Whether "Kid Nation" becomes the next big reality hit, as CBS hopes, remains to be seen. But it looks as though it might go down in history as the first reality show to be investigated by all kinds of authority figures before it even airs.
On Friday, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists announced that it was investigating reports that allege abuse of children on "Kid Nation," which premieres Sept. 19.
The announcement follows a week of heavy media scrutiny of an unprecedented reality show in which 40 kids, ages 8 to 15, were placed in the New Mexico desert to build a town and society without contact with their parents. The mother of a 12-year-old Georgia girl who was burned in the face with grease while cooking filed a complaint accusing the production of abuse and neglect, which in part has prompted the New Mexico attorney general to launch an investigation into whether CBS and Good TV Inc. violated labor laws during the April and May filming of the show.
CBS issued a statement last week in support of its show and production.
"We stand by the procedures we had in place and the response to all the minor injuries," the statement said. "We will therefore not accept irresponsible allegations or any attempts to misrepresent and exaggerate events or spread false claims about what happened."
AFTRA covers the host and announcer of "Kid Nation," but the organization is now reviewing the contract between the children and the production. Show creator Tom Forman said all of the children would receive a $5,000 "stipend" for "participating" in the program, and some of the children won $20,000 prizes. The stipend does not constitute a "wage," say CBS lawyers, because the children were not paid for specific work or tasks.
"We're looking to see exactly what agreements there were between the children and the production and the exact nature of the performance," said AFTRA spokesman John Hinrichs. "We need to more fully determine whether they are amateur contestants that are exempt from the terms of the agreement."
In a press release, AFTRA National Executive Director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth said that AFTRA would take "all legal and moral steps available to protect the rights of the performers and children on this program."
"We are concerned about reports of abuse arising from 'Kid Nation,' which was produced under the AFTRA National Code of Fair Practices for Network Television Broadcasting," she said. "Under this agreement, the host, announcer, reporters and other professional performers on reality and contest programming are specifically covered by the terms of the Network Code, while the amateur contestants are generally not."
Among the issues the attorney general will review will be the production's permit process, the 22-page contract between parents and the producers, and whether the production company illegally refused to allow inspectors onto the property for routine inspections.