Reality TV kids don’t have a safety net

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.

The legal rights of reality show kids is a pressing issue for Hollywood’s acting guilds, which have spent the last decade working to strengthen laws that protect the earnings of child actors and establish education and work-condition requirements.

“Parents can be seduced by the industry to let kids do things that are dangerous,” said Screen Actors Guild general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland.

But SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists have little clout when it comes to kids on reality TV shows because most of those programs are nonunion. Even when a show’s hosts are covered under a union contract, subjects — including children — typically are not.

That was the case with the CBS show “Kid Nation,” which drew controversy in 2007 when producers sequestered 40 children on a New Mexico ranch without work permits to film the children’s effort to build their own society. The network and the show’s producer argued that they were participating in an activity similar to attending camp, not working.

After news that an 11-year-old girl was burned with grease during filming, the New Mexico attorney general investigated possible labor law violations but dropped the matter absent an official request for investigation by a state agency.

In its monthlong examination of child labor laws, The Times found rampant confusion within the television industry and state agencies about what rules apply to reality shows.

Because Sirens Media, producers of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” did not have a permit to employ minors, there was no state investigator on set to monitor work conditions, as required by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

The New Jersey film and television commission informed The Times that reality shows must obtain child labor permits, as do scripted shows. But a spokesman for the labor department was uncertain whether that was the case.

Sirens Media and most production companies declined to comment. Those that did said they strove to follow the law.

“Have you ever tried to apply for a permit that you didn’t need?” asked Hayes. “I would love for there to be more clarity, because it is disturbing to be accused of something we’re not guilty of.”

Half Yard Productions, which produced “The Real Housewives of D.C.,” did not obtain permits for the children on that show. A company spokeswoman said permits were not required if producers were chronicling the lives of children who were not getting paid.

But Virginia, one of the states in which the show was filmed, requires a child labor permit for anyone under 16 who appears in a commercial production, including reality shows, according to Eric Delia, a policy analyst at the state Department of Labor and Industry. The agency has launched an inquiry into whether the children should have had permits.

In statements to The Times, Bravo, TLC and WE tv said they required their production companies to comply with all applicable laws.

Bravo said it worked to ensure that children’s hours of participation were monitored and that they didn’t miss school. “All children participate only with parental consent and involvement,” the network said. “With respect to ‘The Real Housewives’ franchise, the children are peripheral as definitionally the series focuses on the ‘housewives’ and their interaction with each other, and not their kids.”

TLC said, “We are making it a point to work hand in hand with the production companies and the parents to establish any additional filming guidelines for the productions that may be appropriate to promote the best interests of the children and to minimize disruption to the families’ lives.”

WE tv said it took steps to ensure the comfort and safety of its young subjects “during an intentionally limited shooting schedule.” The network added that after reviewing the production of two of its shows based in Florida that the state said had no permits to employ minors, it was confident they complied with the law.

Compounding the confusion is the absence of federal labor standards for child performers. The federal law that establishes child-employment rules, the Fair Labor Standards Act, exempts child actors.

That leaves it up to states to regulate. Although some such as California and New York have strong standards that govern work conditions and compensation for child performers, 17 states have no such laws.

Even in California, officials with the Department of Industrial Relations said the law wasn’t clear-cut.

“In each case it is necessary to research the facts of production in order to establish whether there is an employee-employer relationship” between the children and the production, said Krisann Chasarik, a department spokeswoman.

Regulators are now examining whether “The Real Housewives of Orange County” should have child labor permits.

In March, an investigation by Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor and Industry determined that Figure 8 Films should have obtained permits to film the Gosselin children during the last several years.

The department did not find that the production violated rules about the treatment of child performers, but it ordered the company to take out permits and set aside 15% of the show’s proceeds in a trust fund for the twins and sextuplets.

Because of the murkiness at the state level, union leaders want lawmakers in Washington to take on the issue. In February, AFTRA officials met with an aide to the House Labor and Education Committee to call for federal standards for wages, work conditions and educational requirements for child performers across all genres.

“It’s really a Wild West situation out there,” said AFTRA general counsel Tom Carpenter, “and we just want to make sure kids have protections.”