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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

PROFILE: Ed Wiseman, Producer/Director of Reading Rainbow

by Cyrus Webb

(Wiseman seen here with his wife Orly who he met while working on Reading Rainbow)

Before Oprah revolutionalized the world through her book club there was Reading Rainbow. In 1981 Ed Wiseman began working on the original pilot of the PBS show as an intern. By the time the show began the production of its last year he was the director and producer of the popular show that introduced the world of books to young people all around the world.

Now two years after Reading Rainbow called it quits, the Emmy award-winner talks frankly with me about his time with the show, how he benefited from it personally as well as what he believes the legacy will be.

Ed, thanks for taking out the time to discuss Reading Rainbow with us. What was the goal you believe those associated with the show set out to achieve and in your mind did you do so?
The goal was to motivate and enthuse children to read.  Originally it was targeted towards primary readers (grades 1-3) during the summer months.  The theory was that students would maintain the skills they learned during the school year if they read over the summer.  Then re-teaching would be less necessary in September. Well the show became so popular at the time that it went year round.  By looking at the numbers of books that publishers sent to
libraries, schools and bookstores (and ended up in children's hands) you can tell it was an outrageous success.  We learned by the stats that every book we even mentioned on the show would at least double its sales. Some increased 3,000 percent.  We also received very high scores in studies on attention span - near 100%.

Many people talk about the impact that Oprah Winfrey made when it came to getting adults reading through her book club, yet Reading Rainbow was able to do that long before through its featured titles. Do you think it has gotten the credit it deserves for changing the way that young people read and discussed books? 
Well, like Oprah we did not teach traditionally or instruct through TV - we chose to fascinate. We motivated and excited kids to read.  We also treated children as if they were smart - we did not dumb down quality.  Although it was not as popular as the other children¹s series that used fantasy as a calling card we became, in my opinion, the most warmly loved because we offered
sincerity, honesty and care to our viewers.  There was a statistic that was often used in the production office that showed that Reaing Rainbow was the most adult-watched kids show ever produced - especially adults with no children.  TV can be smart and entertaining! The only credit we looked
for was the glow on the faces of those who were transformed by the show. We know Reading Rainbow lives on in the hearts of grownups who were once children moved by the series.  Those folks know.  That means the world.  The series won over 200 awards.  I personally won 8 Emmy Awards. But nothing compares to the transformation of one child.  And I mean that!

As a fan of the show Reading Rainbow inspired me to pursue my goals and dreams, thinking anything is possible. I know you have heard that alot from others as well. What did being a part of Reading Rainbow do for you personally?
I met my wife on Reading Rainbow and now have three wonderful children! I grew up professionally on the show and worked with people who cared about making great TV.  We used more of a feature film model.  Each episode was like its own film.  We made it not for ourselves but for the 6-8 year old watching - and their parent standing behind them.  We sifted through material, rejecting so much, to discover the best stories to tell.  We had an amazing host who could reach kids with anything worthwhile and true.  Our job was to get it on the screen. 

That experience of over 20 years, working with the best people making the best show on TV for a wonderful audience transformed me!  I learned forever skills. Many of the regular freelancers who worked on the series, who also worked on many other shows and films, remember very, very fondly their time with the show.  They feel the same as viewers like you do!  They loved it.  So did I.  It was a once-in-a-career labor of love.

I always look at projects I have been a part of and wondered what would have been if I had approached it differently. Any thoughts now two years after the show ended on what you would have liked to do with its direction?
I would have loved the show to move much further in the direction it was just beginning to move in.  We started to tackle more sophisticated subjects because kids were becoming more savvy and experienced at an earlier age.  So we dealt with death, prison, birth, divorce, etc.  And we did not make it rosy.  We made it safe to watch but real and sincere.  In fact the birth show - which won an Emmy - was the first children¹s program to actually show a baby entering the world from the mom¹s tummy into a doctor¹s hands.  It was filmed in real time in the
birthing room in one shot.  It was filmed carefully and judiciously.  We choreographed it with the doctor and mom - just like a movie!  When it was finished I think the network folks were nervous that the Bible belt would ban the episode.  But, of course, they didn¹t.  In fact I think the only station that raised an objection was the one in NY!  It's quite possible that the episode still hasn¹t played in NY till this day.  We really worked hard to present topics that most thought impossible to portray to kids.  But we always produced it in a way that would help kids
not harm them. 

By the way with that episode I believe we reached many kids on the cusp of teen pregnancy and, without preaching a word, nudged them to read about what it means to bring life into the world.  As a society we sometimes convince ourselves that reading needs to be encouraged only at the youngest age when so many 11 and 12 year olds still fear it. So I
would have like to have seen a whole young adult offshoot of the show.

Many of the pre-teen shows today try to tackle topics like this but end up with over-the-top comedic characters that aren¹t like anything found in the real world.  The other extreme is adult reality shows that portray teens and pre-teens in a hyper reality compressed form.  Again not really sincere and honest.  The hard part is to get folks in the networks to believe that a show doesn¹t have to sell action figures, dolls, online worlds or concert tickets to be of value.

Just thought of an inside story.  I remember walking into the Emmy awards each year and the producers and directors of the other shows would look over at us and give us the hairy eyeball.  I finally asked another colleague what was going on. He said that they were afraid of what you
came up with this year because they don¹t know how you did it and how they will win an Emmy in the same category.  Even though we didn¹t always win that meant a lot because our very talented peers respected us.  It also meant the kids who watch us were really getting the best.

If you had to sum up what the mission statement for Reading Rainbow is for you and what you hope it is thought of for others, what would it be?
I hope Reading Rainbow transformed every child viewer into a lover of reading.  Books should never be strangers.  They should be your best friends.

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