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  • Lauren Schifley, Art Director

Canisius professor interviewed for upcoming documentary

By: Lauren Schifley, Art Director

Canisius professor Barbara Irwin, Ph.D., was interviewed last weekend for an upcoming documentary about long-lived educational program Reading Rainbow, which she once helped produce.

The documentary is being produced by Window Pictures in collaboration with SideStilt Films. They hope to have a cut ready for the Sundance Film Festival next year and have mentioned a possible Netflix release, Irwin said.

Irwin co-produced Reading Rainbow with Tony Buttino during her time at WNED-TV. Buttino was the head of the Educational Services Department at WNED at the time, Irwin said, where she worked to promote and engage in community outreach for Reading Rainbow.

Irwin also helped with the production of book review segments featuring children from the area. “Tony is creative, persistent (in a very friendly way!), curious, very much a people person, and humble. In his work, he realized the importance of establishing relationships with people who shared a common goal,” said Irwin. She added that Reading Rainbow was Buttino’s brainchild and his solution to address the “summer loss phenomenon.”

Research at the time showed that children lose some of their reading skills over summer break, and teachers would have to devote 4–6 weeks ‘catching up’ in September. In order to combat this, Irwin said, WNED broadcast reading-oriented programming for five summers between 1978 and 1982.

“Using TV to motivate children to read was very innovative at the time,” says Irwin, “and it was counter-intuitive, because many people thought watching TV and reading couldn’t possibly go together that TV was the ‘enemy’ of reading,”she said. This five-year effort paid off when Buttino and WNED further developed the idea to be a national PBS series.

In order to develop a proposal for Reading Rainbow, WNED partnered with Great Plains National in Lincoln, Nebraska, Irwin says. Irwin says that the first proposal resulted in funding for a pilot episode, while the second proposal resulted in funding from the Kellogg Company and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for the first full season, consisting of 15 episodes. The series premiered in the summer of 1983 and aired until 2009. Reading Rainbow is the third-longest-running PBS children's series, after “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and earned 26 Emmy Awards, including 10 for Outstanding Children’s Series.

Irwin says that she reconnected with Buttino after many years to propose that they write a book about the history of Reading Rainbow. “Our focus is that five-year period of experimentation at WNED that led up to the creation of Reading Rainbow,” says Irwin.

She and Buttino have been interviewing people involved in the development and production of the series as well as doing archival research. However, Irwin says that there have been a few roadblocks, like a global pandemic, that have slowed their progress.

Overall, Irwin says that she loved her time at WNED, where she worked on an adult literacy initiative in addition to Reading Rainbow. “I learned so much in the three years that I was there,” says Irwin.

“It inspired me to go to graduate school, and though ultimately I decided to focus on a career in academia, I still believe in the mission of using the media for good — to make a positive impact.”

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