Kid Nation Ties for Top Ratings

Kid Nation, CBS' latest offering to the saturated reality-TV market, premiered on September 19. 

Despite, or perhaps because of, reports of child exploitation, children inadvertently drinking bleach and burning themselves while cooking, nine million people tuned in as 40 kids were dropped in a desert ghost town to create their own society.  Or more accurately, dropped in BonanzaCity, a film production set marketed as an “abandoned” New Mexico town.  In the Nielsen ratings, the show tied for first in its time slot.

Turns out the kids have been much more heavily supervised than advertised, and less free to create their own society.  The producers quickly imposed a class system upon the children.  They selected four children ahead of time to be the “town council,” and directed the council members to divide the others into four “districts.” 

A competition divided the districts into classes, which determined the amount of pay each child received and the chores they were to perform.  Some kids earned as much as a dollar, others as little as ten cents. 

Adding a twist (as if this series needed any more twists) was the town council awarding one child a gold star worth $20,000 for working especially hard.  Nobody knew about this twist beforehand, but it was announced at the end of the premiere. 

So, tossed out the window before the end of the premiere was the notion that sometimes a person needs to work for something greater than money.  And it also raises the question of how many of the kids are going to work for the good of their “society” and not just to earn the coveted gold star. 

Critics panned the series, mostly complaining that it pulls too much from other reality television shows like CBS' Survivor and MTV's Real World.  However, out of four major papers, only USA Today objected that this experience will leave a mark on the participants. 

Robert Bianco, USA Today's TV critic, said “Nation took a group of children who has no clear idea what image they project in person, let alone on TV, and labeled them forever as 'the brat,' 'the cry-baby,' 'the nerd,' 'the full-of-herself know-it-all' and 'the bully,' all for purposes of profit.” 

What remains to be seen is how many of those nine million viewers are going to stick with the remaining twelve episodes of this series.  Before the premiere this idea was billed as another Lord of the Flies.  The premiere fell short in that regard, relying instead on cute kids saying funny things or tugging at heartstrings with cute kids crying because they were homesick. 

Adults are already exploited enough on reality television. It's really scraping the bottom of the barrel to do the same to kids, all in the name of entertainment.  Let's hope that American audiences have high enough standards to refuse Kid Nation the profitability needed to ensure a second season.   

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the MediaResearchCenter.