Rainbow Reboot: Mark Wolfe

Reading Rainbow went off the air in 2009, but now it's back as an iPad app, thanks to a partnership formed between film producer and production manager Mark Wolfe and former Rainbow host LeVar Burton, continuing its original mission in a more interactive medium.

When Reading Rainbow left PBS after 26 years of dominating children’s media, it took a generation of book-loving followers with it. Three years later, the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning show that encouraged kids to let reading take them “twice as high” is back as an interactive iPad app that kids (and parents) can use to access brand new books and video field trips.

Mark Wolfe sits at the helm of Rainbow’s relaunch. A film producer and production manager whose credits include Kinsey, I Heart Huckabees and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Wolfe became close to Rainbow host LeVar Burton while filming the 2008 Burton-directed movie, Reach For Me. The following year, the pair formed Burton/Wolfe Entertainment and purchased the perpetual and worldwide exclusive rights to Reading Rainbow from the show’s home station, WNED-TV in Buffalo, New York, in 2011. Wolfe and Burton, in conjunction with a motley crew of educators, app designers, digital publishing experts, and marketing gurus, have spent the past 18 months turning the brand into a two-way teaching tool that can communicate with children and get them excited about reading. But don’t take our word for it.

Get In Media: What made you want to transform Reading Rainbow into an app?
Mark Wolfe: … in 2009 when Reading Rainbow went off the air from PBS, LeVar was doing a lot of media. There was a lot of attention placed on the fact that it was going to be gone and that it wouldn’t be available for the next generation. When LeVar and I were listening to his interview, we kind of realized that there [were] a lot of people calling in … and kind of lamenting it and saying, “Oh my God, I grew up on Reading Rainbow, and now I’m a mom or a dad. I have my own children, and this won’t be there for them. It’s kind of like a frightening jungle of games. There’s nothing like that available for my kids.” LeVar and I kind of looked at each other and went, “Wow, there’s a huge audience that is already missing this, and it just went off the air like a day ago.” That was the very beginning of it, and we quickly realized that bringing it back to television wasn’t the idea. Kids really are spending much more of their time on mobile devices, online, but particularly on mobile devices, and that was in 2009 before the iPad had even come out. So within a few months, we recognized that we wanted to bring it back as an interactive digital experience, where kids are really spending their time now.

GIM: What went into transforming it into an app?
MW: … we recognized that we didn’t want it to be linear. We wanted it to be what kids were used to nowadays, what they wanted in their media exposure, whether it’s entertainment or education, they want something that they can interact with. They no longer wanted the linear experience. LeVar and I started spending a lot of time up in the Silicon Valley and in San Francisco. We’re from Hollywood. Both of us have our experience in Hollywood storytelling and in linear storytelling, so we knew how to reach an audience, but we needed the ability to understand and bring on people whose expertise was digital interactivity … We really brought a team on board who understands the digital transformation and how to take products to kids, specifically to kids, in a way that appeals to them. We obviously consulted with educational experts, [to find] a way that also educates them and excites them about reading. Reading Rainbow really is about reading. It’s a love of reading, and that through reading, you can go anywhere. We wanted that to be the focus of the app as well as the TV show, which it is.

GIM: Did you have any challenges with turning a PBS-owned nonprofit brand into a for-profit subscription venture?
MW: Most of the challenges in coming this far have very little to do with the difference in nonprofit and for-profit. It was much more to do with creating a product that would stay true to the brand but brought it forward to that young generation. There’s a lot more product and technical challenges than I expected, not coming from that world. As far as the difference between for-profit and not-for-profit, we really haven’t had any pushback from anybody on that. As we are not PBS, we’re not a governance kind of agency, and so we really need to rely on revenue in order to keep the business going … .

I think if we had charged ridiculous amounts of money and made it not a valuable proposition, we would have gotten a lot more consumer pushback … basically, [it’s] $9.99 a month for unlimited videos and books or $5 a month basically to buy the six-month package … So, for $5 or $10 a month, your child can read an unlimited number of books within our subscription service, kind of like Netflix does, and watch videos from our service. If you were buying one or two books, electronically or printed copies, you would exceed that amount automatically … .

