When Does Reality TV Become Child Abuse?

Cary O'Dell

Why would anyone, let alone TV producers, construct an environment that might result in hunger, where youngsters have to go to bed with empty stomachs?

1900 House

Frontier House

Jenny Jones


Moolah Beach

A zeitgeist is a zeitgeist. Last year, even PBS jumped aboard the reality TV bandwagon when it imported for US broadcast the Channel 4 series, 1900 House, in which an English family, the Bowlers, were transported back to the Victorian era, stuck for a few months in a house without central heat, electric light or even indoor plumbing.

Despite the fact that on 1900 House, unlike on American reality TV, no one got voted off, there was no grand prize at stake, and no one had to pee on anyone else's leg after a nasty jellyfish bite, House was one of most intriguing series of last year and, by far, the most educational reality show so far produced. (Leave it to Channel 4 to kick our ass with this TV genre too.) Even without the silly stunts of Survivor, 1900 House was about interpersonal conflict. But for the most part, it was a social studies project, in which one family (and a lot of TV viewers) discovered slowly, and sometimes painfully, what life was like for their ancestors at the previous turn of the century.

1900 House proved popular on PBS and, knowing a good thing when it sees one, the network quickly hatched a sequel. Earlier this year, Frontier House premiered, garnering high ratings (by PBS standards, anyway). In this show, a group of US citizens abandoned their modern conveniences (for the women, even their make-up!), loaded up their wagons, and journeyed out to rural Montana to live like Western pioneers, building their own cabins, hunting and growing their own food, milking their own cows, and smoking their own meat. The Frontier House contestants (for lack of a better word) consisted of Mark and Karen Glenn and their two kids; Adrienne and Gordon Clune and their four kids; and one young couple (in fact, they got married on the show), Nate and Kristin Brooks.

Thanks to detailed research and illuminating narration (delivered by the always erudite Susan Stamberg), Frontier House was the most fascinating and least painful American history lesson since the days of Walter Cronkite's cheesy yet informative You Are There. And, this time around, there were enough interpersonal fireworks (mainly between the so-called "grown-ups" of the Glenn and Clune clans) to keep even the most hardcore reality TV junkies watching, even if they were learning historically accurate facts about proper livestock care.


In amongst all the wood chopping, the endless trips to the well, and the hard-learned lessons about 1800s America, Frontier House also, arguably, brought to the genre of reality TV its newest and most disturbing development. And how truly odd that, in the bug-swallowing world of reality TV, PBS, of all the major networks (even FOX!), would be the first to initiate this trend.

The rules governing participation in Frontier House were rigid. No excuses, no cheating, no outside help. As happens every year on Survivor, food, or the lack thereof, became a central issue. And, as on Survivor, everyone lost weight, visibly. One could hardly feel too sorry for Mr. and Mrs. Clune, or Mr. and Mrs. Glenn; they all could spare a few pounds anyway and, moreover, they knew what they were getting into when they signed up for this "experience." But, as the series wore on, the kids began to lose weight too; in fact, they looked like they were wasting away. Poor Logan, the Glenns' little boy, quickly lost whatever baby fat he still had on his frame and, in time, his fragile ribcage became visible under a thin sheath of skin.

Now, I don't consider myself a bleeding heart, but seeing young kids going hungry on TV is not my idea of education or entertainment. As the genre of reality TV has propagated, from its origins in Candid Camera and An American Family, to Survivor and Fear Factor, and have gotten steadily more gross and dangerous in tone, there was one moral issue we never had to grapple with before: What about the children?

The castaways of Survivor, the prisoners/houseguests of Big Brother, the would-be brides of The Bachelor, and even the aging brats of The Real World, have always been over 18, the age of legal consent. If any one of them wants to hang out in the outback, losing inches along with dignity, well, god bless them and god bless America. But, on Frontier House, six of the twelve participants were not yet of age. Not only that, but all of the kids were still very much in developmental growth stages.

Granted, their Moms and Dads were going hungry with them out there on the frontier (perhaps the family that starves together stays together?). But, even if adults have every right to make whatever choices they want about where and how they live, what they eat and if they eat, for these two sets of parents to deny their kids adequate food for the sake of a TV show displays to me a stunning lack of judgment on behalf of the parents (not unlike the current case of Kevin C. Kelly, charged with involuntary manslaughter and child neglect after leaving his toddler to die in his minivan). It also suggests culpability on the part of the PBS producers and executives who, not unlike Randy Yates, seemed to have turned a blind eye to the goings-on in front of them.

