CBS Exploits Child Labor Law Loopholes for Ratings

The Summer TV Press Tour is underway.  It's the time of year when the networks show the TV critics what's in store for the coming fall TV season.  And much of the buzz centers around the CBS show Kid Nation.

Here's the premise:  40 kids are put in an abandoned ghost town (well, it's really a privately owned town used for production purposes) and told to “fix their forefather's mistakes” and rebuild the town into a functioning community. No adults allowed.

According to an article in TV Week, labor laws were skirted as the kids, ages 8-15, worked 14 hour days, seven days a week.  No teachers were on set even though the kids were filming during the school year.  No parents were on set either after the first few days of shooting.

And apparently all of it was legal.  According to TV Week, CBS spent six months studying all the legal issues to make this happen.  And if they were to take a play from the declining-in-popularity reality show Survivor, it appears that CBS outwitted the system.

The network chose New Mexico because it had some of the most lax child labor laws in the country. [That changed on July 1 of this year when the federal loophole exempting television and theatrical productions from child labor laws was closed.]  But here's the real kicker:  The production wasn't called a “production,” it was called “summer camp!”  The legal suits at CBS avoided child labor laws by labeling the production effort “summer camp,” even though the “camp” attendees were paid a $5,000 stipend for their efforts. 

And all of this finagling came about because producer Tom Forman (executive producer of the popular Extreme Makeover Home Edition) wanted a new reality show concept that didn't fit into the existing mold.  All reality shows feature adults.  Apparently Forman believed a reality show focused on kids would be a mold-breaker. 

TV Week also reports that, “Mr. Forman and CBS reality head Ghen Maynard wanted to go further than any production had previously attempted in terms of isolating children from adults and the outside world.  'It's hard to find good adult reality characters. They all know what they're supposed to do,' said Mr. Forman, giving an interview on Nation for the first time since CBS' May upfront presentation to advertisers. 'You need participants who didn't grow up on this stuff.'”

But wait, there's more.  TV Week asserts that “CBS needed a buzz-worthy new title to complement its more risqué fall dramas.”  Ahhh. There we go.  Kids will offset the smut on the schedule.

Kid Nation has indeed generated a lot of industry buzz.  And with all the time and effort put into the pre-production (or loophole finding, whatever you want to call it) and production, there will surely be a huge promotional push which will probably mean the show will garner the ratings CBS hopes for. 

The TV Week article closes with this comment from the producer, “I expected a lot of off-camera hand-holding, but they just didn't need it," Mr. Forman said. “The kids were better human beings than you've ever seen on television. And when they decide to be mean to each other, they're horrible. You're seeing kids at their absolute best and worst.”

So it's really about seeing kids at their absolute best and worst, minus interference from adults?  Can't we see that at a shopping mall on any given weekend?  Really, Kid Nation is nothing more than the reality show formula added to the “kids don't need adults” notion that underlies most kid-centric shows.  It will be unique for a nano-second and if it is successful will be duplicated ad nauseum.  Or it will be a flop.  Either way there is a cost probably as yet unrecognized by the producers or parents of these children.

What cost?

Children participated in a show designed specifically to exploit them.  They may not see it that way, but the circumstances surrounding the creation and execution of the show reek of manipulation.  Mr. Forman said the crew members on the “camp” set were like counselors but instead of adults leading children, the children got to call the shots, including their curfew.  One crew member was quoted as saying, “The kids loved it.  Some have been depressed returning to normal life.”  No kidding.  Did the $5,000 “stipend” for the “camp” experience help the parents of these kids pay for the tutors needed to catch them up on the school work they missed, or the therapists needed to help them readjust to living in the real world where they don't call the shots?

And what if the show is a ratings disaster?  Will that stipend help offset the blow to young egos who have absolutely no idea how harsh the reviews of television critics can be? 

It seems that American culture is so obsessed with the idea of grabbing your allotted 15 minutes of fame that people will do just about anything to get on television.  Fear Factor is living proof of that.  Now it seems some will apply that notion to young children, allowing them to be part of the next generation of social experiments couched as “reality television.”

Executive Producer Forman is so confident that viewers will tune it to see kids at “their absolute best and worst” that he is reportedly already scouting a new location for the second season of Kid Nation. Stay tuned.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the MediaResearchCenter.