Reporting from New York and Los Angeles — Even by reality television standards, the showdown in the Season 1 finale of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" was epic: A furious Teresa Giudice screamed at fellow cast member Danielle Staub that she was a "prostitution whore," then yanked a table into the air, sending dishes crashing to the ground.
Watching the drama were Staub's noticeably alarmed daughters, then 11 and 15, whose mother had kept them in the room for the exchange.
New Jersey prohibits minors from appearing in entertainment productions dangerous to their "life, limb, health or morals." But the state could not say whether the "Housewives" series was subject to its child labor laws.
A public records investigation by The Times found that dozens of kids are appearing on reality programs without legal safeguards because of widespread uncertainty about how to classify the shows. In its examination of some of the most visible series featuring children under 16, The Times found that a majority had not obtained work permits to employ minors — including TLC's "19 Kids and Counting," WE tv's "Raising Sextuplets" and the entire "Real Housewives" franchise on Bravo.
In all, The Times found that 11 shows filming in eight states had not filed paperwork to hire minors. Regulators in California, Florida, Georgia and Virginia are now looking into whether production companies violated child labor rules.
But they may be in the clear legally.
The confusion over what laws apply to reality television befits a genre that occupies a gray zone. A hybrid of docu-style filmmaking and dramatic storytelling, reality shows have exploded in popularity in the last decade, raising a host of ethical questions along the way. The latest wave of shows centered on kids alarms child psychologists. But there are few government safeguards in place to monitor these productions.
Because producers say reality show kids are participants in documentary-style programs and not employees, child labor laws are rarely applied. And because these productions have largely resisted unionization, they do not have to comply with guild rules set up to protect child performers.
As a result, for the vast majority of these shows, there are no state-mandated instructors or union representatives on set to limit the number of hours the children are on camera, to make sure they get meal breaks and go to school, or to prevent exposure to dangerous situations. Most reality show children are not guaranteed that they will be compensated or that any money they do earn will be set aside for them.
Advocates of children note that reality shows often resemble scripted shows, with producers staging scenes, plotting story lines and feeding participants lines.
"The great fiction is to pretend that these children are not performers," said Paul Petersen, president of A Minor Consideration, a group lobbying to overhaul child labor laws.
Reality TV producers maintain that the children on their programs are treated well.
"We have always uncategorically put our subjects' needs above our own, because we're beholden to them for sharing their story with the world," said Bill Hayes, whose company Figure 8 Films makes four TLC shows about families with many children, including " Kate Plus 8" (formerly known as " Jon & Kate Plus 8").
Hayes said most children on his shows were filmed only a few hours a day. If they don't want to participate, they are not forced to, he said. "We are constantly looking at every state and doing due diligence and finding out what our requirements are and exceeding them," he added.
The view that these shows are essentially documentaries is shared by Jim Bob Duggar, who appears with his wife and 19 children on TLC's "19 Kids and Counting." He said the family didn't consider the filming to be work.
"The appeal of the show is its observational approach to our daily routine, which is the same with or without the cameras," Duggar wrote in an e-mail.
But some legislators believe there is a need for further oversight; they say that many programs raise questions about the judgment of the parents who put their children on camera. In NBC's 2008 series "The Baby Borrowers," parents left their infants and toddlers in the care of overwhelmed teens as a social experiment.
The tabloid frenzy around Jon and Kate Gosselin has triggered efforts to toughen child labor laws in their home state of Pennsylvania.
"When I see that children were filmed going to the bathroom, that's totally, totally inappropriate," said state Rep. Thomas P. Murt, referring to potty-training scenes that aired on "Jon & Kate Plus 8." The Republican has introduced legislation that would limit the hours children could be filmed and require an on-set teacher.