Each episode featured a children's story, usually narrated by a celebrity, that focused on a specific theme (i.e., the importance of teamwork or learning about dinosaurs). The show would explore the theme further through various segments, live-action and animated. The last segment of the show would feature children providing recommendations of other books to look for at the library, preceded by LeVar saying "But you don't have to take my word for it." Every show ended with "I'll/We'll see you next time."
This show was part of PBS' "triple crown" of children's programming in The '80s and The '90s, along with Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. It would be difficult indeed to find an American of a certain age who didn't watch this program at least occasionally, if not regularly. It's in the same sacrosanct category as Rogers rarely parodied (but if it is, it's always the positive kind), and insulting it will cause swift and nasty responses.
Rainbow won a Peabody Award and 26 Emmys, and ended its run as the third longest-running children's program in PBS history (behind the aforementioned Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood).
Five years after the show ended, Reading Rainbow has made a comeback of a sort, as an internet-based outreach project. The project was started in 2012 with the goal of making Reading Rainbow content available on the iPad to everyone in the world. But as it progressed, feedback came in asking for the app to be available to more than just the iPad, and their ambitions grew, and the existing funding method of an optional low monthly fee for premium content proved to be insufficient (since said fee was already being used for funding the server space and content royalty). A Kickstarter campaign for the project was started, and it reached its $1,000,000 goal before the first day was finished. As you can imagine, Burton is overwhelmed by this support. In all, the project received over $5.4 million in donations and set a record for most individual backers for a Kickstarter campaign.
Reading Rainbow has a Youtube Page. You could get your Reading Rainbow fix here, however at this time almost all content has been removed and the future of the above-discussed efforts is in flux due to an ongoing lawsuit by producer/PBS station WNED alleging that Burton is capitalizing on the show's name, having hosted the show but not actually owning the rights to it (LeVar had thought that he had bought out the entire franchise, which turned out to be incorrect). In October 2017, however, WNED announced on the show's official website that "Recent legal disputes between WNED and LeVar Burton/RRKIDZ have been resolved and RRKIDZ no longer licenses the Reading Rainbow brand from WNED. WNED is currently working on the next chapter of Reading Rainbow and will continue its mission of fostering education for a new generation." Time will tell whether backlash will have any effect on this reboot, as WNED did ruffle the feathers of a number of fans of LeVar's, and that nothing further came out of it as of 2019.
In 2018, Burton started a podcast entitled simply LeVar Burton Reads. The podcast is very similar in format, except that it's audio-only and features more mature stories rather than children's literature. It also came under fire in the lawsuit for Burton describing it as "Reading Rainbow for adults" (he no longer does, but fans do with impunity) and because WNED claimed copyright infringement over the phrases "you don't have to take my word for it" and "I'll see you next time" (unsurprisingly, they lost that one).
This show provides examples of:
- Actor Allusion: In the episode "Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters," LeVar remarks that "all black Americans have roots in Africa."
- Animated Credits Opening: Used until 1999.
- Affectionate Parody: One of them was produced by Funny Or Die, starring LeVar himself, showing the problems of taking the theme song's "I can do anything" too literally.
- Alliterative Title
- Birthday Episode: "Miss Nelson Is Back", in which LeVar celebrates his birthday by being made up to look like a movie monster and being the star of famed magician Harry Blackstone's trademark bow sawing illusion. The episode ends with his Surprise Party held in a bookstore, though given that the entire thing is an episode of Reading Rainbow, it's likely it actually wasn't a surprise to him in real life.
- Brick Joke: In the Egyptian episode, LeVar pays for a meter outside the Museum of Fine Art to park his camel. The episode ends with the meter expiring, and the meter man giving him a ticket.
- Borrowed Catch Phrase: In "Digging Up Dinosaurs", Jerry Stiller's dinosaur comedian uses LeVar's "But you don't have to take my word for it" catchphrase.
- Catchphrase: Three of them.
- "Hi!" (each episode begins with LeVar saying this word.)
- "But you don't have to take my word for it..."
- "I'll/We'll see you next time."
- "Today's Reading Rainbow books are...."
- Chroma Key: LeVar explains the technique in a 1991 episode about optical illusions.
- He does it again when discussing the special effects behind Star Trek: The Next Generation.
- Clip-Art Animation: Utilized one book per episode.
