For 40 days, the children of "Kid Nation" hauled wagons, cooked meals, managed stores and cleaned outhouses, all in the name of building a society in front of reality TV cameras.
Were they working? There doesn't seem to be a simple answer. But what is clear is that CBS' new reality venture, which placed 40 children on a New Mexico ranch without any contact with their parents, has become a flash point in a television genre actors and writers have long blamed for taking jobs from them.
Scheduled to premiere Sept. 19, "Kid Nation" has become the subject of several official investigations, highlighting some of the inherent problems in reality television, which keeps costs down by avoiding paying writers and actors.
The stakes are high for the networks that profit from the entertainment and for the Hollywood guilds that have joined the "Kid Nation" fight as the industry girds for a possible strike this year.
To make their larger point about reality television, the guilds have seized on "Kid Nation" with its added dose of controversy -- the welfare of children.
"To me, this is the sweatshop of the entertainment industry," said Jeff Hermanson, assistant executive director of Writers Guild of America, West.
"What's happened with 'Kid Nation' is typical and universal, but then it's that much worse because it's about children. The exposure that reality television is getting as a result of the 'Kid Nation' case really has much greater import in the big picture."
It's also shined a light on the common network practice of creating subsidiary companies that can contract with production companies that are not bound by union labor laws and can shield networks from having their corporate image tarnished.
"This is an area that the networks don't really want to talk about because they don't want to address the manner in which they try to divorce themselves from legal responsibility or moral responsibility for the conditions on the shows," Hermanson said.
"The purpose of using these companies is to distance themselves from any liability for labor practices or lawsuits of any kind," he said. "But it's an insidious practice in my opinion because when you look at who is deriving the benefit ... it leads right to the network's door."
A complaint charging "abuse and neglect" by the mother of a 12-year-old girl who was burned in the face while cooking was made public last week. New Mexico Atty. Gen. Gary King said he will investigate whether producers lawfully kept state inspectors, who wanted to review work permits for the children, from the site. CBS lawyers maintain that no work permits were needed because the children were "participating," and not working, during the filming of the program.
The Screen Actors Guild joined the fray Monday, having received a barrage of calls from parents, members and former young performers who "called and yelled at us because they were really appalled at the way these kids were treated," said Pamm Fair, SAG's deputy national executive director.
The guild looked at the contract between parents and producers, she said, "and it's been a long time since we've seen such egregious provisions for any performer, let alone children."
"We have a lot of people who are very upset about this show," she added, "so there may be action down the line to let the network know that people are unhappy about the treatment of children and how it's reflected in the series."
SAG is following the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which announced Friday that it was looking into reports of abuse of children on the set. AFTRA covers the host and announcer of "Kid Nation," and the organization is reviewing the contract between the children and the production.
Although the CBS Corp. board of directors has not met on the issue, board member Linda Griego said members are making inquiries to make sure the laws were followed.
CBS owns the copyright to the show through a subsidiary company, Magic Molehill Productions Inc., which was incorporated in 1995 and has held copyrights to other reality fare on CBS and the CW, the network CBS co-owns with Warner Bros. CBS contracted with Good TV Inc., which belongs to Tom Forman, the creator of "Kid Nation," to produce the show.
Although Magic Molehill is a non-union entity, Good TV had agreements with AFTRA to cover the "Kid Nation" host and announcer, with the Director's Guild of America for the show's director and with the Teamsters to cover the drivers. But the production crew was non-union.
CBS officials declined to comment about Magic Molehill except to acknowledge that it's a copyright holder for "Kid Nation" and other shows.
Since "Survivor" premiered on CBS in 2000, reality TV has been the prickly stepchild of the networks. Reality shows can yield a hefty bounty for networks and producers when the shows hit big. But, over the years, as the genre has produced everything from the Emmy-winning "The Amazing Race" to "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance," skepticism has grown about the "realness" of the shows.
Producers have admitted to writing scenarios that contestants are asked to carry out. And contestants have revealed that they work long hours and are often asked to do different takes of scenes to make them more interesting or controversial.
For these reasons, union representatives argue that the shows have writers who should be compensated according to union guidelines and that some contestants are performers who could be covered under collective bargaining agreements.
Two suits are pending in California Superior Court on behalf of groups of reality show producers and writers who are charging several production companies and TV networks with violations of labor laws governing overtime, wages and meal periods.
Like the amateur contestants on game shows, each child on "Kid Nation" received a $5,000 stipend -- "as a thank-you for participating," Forman said -- and some won prizes of $20,000 or more. The participants, ages 8 to 15, hailed from 15 states, excluding California and New York, which have some of the strictest labor laws in the country.
In an interview Aug. 9, Forman said he avoided children from those states because, "as we looked at the labor issues, there were some issues there." But, he said, "I was OK with it too, because that's where I thought we would find kids in the entertainment business, not the all-American kids we were looking for that I think the viewers would relate to."
Although only one child from the "Kid Nation" cast has turned out to be a professional actor, almost half have expressed interest in performing or acting. In interviews, some of the children and parents have said the children did not "work" when they were filmed for 14 hours or more a day because they set their own hours and decided for themselves what chores to do.
In statements to the press last week, CBS expressed support for its show and production. Forman also said in interviews that the children "were not taken advantage of."
"I think that some of the controversy comes from people who don't believe that kids are as capable as I know they are," Forman said. "I saw it in my own kids and I saw it in these kids, that if you let them step up and take responsibility, they are smarter than anyone gives them credit for."
But to get what they want, reality show producers cite documentary filmmaking as their inspiration and claim their shows are more just than a form of entertainment, said Mark Andrejevic, author of "Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched."
"In order to legitimate the free labor that they extract from cast members, every reality show producer claims that this is some kind of experience where people grow and learn about themselves," he said. "The producers rely on the tradition of the documentary to make this seem like it's not exploitation when the only true commitment they have is to turn a profit."