Thursday, September 6, 2007

Preview: CBS's Kid Nation

KidnationIf you haven't heard of "Kid Nation," it's a CBS reality show set for a Sept. 19 debut -- if the network airs the program, that is. "Kid Nation" is now under investigation by New Mexico authorities, who are looking into whether producers broke any laws during the show's filming in that state a few months ago.

Though CBS denies any wrongdoing and has said that the making of the show did not violate any laws, some "Kid Nation" participants -- all of whom were between the ages of 8 and 15 -- were injured during the course of the filming, according to news reports. A few young participants accidentally drank bleach, one kid sprained an arm and one child sustained a burn from hot grease.

The kicker? The parents of these kids had to sign a contract saying they would not sue over anything that might happen to their kids -- up to and including death.

According to the document posted on, the parents were told, via the contract they signed, that the show was "inherently dangerous" and could expose their children to "uncontrolled hazards and conditions that may cause serious bodily injury, illness or death." The parents had to relinquish all legal claims on CBS if anything did happen to their children. Oh, and unless the families stick to the terms of a confidentiality agreement that the network is still enforcing, they could be liable for a $5 million penalty.

All for a $5,000 "stipend," which is what most kids got for participating in the show. (Some kids got an additional $20,000 if they won competitions within the show.)

By my calculation, many of the kids who participated in the show -- if they did work 14-hour days for 40 days -- got less than $9 an hour.

No wonder the broadcast networks aren't about to give up on reality TV, despite its relatively lackluster performance of late; the genre is not exactly bankrupting them.

Seriously, though, if we learned that a corporation were using child labor -- having kids work 14-hour days, without any days off, with children getting injured on occasion -- we'd be outraged. An 8-year-old working all day and half the night, and the kid's employer making no promises about the "qualifications or credentials" of the people who might treat the child in the event of an emergency?

That ominous contract language flies in the face of CBS' attempts to bill "Kid Nation" as a happy-go-lucky "summer camp" experience.

“In order for a reality show … to really get out there and change the landscape of television, you have to sort of stir public debate,” CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler said about “Kid Nation” at a press event in July. “We know we're going to create some controversy. … But I think the whole objective was to get out there, do something different, and try and reach out and have people talk about the show, which is what's happening.”

Yes, but at this point, the "Kid Nation" debate centers on how children were used to create an entertainment property for CBS, a network that plans to charge big bucks for "Kid Nation" commercial spots. The network could have done some things to prevent the "Kid Nation" buzz from going sour, but they would have cost money. And cutting corners when kids are involved -- that's not courting controversy, that's risking condemnation.

The fact is, the kids on the show should have been covered by entertainment-union contracts that would have protected their interests, limited the hours they could work and guaranteed appropriate on-set medical care and supervision.

Even if all that had been done, in my opinion, CBS shouldn't have used performers under 12. The idea that an 8-year-old could realistically consent to this kind of experience doesn't really fly.

And I hesitate to think of what these kids will think of the way they're edited. It's one thing for a contestant on "Survivor" to feel they were made to look villainous or stupid; it's quite another for a 5th grader to face the entire school after having been made to look foolish on national TV.

But maybe what the middle school critics -- or grown-up critics -- think of "Kid Nation" won't really matter in the end. After all, CBS is, as of press time, soliciting applications for "Kid Nation 2" on its Web site.

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