GIM: Did you encounter any copyright issues with having the books transfer from TV to the app?
MW: No … . The TV series featured 155 episodes, essentially 155 books, [but] those are not the books that are in our service … Our several hundred books are from a myriad of different publishers … because we were meeting with new publishers and creating publisher partners, there were no issues … Quite honestly, the publishers love working with us. We have a long history through Reading Rainbow with children’s book publishers, and they really responded to our ability to continue to bring their books to the attention of children.

GIM: [Wolfe is currently directing, producing, and writing all of the video segments for the app.] Is there any difference in filming the segments for mobile versus what you would do for movies or TV?
MW: Yes, hundreds of thousands of dollars. I was one of the producers on Terminator 3. It’s a $200 million movie with a crew of 400, and in television, you could easily have a crew of 50 to 100. We now have a crew of about five, so it’s a lot easier and makes us very nimble. We have the ability to go and do. We were just in Washington and New York for two weeks. We went to the White House. We had this amazing access in Washington, and they allowed us to do it because we weren’t a crew of 50 people that disrupted everybody’s lives.

GIM: Are you seeing more opportunities for directors in mobile fields now?
MW: Absolutely. I’ll tell you, as somebody who’s spent the last 30 years in movies and in television, that everything about mobile, everything about YouTube, the Internet, allows for a complete democratization of the ability to tell your story. You can, with an inexpensive camera and inexpensive editing equipment, be a filmmaker, and you don’t have to live in Hollywood to do that or New York or London. You could be in the farthest corners of the universe, and with that investment, you are a storyteller, and because of that, you are able to put your stories out there for people to see, and you bypass the distribution of the big movie studio … and get your work out there and get known. The people who have millions of hits on YouTube are very often people that have never visited Los Angeles, and I think that’s fantastic.

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GIM: For students who are looking to go into film and production, what skills do they need? How should they prepare for the shift to mobile?
MW: I think that they are actually in the best possible position. I went to film school in 1980, and that was really about using film-school-type of equipment and thought, which was not really adequately preparing you … Now, the resources are almost identical. If you go to film school, or if you’re messing around in your own house making movies with your own equipment, it is not that different from what you would be exposed to if you make entertainment and then move up in the world. You’ll just have more of it, more people to do it for you, but the skill sets you’re learning in film school right now or not in film school, just doing it on your own, are very, very applicable to being able to tell your story on a bigger scale if you move to Hollywood one day. It’s really about storytelling. The technology, to me, is not relevant, it’s just of the day. Television tells amazing stories. Movies tell amazing stories. Short-form through YouTube tells amazing stories, and the opportunities to have your work seen are incredible. It’s the best time. I wish I had been born later … .

GIM: How do you recommend that students develop their storytelling skills?
MW: When I lecture to kids in colleges and things, I always start by saying, “Whenever you guys start telling a story, the first thing you should do is ask yourself who your story is for.” Too many times we want to tell stories without really understanding our audience, and often, what I tell kids is, “Who is it for? Who are you telling the story to?” Make sure that it’s not for everybody, because there are very few stories that are for everybody. There’s a big difference between a 60-year-old woman, a 22-year-old guy, a 14-year-old teenage girl, a 32-year-old mom. Those are all very different audiences. For the most part, know your story, then know your audience. Then, once you know your audience, make sure when you’re writing it and developing it that you really think, “Will this work for my audience? And am I telling a story for somebody else, or am I just telling a story for myself?” It’s not a good idea to just tell a story for yourself unless you happen to be representative of every possible demographic … You can tell a personal story, but you should tell it in a way that other people want to see it. Otherwise, you really are just making it for yourself. I would try to look through the lens of your audience, which isn’t to say to pander to them or to alter your creative vision by committee, but you should know what your final user is like with any product, whether it’s a movie or laundry detergent, know who your final user is.

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