LeVar Burton, actor/entertainer and the host and executive producer of PBS’s longtime reading show, Reading Rainbow, is launching RRKidz, a line of interactive digital titles backed by investments from Raymond Capital, a private investment fund, and the nonprofit Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. RRKidz digital titles will be available as a subscription service through a free app for the iPad and on selected Android devices.
In a phone interview with Burton, he said that, RRKidz plans to offer “hundreds of books” through an online library that will be curated by him. Burton said that RRKidz will be a subscription model offering access to a digital library of 300 titles at launch and the service will begin adding up to 45 titles a month. The titles will be a combination of licensed content from “our publisher partners' existing front list and catalogue titles,” and original content. The service will likely offer a tiered subscription model with a choice of a monthly or an annual fee, “we haven’t locked in the price yet, but we are committed to making RRKidz accessible to budget-minded families,” Burton said.
The service will launch in “late Q 4, November or December, or early Q1,” Burton said. He said that RRKIdz will partner with “leading publishers,” to convert their titles into interactive digital works, even though major publishers already have digitization programs. He declined to name his partners just yet, joking that “I need to keep this story alive until January.” However, he was quick to emphasize the brand power of his own name and that of Reading Rainbrow, still a highly recognizable brand to generations of parents and kids. “Publishers are faced with dumping their books into an App Store crowded with titles,” Burton explained, “wrapping their books in our combined brand—my name and Reading Rainbow—offers publishers an opportunity for really enhanced discoverability.”
RRKidz will also offer a variety of original content, including video, interactive quizzes and tests and games. “We’ve been shooting video at the San Diego Zoo and NASA, for updated Reading Rainbow episodes that will be sprinkled around the RRKidz experience.” Burton will also be a voice actor for RRKidz titles in addition to using other celebrity readers, “As the curator I get to read about 15% of the 300 initial titles and I have handpicked an all-star team of voice actors who will be reading our library.”
Burton said that RRKidz will focus on both front and backlist titles and expects to raise the discoverability of the backlist in particular. “Reading Rainbow taught me that a good book will always be a good book,” Burton said, “and there’s a trove of books that brick and mortar stores can’t display. The backlist is full of gold and this is an opportunity to provide generations to come with access to books that traditional publishing doesn’t always allow for.”
Best known for his roles in Roots and on Star Trek, Burton was also the host and longtime executive producer of PBS’s Reading Rainbow, which ran on PBS for 23 seasons (1983-2006) and won 26 Emmy Awards. RRKidz's management team includes a number of veteran producers, digital publishing and entertainment professionals., including RRKidz cofounder and chief strategy officer Mark Wolfe, a film producer; and RRKidz CEO Asra Rasheed, previously co-founder and COO of Gottaplay, and president of digital publishing company Thumb Media Group.
Burton works primarily as a director these days and hasn’t worked as an actor for nearly 15 years. However he is returning to acting in a new series called Perception, a new series starring Eric McCormack playing a crime-solving neuroscientist, set to premier on TNT in 2012. “I’m returning to my first love, acting,” he said.
He’s been working on RRKidz for the last 15 months and all of the financing of the venture is being provided by Raymond Capital and the nonprofit Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Burton called both funding sources, “old friends,” and said the investments represented “not just money but the right money. The kind of partnership we were looking to identify with.”
Burton said that RRKidz is “creating an enhanced reading experience, so there will definitely be an interactive experience because that’s what today’s kids expect.” But he also emphasized that “we want a book to be a book. We’ll have all the interactive bells and whistles but our intent is to engage young people in reading, not to show them a movie.”