Now, I have no doubt that both the Glenn kids and the Clune kids have recovered and suffered no long term effects from their Out-West crash diet, and I have no doubt that, had any sort of severe starvation (the Donner Party comes to mind) or serious illness set in, the producers and PBS would have stepped in to do the right thing, damning the Nielsens in the process. But the question remains: why even chance it? I mean, don't many Americans support charities to prevent things like this? Why would anyone, let alone TV producers, construct an environment that might result in hunger, where youngsters have to go to bed with empty stomachs? This is "entertainment"? This is PBS?

Sadly, though, PBS is not alone in upping the dramatic ante of "reality" on TV, or exploiting children in the process. Last year, again on the heels of the Survivor phenomenon, the ABC Family cable network debuted Moolah Beach, a pre-teen sort of Survivor, hosted by kid game show vet J.D. Roth. In Hawaii, 12 youngsters -- boys and girls, ages 12 to 16 -- formed teams of two and in their junior Road Rules best, competed, via "missions," to win $25,000. After each competition, one team is sent off the show until a final winner is determined. (Sound familiar?)

Still, as the original press for Moolah Beach proudly pointed out: "[P]articipants don't vote each other off. The teens must learn how to work with stranger to win the big prize. They compete with each other, using teamwork, strategy, endurance, and skill." But, because this is a game with a lot of money at stake, because it's a TV show, and apparently because it's never too soon to learn the skills of power networking and backstabbing, some things just didn't change. As one reviewer said about the show at the time, "The kids gossip about each other. Teams are encouraged to form alliances with other teams to get rid of another team."

It doesn't end there. Daytime talk shows are, of course, notorious for their on-air, carefully calculated confrontations and cat fights. Their latest hot topic is on-air DNA testing to prove paternity. Jenny Jones, Montel Williams, and especially Maury Povich, love the "Who's My Daddy?" format. Such shows play out well in the sleazy and highly competitive world of TV talk: the moms and alleged dads already have built-in, highly charged personal histories long before they appear on the air, and then, after each commercial break, there's a readymade confrontation and climax, as test results are revealed. Povich, in particular, seems to enjoy drawing out these results: "When it comes to little Hailey, David.... you.... ARE... the father!"

But as if this exercise in family bonding wasn't bad enough, Povich, et. al., always like to bring the kids in question out (or show them on a big screen) as a kind of on-air visual aid. Audiences regularly "ooh" and "ah" as one infant after another is held up like an item up for bids, or some sort of biological hot potato. It is also especially horrifying when -- inevitably -- the deadbeat dads come out, point to the baby on the screen and yell, "He doesn't look anything like me!" or "That's not my nose! Those aren't my ears!" Thankfully, most of the children are far too young to remember this vulgar show and tell. (Or, at least, let's hope so.)

Then, just when you think talk TV can't sink any lower, along comes a recent episode of Jenny Jones. Now, granted, Jenny has never been known for its restraint or good taste, but certainly a new sub flooring at the bottom of the barrel was achieved a few weeks ago, during a DNA testing show. This time, instead of infants, Jones and company tested the paternity of older children, probably 9 or 10 years of age, who got to sit right there on the stage between their angry moms and could-be/would-be desperate dads. And, yes, the kids were able to participate in the "discussion," coming across like young waifs, wondering aloud why their "daddies" didn't want them. As one can imagine, it was all too pathetic and sad for words.

But as pitiful as these daytime TV talk displays may be, and as emotionally damaging as they may be to the young people caught in the middle of these DNA tugs-of-war, they are not yet physically injurious to them. Again, Frontier House and PBS were the first to bring that type of willful child neglect and harm to the living rooms of America.

So, where are the ethics in cases like this? Should TV hosts and producers practice some form of self-restraint? The answer is, of course, yes. But television is a business and, like all businesses, it's all about supply and demand. As long as somebody (or a whole group of somebodies) will watch it, someone, even PBS, will produce it and air it. And, as we have learned, asking the viewing public -- the same public that has kept Jerry Springer on the air for nine years and made a hit of NBC's Fear Factor -- to police behavior or monitor ethics is practically useless. Apparently, the term "guilty pleasure," so often applied to TV entertainment, can be used as an excuse for all sorts of sanctioned on-air abuse.

As extreme as this may sound, perhaps it's time that our lawmakers, from Congress to the FCC, became involved. Parents starving their kids in a downtown tenement would be arrested and charged with neglect. Just because parents are doing the exact same thing but, this time, on a phony "frontier" and on TV, doesn't mean it's any different. Certainly, to pretend otherwise, is a level of "reality" we can do without.

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