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THE MOMS (AND BEST FRIENDS) BEHIND READING RAINBOW

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by Ben Spencer

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Nicole Silver and Orly Wiseman have their desks positioned within firing range of each other, but as far as anyone who’s passed through that region can tell, it’s a peaceful border. As the producers of the popular PBS children's series Reading Rainbow and numerous other programs for children, the co-presidents of the New York City-based RCN Entertainment (RCNE) have demonstrated that being friends, moms and former co-workers — and now co-presidents and co-executive producers — doesn’t mean firing invectives and paper clips at each other.

Silver admits: "People thought we were nuts, sitting facing each other, but sometimes even I’m amazed at how well it works. We even hang out on the weekends." The slightly less loquacious Wiseman injects: "We’re best friends."

A subsidiary of the telecommunications company RCN, RCNE came into existence when Silver and Wiseman, long-time friends and co-workers at Lancit Media Entertainment (a company of which RCN was a major shareholder) requested Lancit’s assets when the company reached the brink of folding. "We went to the CEO, asked for the assets, said we’ll turn it around — and we did," says Wiseman matter-of-factly. However, the pair’s confidence wasn’t based on whim, on one of those sudden flashes of self-assurance that makes an inexperienced person believe they can conquer an unfamiliar job effortlessly. Through their work on Reading Rainbow and other original network programs at Lancit, Silver and Wiseman bring a combined 40 years of experience in television to RCNE; the formation was announced this past January.

For those who think of television producing exclusively in the alluring terms of actors in front of cameras and highly-paid directors calling the shots in control rooms, Silver and Wiseman’s productions begin in a more mundane manner — in the trenches with research and development. "We create our programs from soup to nuts, right in this office," Wiseman says of the duo’s intimate and streamlined operation, whose eight-person team works six to nine months to produce a season of programming. As Wiseman points out, Reading Rainbow begins with the unglamorous and exhausting task of scouring 500 to 1,000 kids’ picture books, of which three to six are eventually selected for production.

"Low overhead, great projects," is how Silver describes RCNE. "We decided not to have a huge development slate, but to work instead on projects that we knew we could get done. We were leaving our kids every day to do this — so we wanted to work on projects we believed in, and we wanted to work with people that we liked, which isn’t as easy as it sounds."

Experience in television helped Silver and Wiseman get RCNE up on its feet, but having kids supplied them with the ideal qualifications for conceiving and producing children’s programs. (Silver has two boys, 5-year-old Harrison and 3-year-old Jack; Wiseman has two young daughters, Danielle and Juliette). "It totally helps having kids, it gives you more of a sensitivity to what they’re thinking," Wiseman points out. Silver, who, in addition to her own two boys, lives in the same building with over a half-dozen nieces and nephews, says, "You can't do programming for kids without being around them. My nieces and nephews show us books. They’ll come to me and say, ‘Aunt Nikki, you should read this,’ and sometimes it’ll end up being something we’ll option."

The breakneck pace of television production makes coping with family life something more than the usual challenge, but Silver describes, without sarcasm, the duo’s husbands Brad and Ed as "great and understanding". Silver and Wiseman also make things easier all around by covering for each other during such episodes as sicknesses and birthdays.

"With all the things we juggle, we have our bad days," Silver says. "If my kids are sick, or if it’s Harrison’s birthday, as it is tomorrow, Orly understands it. As working mothers, we both understand each other’s priorities. Orly knows when she has to cover for me, I know when I have to cover for her." Wiseman says that she and Silver sometimes bring their children to work with them. "My kids will sit in the editing room with me and watch the same piece of tape over and over, which is certainly better than not seeing them. My little 5-year-old, she knows what gaffer’s tape is, and she can tell when there’s a mistake in the edit."

Now in its 19th season of production (and with 16 Emmy Awards behind it), Reading Rainbow is RCNE’s most familiar show, but hardly its only one. Along with Rainbow, Silver and Wiseman and their staff are also at work on the third season of Outward Bound, a reality-based action adventure series that follows real teens as they leave behind their families and the comforts of the modern world for a "wilderness challenge". The Zack Files, in its second season of production, based on the book series by Dan Greenburg, tracks the humorous adventures of Zack Greenburg as he makes a non-stop discovery out of life by experiencing things as they "really are", despite their inherent weirdness. (And for the musically inclined, children’s star Raffi is slated to entertain preschoolers in another forthcoming RCNE series).

More than 10 other shows are also in development, including The Watsons, described by the producers as a "dramedy" about a family experiencing the bumps and grinds of life during the civil rights movement; and a pair of straight dramatic feature films, The Giver and Monster, all three of which are adapted from award-winning books for children and young people.

The Giver, a sort of 1984 for young people, in which a 12-year-old boy struggles to understand the hypocrisy of living in a world without socioeconomic or racial differences, is adapted from a 1994 novel by Lois Lowry. Monster, based on a book by Walter Dean Myers, describes the experiences of a 16-year-old Harlem boy on trial for murder. Both projects, along with The Watsons, illustrate the team’s willingness to option books that address relevant subject matter frankly. The painstaking care taken with book selection is important not only for the ensuing production itself, but to the books’ own futures; Reading Rainbow’s selections, as Wiseman points out, have been known to significantly boost sales — and, by extension, their visibility and eventual worth to their audiences.

The producers have also created their own socially conscious show, Hotspots, which will take children ages 6-11 to "hot spots" of religious, cultural and ethnic struggle around the world. Still in development, Hotspots (being produced in partnership with the United Nations) is indicative of the kind of project that reflects the producers’ belief in the natural intelligence of children.

"It’s the best way for kids to learn, to show them social themes," Silver says. "Kids are so smart today, but they’re just not given enough things to expand their brains."

 


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