LeVar Burton is inviting a new generation of children to “take a look, in a book.” He and business partner Mark Wolfe obtained the license for Reading Rainbow from PBS and have created a Kickstarter campaign to fund the revival of a web series version of the show. Here is a look back at Burton’s Rainbow, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and other shows that made the 80s and 90s the era of educational television, and where those shows are today.
Most 20-and-30-somethings, and even many older viewers, remember fondly the time when they dared not miss an episode of Burton, Bill Nye, or Schoolhouse Rock. The after-school programs that aired in those days were fun and interesting, but they also imparted knowledge of science, math, history, and literature.
Wishbone, which portrayed the fictional adventures of a literature-loving Jack Russell terrier, aired 50 episodes between 1995 and 1999. Titles such as “A Tale of Two Sitters” and “Bark to the Future” borrowed classic tales from the likes of Dickens and H.G. Wells and adapted them to the modern situations of Wishbone and his human friends, David and Samantha. The show is no longer producing episodes, but the Wishbone franchise still lives on, with a 50-title library of adventure and mystery books, a webpage of Wishbone-related games, and resources for teachers and administrators. There is even a virtual map of Oakdale, the fictional town where Wishbone and the kids live.
Reading Rainbow aired from 1983 to 2009, producing episode after episode of the well-known host showing children they “can go anywhere” simply by reading a book. Iconic characters such as Kermit the Frog assisted Burton in his quest to introduce generations to the wonderful world of the written word. Classic and new video clips are available on the Reading Rainbow website and YouTube channel, and old episodes can be downloaded on iTunes. If the Kickstarter campaign is successful, brand new episodes will be available online for Rainbow lovers to enjoy with their own children.
Few children could watch an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy without immediately attempting whatever (likely explosive) experiment the bow-tied scientist demonstrated. Watching the end of the episode guaranteed having a science parody of Kriss Kross or Spin Doctors stuck in the viewer’s head for the rest of the day. Bill Nye is another childhood hero who has been in the media lately—his televised debate with creationist and founder of Answers in Genesis, Ken Ham, brought in millions of viewers. The science show with the catchy theme song ran for five seasons from 1993 to 1998 and aired one additional episode in 2011. Bill Nye the Science Guy, like Rainbow, can still be found online in new and old form, on his website and his YouTube channel. Nye writes a science blog and even does media appearances.
Schoolhouse Rock first aired between 1973 and 1985, but was revived in 1992 and was a staple in elementary school classrooms during the 90s. Many adults can still sing the preamble to the Constitution, “Conjunction Junction,” and “I’m Just a Bill” without missing a beat. In 1993, Chicago’s Cabaret Voltaire opened Schoolhouse Rock Live!, an onstage musical hit featuring many of the iconic songs from the hit television show. Live! performed its final show in 1997, but performances can still be scheduled for schools and organizations on the musical’s website, and the script and music is available for theatre companies and school drama departments. Live! even has a condensed format perfect for school assemblies. The television show, which originally aired on ABC, is now owned by Disney, and videos can be purchased at their website.
The 1980s and 1990s could be considered the era of educational television programs, with classics like Bill Nye the Science Guy and LeVar Burton’s Reading Rainbow. Having any of these iconic shows back on the air would thrill thousands of adults and give them a piece of their childhood to share with their own offspring, or to just enjoy as a nostalgic guilty pleasure. Burton and Nye are now looking to the internet as the medium to share their knowledge with the current digital generation.
Commentary by Christina Jones