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'Kid Nation' parents speak out

Though bound by a confidentiality pact, they tell advocacy groups of concerns that children were fed lines.

August 31, 2007|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

Amid the media firestorm and scrutiny by public officials, a group of "Kid Nation" parents has expressed concerns to two Los Angeles-based advocacy groups that monitor child labor in the entertainment industry about the way producers handled aspects of the production in New Mexico this past spring.

The 40 children and their parents are bound by a confidentiality agreement with CBS' subsidiary Magic Molehill Productions, and Good TV Inc. that prevents them from speaking to the press without the "consent of an authorized representative of CBS." According to the participation agreement, violators must pay $5 million to CBS.

But about a quarter of the parents involved have spoken confidentially to the BizParentz Foundation and A Minor Consideration about the fact that during the course of the show, producers gave their children lines to say or asked them to re-cast dialogue or repeat scenes.

The parents watched the last day of filming in May, which included the show's final town council meeting, interviews with the children, and some retakes. According to Anne Henry, co-founder of BizParentz, the parents saw the children being prompted to utter lines such as "Oh, wow!" and "No, don't do that" and to review on camera things that had happened earlier during the the production.

Henry said she has also spoken to crew members who confirmed that the children were sometimes directed and told what to say.

"That may be surprising to the public, but it's actually not unusual for reality TV," Henry said. "It's not unusual for shows to make sure they have all the footage they might ever need to cut and paste the story line they want to create because they're creating entertainment. But that is significant in this situation because CBS and the producers are trying to claim that this was not work and was not scripted and the children were not actors."

Tom Forman, the creator of "Kid Nation," said Thursday that the parents observed routine "pickups" for scenes in the show that were perhaps missed because of technical difficulties or cameras not positioned to capture the face of the child speaking. The children also gave final interviews on the last day and were asked to recall moments from earlier in the production and restate lines, he said.

The issue of whether the children were "working" while they were living on a ranch near Santa Fe for 40 days as they built a society while cameras were filming is being investigated by New Mexico Atty. Gen. Gary King. CBS lawyers maintain that, like all reality show participants, the children were not "working" and that the $5,000 payment they received is a "stipend" and not a "wage." But New Mexico officials are reviewing whether the children needed work permits.

The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the Screen Actors Guild and the Writer's Guild of America West are also reviewing the contract between the participants and the production company because guild officials say "Kid Nation" highlights a significant labor issue in Hollywood. The guilds have long contended that reality television show contestants should be covered by union contracts because they are performers.

"I've talked to parents who are just learning how much of a television production this was, the many do-overs and the requests to do things a certain way," said Paul Petersen, founder of A Minor Consideration. "They're figuring out that the children were on assignment to fulfill a producer's creative impulses."

"No words were put in their mouths," Forman said, "and more importantly, if the concern is that something is going to be taken out of context and manipulated, I can just promise you that's not happening.

"We're taking great pains for a million reasons, in part because we are good storytellers and in part because the stuff is real and dramatic enough on its own," Forman continued. "I know the way some reality shows work, and I know how things are cut to appear as if they happened when they didn't. It's not happening. It has never happened on any show I've ever worked on. It's not how I do things."

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maria.elena.fernandez @latimes.com

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