Just when Americans thought they had seen it all when it comes to reality television, CBS, the oldest-skewing network, has come up with a humdinger: "Kid Nation."
For 40 days in April and May, CBS sent 40 children, ages 8 to 15, to a former ghost town in New Mexico to build a society from scratch. With no access to their parents, not even by telephone, the children set up their own government, laws and society in front of reality television cameras. The goal, according to creator Tom Forman ("Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and "Armed and Famous"), was for "kids to succeed where adults have failed."
But CBS, the network that got the reality ball rolling in 2000 with "Survivor," had more in mind when it decided to run this social experiment of sorts. Recognizing that ratings are not enough in the age of rabid Internet fans, President of Entertainment Nina Tassler had been craving water-cooler buzz for her network for a couple of seasons.
So CBS Executive Vice President of Alternative Programming Ghen Maynard attempted to "wake up the attention" of children with a program that allowed them to "identify with people of their own age," he said in an interview. "I thought it could be a way to try to get some attention on a broadcast level for a new kind of show, one that really put young kids to the test."
Attention has not been a problem for "Kid Nation." Even though the show premieres on Sept. 19 and no one has seen more than a four-minute trailer running on television and the Web, it stands as the most controversial show of the fall season. On July 16, Television Week revealed that sources in the New Mexico Department of Labor claimed the children worked as many as 14 hours a day and were taken advantage of because of statutes on the books that protected theatrical and film productions from child labor restrictions.
That same week, CBS kept the children and parents away from the media during a tense news conference in which TV critics grilled Forman and the show's host about the legal, moral and ethical issues arising from their unconventional production. Of the 40 children, 12 are 10 or younger and only one is 15. Eighteen of the participants are girls.
"Who is ultimately responsible here, the network that dangles the $20,000 prize in front of these parents or the parents who have allowed or encouraged their children to move forward with this situation?" asked Matthew Smith, chairman of the Department of Communication at Wittenberg University in Ohio and editor of "Survivor Lessons: Essays on Communication and Reality Television." "Obviously, the situation wouldn't exist if CBS didn't say, 'Come, but don't bring your parents.' But also, the parents, after I'm assuming reading lengthy legal documentation from CBS, still went through with it and said, "Go on ahead. I think little Suzie or Johnny can be fine for a period of 40 days without me.' Even when I say that aloud my eyebrows start to do funny things."
CBS' stance is that the children were not employees of the network. Forman, a 34-year-old father of two, likens the experience to "going to summer camp" and says the children, like all reality show stars, "were not working; they were participating" and set their own hours. None was eliminated, and all were free to leave at any time. (In fact, a few did. A request to interview those participants was denied by CBS because of the potential for spoiling story lines.)
During telephone interviews this week with four of the children after CBS announced the cast, the "pioneers" revealed they awoke about 6 a.m. to a bell on top of a hill and decided on their own when to turn in for the day. In the evenings, after cooking sometimes for "3 1/2 hours or something" on a wood-burning stove, the children relaxed in each other's bunk rooms or threw parties at the town saloon, where they could buy root beer.
"To say that these kids aren't working is absurd," said Mark Andrejevic, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa and author of "Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched." "This is a smooth move that reality television has been able to make, and I think the only reason they get away with it is that they're trading on a history of documentary filmmaking. But work means submitting to conditions that are set by employers in order to generate profit for those employers. To me, the only reason you can say that kids are not working is because they're not getting paid or are underpaid. In any other industry, this would be called exploitation."
The children were paid a $5,000 stipend each, and some received other financial rewards for challenges, but parents interviewed this week said they had no knowledge there was the potential to earn $20,000 gold stars until the children returned. Producers had mentioned hypothetically during the interviews that the children might win products, such as iPods or computers.