- Crossover: The episode "The Bionic Bunny Show" took us behind the scenes of Star Trek: The Next Generation note . Notably, it included the only official Hilarious Outtakes of TNG released for over a decade. TNG later completed the crossover by including this episode of Reading Rainbow as a bonus feature on the Blu-Ray of the second season.
- Edutainment Show: One of the all-time greats; a TV show encouraging kids to read is not as hypocritical as it may sound.
- Everything's Better with Rainbows: Well, it would've been pretty lame to have a show just called Reading, wouldn't it?
- Excited Kids' Show Host: LeVar is Type 3 (informative, rarely condescending, not wacky/zany, speaks to children like adults).
- Good Angel, Bad Angel: In the show's take on The Tortoise and the Hare, this happens to LeVar as he struggles to pedal a bike up a hill in a race. The angel on the left wearing all white waves pom-poms and encourages him not give up and keep trying. The devil on the right, dressed in black and floating on a cloud of red, tells him to stop and smell the flowers and relax. When LeVar rejects this idea, the angel gives a cheer of "L-E-V-A-R, pedal that bike and we'll go far!" The devil doesn't give up, though, telling him that by the time he gets up the hill, everyone else will have crossed the finish line. LeVar rejects that too, saying that even if he loses, he'll feel like a winner for trying. The two later make a brief reappearance as LeVar trains on an obstacle course. Once again, LeVar listens to the angel. At the end, when LeVar finishes the race, the angel tells him that he knew he could do it.
- Green Aesop: The episode "Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message" has one about appreciating nature and taking care of the Earth. In fact, many of the episodes featured books of an environmental nature, with the other material in the episode based around it.
- Hash House Lingo: After reading "The Robbery at the Diamond Dog Diner," Levar starts helping in a diner. One customer orders "ice on rice." Taking this literally, he prepares a bowl of rice with ice on it. The waitress clarifies it means "ice cream on rice pudding."
- Kid Hero All Grown-Up: After reading "The Shaman's Apprentice" Levar reaches the village and is taken to meet somebody: the titular apprentice, now all grown up and the shaman of the village, who is passing his teachings onto his two sons.
- Long-Runners: Spent 26 years on the air before budget cuts killed it in 2009. Funnily enough, Reading Rainbow outlived Star Trek: The Next Generation by a few years (when you factor in the movies). In 2012, the show came back as an Internet project.
- Losing Your Head: A pair of floating heads startle LeVar in one episode.
- O.O.C. Is Serious Business: The normally exuberant LeVar spends the episode "Follow The Drinking Gourd" in a very somber and serious mood, talking about the experiences his own ancestors suffered in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
- Pie in the Face: In "Ludlow Laughs," LeVar is given a "comedy makeover." The pie-in-the-face is part of his routine. He gets into it with the clown on realizing it's meant to be a pie fight.
- Pilot: "Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport", which was shot in 1981, aired as the 8th episode of season 1 in 1983. It featured a completely different credit for a clean-shaved, younger-looking LeVar, and a slightly different 3-note jingle for the book recommendation segment. Not to mention the videotape quality looks noticeably poorer in this episode, in contrast to the rest of season 1.
- "Reading Is Cool" Aesop: The entire point of the show.
- Roger Rabbit Effect: Used in the classic intro, although not to the same extent as others.
- "Sesame Street" Cred: Many. Celebrity narrators ranged from Bill Cosby to Hulk Hogan.
- The Stinger: The ending credits for "Digging Up Dinosaurs" are interrupted during the writer's credit by the dinosaur comedian, who finally manages to make his dinosaur audience laugh. The credits resume afterward with the associate producers' credits.
- Take Our Word for It: As the catchphrase indicates, averted.
- Title Sequence Replacement: To the dismay of fans who know and love the original, trippy intro.
- Transatlantic Equivalent: Long running BBC show Jackanory which began in 1965 offered virtually the same format to British children.
- Uncancelled: For a certain value of uncancelled. The brand was relaunched as an Internet outreach project in 2012 with an iPad app, but thanks to the success of the Kickstarter campaign in 2014, the app was ported to other platforms (including web-browser-based), underfunded classrooms were given free access to all the content in the app, and LeVar even has the budget to film new segments for the project.
- Voice Clip Song: In your Imagination.