For 40 days, the children of "Kid Nation" hauled wagons, cooked meals, managed stores and cleaned outhouses, all in the name of building a society in front of reality TV cameras.
Were they working? There doesn't seem to be a simple answer. But what is clear is that CBS' new reality venture, which placed 40 children on a New Mexico ranch without any contact with their parents, has become a flash point in a television genre actors and writers have long blamed for taking jobs from them.
Scheduled to premiere Sept. 19, "Kid Nation" has become the subject of several official investigations, highlighting some of the inherent problems in reality television, which keeps costs down by avoiding paying writers and actors.
The stakes are high for the networks that profit from the entertainment and for the Hollywood guilds that have joined the "Kid Nation" fight as the industry girds for a possible strike this year.
To make their larger point about reality television, the guilds have seized on "Kid Nation" with its added dose of controversy -- the welfare of children.
"To me, this is the sweatshop of the entertainment industry," said Jeff Hermanson, assistant executive director of Writers Guild of America, West.
"What's happened with 'Kid Nation' is typical and universal, but then it's that much worse because it's about children. The exposure that reality television is getting as a result of the 'Kid Nation' case really has much greater import in the big picture."
It's also shined a light on the common network practice of creating subsidiary companies that can contract with production companies that are not bound by union labor laws and can shield networks from having their corporate image tarnished.
"This is an area that the networks don't really want to talk about because they don't want to address the manner in which they try to divorce themselves from legal responsibility or moral responsibility for the conditions on the shows," Hermanson said.
"The purpose of using these companies is to distance themselves from any liability for labor practices or lawsuits of any kind," he said. "But it's an insidious practice in my opinion because when you look at who is deriving the benefit ... it leads right to the network's door."
A complaint charging "abuse and neglect" by the mother of a 12-year-old girl who was burned in the face while cooking was made public last week. New Mexico Atty. Gen. Gary King said he will investigate whether producers lawfully kept state inspectors, who wanted to review work permits for the children, from the site. CBS lawyers maintain that no work permits were needed because the children were "participating," and not working, during the filming of the program.
The Screen Actors Guild joined the fray Monday, having received a barrage of calls from parents, members and former young performers who "called and yelled at us because they were really appalled at the way these kids were treated," said Pamm Fair, SAG's deputy national executive director.
The guild looked at the contract between parents and producers, she said, "and it's been a long time since we've seen such egregious provisions for any performer, let alone children."
"We have a lot of people who are very upset about this show," she added, "so there may be action down the line to let the network know that people are unhappy about the treatment of children and how it's reflected in the series."
SAG is following the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which announced Friday that it was looking into reports of abuse of children on the set. AFTRA covers the host and announcer of "Kid Nation," and the organization is reviewing the contract between the children and the production.
Although the CBS Corp. board of directors has not met on the issue, board member Linda Griego said members are making inquiries to make sure the laws were followed.
CBS owns the copyright to the show through a subsidiary company, Magic Molehill Productions Inc., which was incorporated in 1995 and has held copyrights to other reality fare on CBS and the CW, the network CBS co-owns with Warner Bros. CBS contracted with Good TV Inc., which belongs to Tom Forman, the creator of "Kid Nation," to produce the show.
Although Magic Molehill is a non-union entity, Good TV had agreements with AFTRA to cover the "Kid Nation" host and announcer, with the Director's Guild of America for the show's director and with the Teamsters to cover the drivers. But the production crew was non-union.
CBS officials declined to comment about Magic Molehill except to acknowledge that it's a copyright holder for "Kid Nation" and other shows.