the real-life inspiration. And then, for perhaps the first time, you saw the magic there, too. The magic of the box factory. The magic of the night kitchen.

For want of a few hundred thousand dollars, the Rainbow is being painted out by the government. There will be no one around to read to your kids while you work. How much does a single F-16 cost? How much does it cost to bury a Kennedy?

I realize that Reading Rainbow probably does not carry the same impact with today's children as it did for my generation. But the spirit was the important thing, the spirit of art for art's sake, for critical thought, for imaginative exploration and the permission to read books that didn't teach you anything. Or taught you the wrong thing. To question. To be strong. To be anything and do anything.


***


Here's Run DMC rapping about growing up, going to school, minding your mamma, and reading books:



Here's a song about teamwork that I didn't even know was totally hardwired into my soul until I watched it again and remembered why I expect other people around me to work as hard as I do:



Here's a segment about putting on makeup and being in the Broadway version of CATS:



Here's a whole episode about kicking ass, about how books teach you how to kick ass, and about never giving up:

Part one:



Part two:



Part three:




***


I don't have several hundred thousand dollars. If I did, I would cut a quiet check to keep this program on the air. I don't have several million dollars. If I did, I would start producing new episodes.

When I was little, B. Dalton Booksellers funded Reading Rainbow. In the 90s, Barnes and Noble used to pay for Reading Rainbow until they cut funding for it in 2001. After that? No one. Slow grinding attrition.

HEY AMAZON! HEY GOOGLE! WANT TO SELL MORE KINDLES? WANT TO GET THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OFF YOUR BACK? HOW ABOUT A LITTLE SOMETHING FOR THE KIDS?

I was one of the lucky ones, I guess. I got to watch and enjoy Reading Rainbow while it was still around, whereas the children of the future will never have the chance. I wonder what they will miss. I wonder what publishing will do without a generation of children that sees nothing in books but a goddamn grammar lesson.

I fear for the future. But I am not without hope. In many ways, "The Fiction Circus" is Reading Rainbow for adults and manages to survive without any public funding or any revenue at all, actually. A group of nice people, with children, could do what we do for children, and they could probably get a grant for it.

Reading won't disappear without Reading Rainbow, and neither will the spirit that the show inspired and encouraged. But the world will be a little less colorful without this show on our public television stations.

The show didn't just teach kids to observe and mimic. It taught kids to excel, to stretch themselves beyond the limits of what they observed. That's what that opening line means, you know. About the butterfly.

God's butterfly is a goddamn weakling.

If you want, you can go twice as high.

And that's still true, you know, with or without Reading Rainbow.

But it was the one message on public television worth paying for.

Posted by miracle on Sat, 29 Aug 2009 18:17:30 -0400 -- permanent link


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