Just when Americans thought they had seen it all when it comes to reality television, CBS has come up with a humdinger: Kid Nation.
For 40 days in April and May, CBS sent 40 children, ages 8 to 15, to a former ghost town in New Mexico to build a society from scratch. With no access to their parents, not even by telephone, the children set up their own government, laws and society in front of reality television cameras.
But CBS, the network that got the reality ball rolling in 2000 with Survivor, had more in mind when it decided to run this social experiment of sorts. Recognizing that ratings are not enough in the Internet age, President of Entertainment Nina Tassler had been craving water-cooler buzz for her network for a couple of seasons.
So Ghen Maynard, CBS' executive vice president of alternative programming, attempted to "wake up the attention" of children with a program that allowed them to "identify with people of their own age," he said in an interview.
Attention has not been a problem for Kid Nation, which premieres Sept. 19. On July 16, Television Week revealed that sources in the New Mexico Department of Labor claimed the children worked as many as 14 hours a day and were taken advantage of because of statutes on the books that protected theatrical and film productions from child labor restrictions.
That same week, CBS kept the children and parents away from the media during a news conference in which TV critics grilled creator Tom Forman and the show's host about the legal, moral and ethical issues arising from their unconventional program. Of the 40 children, 12 are 10 or younger and only one is 15; 18 are girls.
CBS' stance is that the children were not employees of the network. Forman, a 34-year-old father of two, likens the experience to "going to summer camp" and says the children, like all reality show stars, "were not working; they were participating" and set their own hours.
None was eliminated, and all were free to leave at any time. (A few did. A request to interview those participants was denied by CBS because of the potential for spoiling story lines.)
"To say that these kids aren't working is absurd," said Mark Andrejevic, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa and author of Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched. "This is a smooth move that reality television has been able to make, and I think the only reason they get away with it is that they're trading on a history of documentary filmmaking. ... In any other industry, this would be called exploitation."
The children were paid a $5,000 stipend each, and some received other financial rewards for challenges.
Forman auditioned thousands of children across the country before settling on 60 to be interviewed in Los Angeles with their parents. Producers held open casting calls but also searched for high-achieving types, including winners of spelling bees and beauty pageants, presidents of student government, 4-H Club leaders and Honor Society students.
The children interviewed this week said they had to rough it without electricity or running water, sleep on bed rolls on the floor, cook their own meals, clean the town, run businesses, survive on three changes of clothes and set up their own hours and rules. Although three said they worked harder than they ever had, all four said the most challenging aspect was getting used to being filmed constantly.
Maria Elena Fernandez writes for the Los Angeles Times.