Kids in reality TV’s tender care


Other TV executives must be envious. In the midst of an August notably devoid of buzz for new fall shows, CBS is already getting a huge burst of PR for one of its efforts.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, the show in question is “Kid Nation,” the reality series that dumped 40 children at a New Mexico ranch for six weeks without any contact with parents or tutors. And although CBS says an army of child psychologists and others was on hand to keep the peace, it’s unclear how many of these network-employed grown-ups were interested in the welfare of something besides a TV show.

What’s clear is that the kids were overseen by TV producers and film crews who egged on the little ones to act out a junior-varsity version of “Survivor.”


As a parent who’s covered the television business exclusively for nearly a decade, I just think of the phrase “healthy environment for kids,” and the first thing that pops into mind is the set of a reality-TV show.

“She feels like it was summer camp,” Peggy, the mother of a 12-year-old “Kid Nation” resident, told my colleague Maria Elena Fernandez, who’s been following the story. (CBS says it won’t give out last names to protect the kids’ privacy -- as if the kids will still have any once this thing airs on national TV.)

The show’s executive producer, Tom Forman, also used the “summer camp” comparison.

Sure, it’s a lot like camp, if by “camp” you mean a place where the organizers won’t let you participate unless you sign a 22-page, single-spaced, legally exhaustive contract allowing them to whisk your child to unspecified “remote” and “inherently dangerous” locations. And wash their hands of any responsibility for the kid’s life or safety (including any failure to conduct thorough background checks or to keep kids free from HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases: Who says our society won’t give pedophiles an even break?). And, yes, stick a camera in the child’s face anytime except for bathroom breaks.

The kind of camp this brings to mind has nothing to do with canoes, hiking and s’mores. The nation in “Kid Nation” makes North Korea sound utopian.

“It’s ghastly and a shame,” Paul Petersen, a former child actor, told me, referring to “Kid Nation.” Petersen runs A Minor Consideration, a nonprofit watchdog and advocacy group that monitors child labor in the entertainment industry. “I’ve never seen anything like this, in terms of wanton disregard for the lives of children.”

Faced with questions, authorities in New Mexico have admitted that a crackdown on the producers is now probably “moot,” given that production wrapped in May. But last week, New Mexico’s attorney general announced an investigation into whether state laws had been broken, valiantly slamming the door on the now-empty barn.


CBS, meanwhile, is defending itself with statements that sound drafted by the same lawyers who wrote that 22-page contract. The series was produced “within all applicable laws in the state of New Mexico at the time of the production,” the network says, with “procedures and safety structures that arguably rival or surpass any school or camp in the country.”

Love that “arguably.” Well, who’s going to argue? Certainly not the parents, who signed away their rights to speak publicly about “Kid Nation” without CBS’ permission and face a $5-million penalty if they disobey. (Once I made clear my feelings about the show, a CBS spokesman declined on Friday to make any parents available for this column.)

You might say: Oh, what’s the big deal? Kids act on TV shows all the time, don’t they?

Sure they do; CBS owes part of its ratings success, in fact, to 13-year-old Angus T. Jones, the kid on the sitcom hit “Two and a Half Men.”

But children’s work on most shows, including those produced in California, are governed by state laws designed to protect kids. That’s why child actors like Jones have restricted working hours, specific educational requirements, access to accredited “studio teachers” and the like. Whether those laws work well or even at all is open to debate -- the histories of Lindsay Lohan, Michael Jackson, Gary Coleman and many other former child stars make you wonder, don’t they? -- but those are the laws.

But really, who wants to get buried under a bunch of boring old statutes when there’s a reality series at stake? CBS filmed in New Mexico, where child labor enforcement is perceived to be much more lax than in California. The network also says the “Kid Nation” kids weren’t employees, although here’s betting the network won’t mind reaping profits from whatever it calls what the kids were doing on its behalf.

Federal child-labor laws may not apply, because Hollywood has enjoyed an exemption for kid actors since the 1930s. “Kid Nation” suggests it might be time to revisit that exemption now. Want television network executives to take this issue seriously? Threaten their supply of photogenic juveniles who can do “adorable” on cue.


Meanwhile, who will protect children from the ravenous eyes, rapacious fingers and ratings-ravaged brains of TV executives? That should be a job for their parents, although the ones of the “Kid Nation” participants seem to have checked their brains and their judgment at the office door of Forman, the show’s producer.

When asked whether she was concerned about her child’s safety on the “Kid Nation” set, Shari, the mother of a 15-year-old boy from Nevada, told The Times’ Fernandez: “You can’t stop living and put yourself in a bubble because of safety. You lose out on some of life’s experiences that teach you the most.” (Yeah, like the time Mom left you for six weeks in the desert with a reality-TV crew.)

Suzanne, the mother of a 10-year-old Florida boy, said she asked her son how he’d feel if the show ended up revealing an embarrassing personal secret on national TV. “And he said he was fine with it, and I have confidence in him,” she said.

Really, the faith that these parents have in the responsibility and sensitivity of reality-TV producers they hardly know is nearly as touching as the speed with which they surrender to their minor children the power to make and cope with life-altering, and possibly life-threatening, decisions.

Maybe the kids of “Kid Nation” weren’t the only little children who needed protecting here.

Some skeptics on the Los Angeles Times’ Internet message boards have dismissed the criticism of “Kid Nation” by saying everyone should hold fire until the show airs (CBS has sent out only a brief highlight reel so far). But we already know all we need to about the circumstances under which “Kid Nation” was produced; the actual content is beside the point. This isn’t about the show’s artistic merits.


This ultimately comes down not to parents or courts or TV execs, but to you and me. One doesn’t get the sense CBS is ashamed of the controversy. Quite the contrary: They’re vowing to air “Kid Nation” and are even making plans for another installment. Bad PR? There ain’t no such thing, not in the TV world.

If adults want to engage in the freak-show exhibitionism that passes for much of the reality-show genre, that’s their prerogative. But this is about kids. Remember them? Kids, whom our society pays endless lip service to protecting. Remember them before you tune in to “Kid Nation.”

The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at