Twila Liggett: Guiding light

In 10 years, “Reading Rainbow” executive producer Twila Liggett has watched an idea to encourage reading through television grow into an award-winning series that’s brought a generation of children back to literature.

Some eight million children, ages 5-8, now watch “Reading Rainbow,” which celebrates its 10th anniversary in July. The show lists three Daytime Emmy Awards, 13 Emmy nominations and a Peabody Award among its honors and earned kudos from colleagues.

“‘Reading Rainbow’ not only helps children make real connections with books, but it can assist in their lifelong learning and growing,” says Fred Rogers, who helped pioneer the field of educational children’s television with “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Liggett, who is in her 40’s, serves as the liaison between “Reading Rainbow’s” Manhattan-based production company, Lancit Media Prods. Ltd., and its co-producers, Nebraska Educational Television Network/Great Plains National (NETV-GPN) in Lincoln, Neb., and Tony Buttino of WNED-TV in Buffalo, N. Y. The latter two handle “Reading Rainbow’s” administrative, fiscal and management concerns.

“In addition to figuring out where the next penny is coming from, I oversee the management of the production and deal with the public relations people, entertainment attorneys, research division, licensing, as well as homevideo agreements, packaging and promotion,” says Liggett, who also serves as NETV’s assistant director for program administration. “I also maintain relationships with current funders and represent the show at various industry functions.”

Along the way, Liggett’s work has been recognized by The International Reading Association and the White House. She’s also served as an advisory panelist to the National Endowment for the Arts/The J. Paul Getty Trust Center for Education in the Arts, The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Program Fund.

“Reading Rainbow” employs a full-time staff of producers and researchers who choose the books and flesh out program topics, such as Florida’s manatees, the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., and families and adoption. They then hire camera operators, directors, music directors and scriptwriters on a per-show basis.

“Eighty percent of the production team started with the show and have stayed, because they have such incredible commitment to it,” says Liggett. “People do this because they want to and it’s become like a family.”

The episodes begin with a children’s book reading by such celebrities as James Earl Jones, Bill Cosby, Jason Robards or Jane Pauley, among others, then further investigates the book’s topic. The episodes, which sometimes feature guest stars like Ben Vereen, Phyllis Diller, Martin Short or Bobby McFerrin, culminate with recommended reading for children.

Books are chosen for their storylines, illustrations, topics and adaptability to television. The staff pours through 10 times as many publications as make it onscreen. “We try to find books that not only have meaning to children, but that also represent the different cultures and ethnicities in the United States,” says Liggett. “There aren’t as many books with Latinos as main characters, but it’s improving.”

Next week, the music group Los Lobos will participate in an episode that uses an old Mexican folk story to springboard into a discussion about breaking down stereotypes of Mexican Americans. In it, the band members will give host LeVar Burton a guided tour of the East Los Angeles neighborhood where they grew up.

Despite 20 years in music, this gig is special. “This show contributes to children’s curiosity and how they perceive learning,” says band member Louis Perez. “It also teaches kids that books can take them to a different place, rather than other things. I have three boys, ages three to 16, who watch or grew up watching the show and enjoyed it immensely. It’s not a big deal for them to see Dad on TV. But this time, it’s like, ‘Dad’s gonna be on “Reading Rainbow.” Now, that’s cool.’ ”

The production team shoots 10 such shows–two or three at a time–throughout the year in various parts of the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean, while concurrently working on scripting and post-production for the other shows. Burton, best known for his work in “Roots” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (see story, page–), flies to the locations during weekends and breaks from “Star Trek.”

“We select a book and create a show around it that extends and expands upon the theme of that book in format and location,” says Liggett. “It’s as though you’re shooting 10 half-hour specials. It’s incredibly complex in terms of post-production. Every show has its own original music score and we frequently have a musical number within the show. Each episode costs an average of $ 250, 000.”

But the impact has been overwhelming. “Reading Rainbow” surveys have found that the series helps slow and, in some cases, reverse the drop in reading and comprehension skills children experience during their summer vacations. Ninety-eight percent of children’s librarians in a national survey noticed that “Reading Rainbow” stimulated reading interest in beginning readers. And, sales of books introduced on “Reading Rainbow” have increased 150%-900%.

“There were times I thought the show would never see light of day,” says Liggett. “Now, it’s amazing to see the kind of effect we’ve had. Kids go to libraries and stores asking for books by title. Publishers send us boxes of books. Sometimes we even get books in galley form.”

Liggett, who grew up in Minnesota and Nebraska, entered the education field hoping to be a school administrator, but discovered a knack for grant writing by the time she finished her doctorate at the University of Nebraska. This talent gave her the opportunity to apply for a job at NETV. “I had no TV experience,” she says, laughing. “I read books on how to interview and structure my resume for a job in television and got hired in project administration and development.”

The idea for “Reading Rainbow” grew from her work there. “I always felt that if I could get kids to love to read, I’d have done a major thing,” she says. “It became apparent that a show that could do this would be something new. SoI wrote a proposal that got funding and became an executive producer.”

In 1981, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Kellogg Company offered money for a pilot and, later, for 15 summer episodes that began airing in July 1983. The National Science Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York and PBS viewers now also provide funding.

This fall, another 10 shows will be added to the 85 that rotate throughout the year to accommodate weekday airings on 330 PBS stations. In addition, more than 132,500 schools show the series in the classroom to nearly 4.2 million children.

“Beyond that, we’re still working on funding, which is the sad part of this whole story,” says Liggett. “That’s been an uphill battle every year of the last 10 years. Getting funding from public TV in general is not easy. But when you

start talking about little kids who don’t have disposable income, you’re

now looking at nonprofit funds.”

That battle worsened last year when PBS decided to cut $ 1.5 million during the next two years from the “Reading Rainbow” budget. “We’re looking elsewhere and have proposals out at different foundations,” Liggett says. “If we get through the next budget crunch we will begin a long-range fund-raising strategy.”

To that end, Liggett recently completed an agreement with GameTek Inc., a computer game company that makes games for Nintendo, to create a computer game based on “Reading Rainbow.” It will join a growing list of available “Reading Rainbow” products, including song cassettes, teacher guides, and educational and home videocassettes. “We hope these ventures will generate a source of income that will support the production instead of having to send out 25 proposals a year,” says Liggett.

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