Is child exploitation legal in 'Kid Nation'?

Times Staff Writer

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.

"I didn't even ask that," said Peggy, the mother of 12-year-old Laurel of Boston. (CBS, which arranged the interviews, would not release the parents' last names to protect the privacy of the children.) "I don't think that she or I feel that she worked any of the time she was there. For her, it was just her normal everyday. She feels like it was summer camp. And I guess that would be a summer camp with cameras. This was a fun adventure for her."

In the last month, critics have also lambasted the parents, especially those with very young children, for allowing them to take part. But the parents interviewed said part of the reason they felt their children would be safe is that even though the show's trailers claim there were no adults in Bonanza City, there were plenty. In addition to the production staff, physicians, psychologists, animal wranglers and wildlife experts were always on hand.

"Any kind of television experience is fraught with potential rewards and detriments," Smith said. "When a parent sends a child into this situation, there's a good chance that it could help the child build self-confidence, build social skills and build a network. But you don't know that going in, because it could be that your child suffers the detriments. It could suggest deficiencies that they have. They could regret the appearance and they could regret the fame."

Forman says he thinks the criticism is "reasonable," considering no one has seen any actual footage. The mothers of three of the children gave their resounding support for the producers and network this week during interviews.

"First of all, I don't think that you can make a judgment about something that you haven't seen," said Suzanne, the mother of 10-year-old Zachary of Miami Beach. "And I know that Zachary came home a stronger, more confident and more self-reliant child. So for me the proof is in the pudding."

Forman auditioned thousands of children across the country before settling on 60 to be interviewed in Los Angeles with their parents. Producers held open casting calls but also searched the country for high-achieving types, including winners of spelling bees and beauty pageants, presidents of student government, 4H Club leaders and Honor Society students.

The four children interviewed by The Times said they had to rough it without electricity or running water, sleep on bed rolls on the floor, cook their own meals, clean the town, run businesses, survive on three changes of clothes and set up their own hours and rules. Although three of them said they worked harder than they ever had in their lives, all four said the most challenging aspect was getting used to being filmed constantly.

"When I heard about the idea in L.A., I thought it was great until I got there and there were cameras with me every minute of the day, and it got a little annoying at times," said Greg, 15, who was recruited by CBS through his involvement with the Reno Rodeo Assn. "After a while, you got used to it. You know? You'd go to the outhouse and they'd wait for you outside and film you coming out."

With no eliminations -- the hallmark of reality competitions -- producers had to get creative in terms of the format. The "showdown" competitions assigned the children their status for three days, but the town reward at the end of each challenge was designed to bring them back together, Forman said.

"If you let 40 kids decide between a library or video arcade, what are they going to decide?" Forman said. "A microwave or a pizza party? A barbecue or toothbrush and toothpaste? It really got to what matters to kids and let them experience what it means to make decisions between immediate gratification and long-term consequences."

Seven weeks before the show airs and the network president learns if "Kid Nation" is the "next big reality hit," as she's been touting, CBS began casting a second season "to get ahead of the curve," Maynard said.

"Fame is a powerful ruler," Smith said. "There's a societal structure that we've built, in part thanks to television, that says this is the thing you want, desire and aim for. That's a powerful lure for individuals in our society."

Of the kids The Times spoke with, two have performed in musical theater and said they would like to pursue acting, among other careers, such as writing and flying airplanes. The other two had never seen a reality television program and were approached by the network to participate. All four said they would happily spend another 40 days in "Kid Nation." The toughest part about living on "Kid Nation," even worse than cleaning outhouses, the four children agreed, was leaving Bonanza City and one another.

But, then again, they haven't seen themselves on TV yet.

maria.elena.fernandez @latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Pay pals

No one on "Kid Nation" ever gets eliminated. So how does this reality competition work?

Producers divided the 40 children into four districts. Every three days, the contestants participated in "showdowns" that determined their jobs and paychecks for that episode. The first-place team earned "upper class" status, $1 in buffalo nickels, the town currency, and could do whatever it wanted. The second-place "merchants" earned 50 cents and ran the stores. The "cooks" were in third place and earned 25 cents to cook all meals and wash dishes. The last team was the "laborers" who earned 10 cents for cleaning the entire town. If every resident of Bonanza City completed the challenge, the town would get a reward -- a choice between something they needed and something they wanted.

The Town Council (one representative from each district) chose the reward and also determined which child deserved to win a gold star worth $20,000 at the end of each three-day cycle.

-- Maria Elena Fernandez

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