According to CBS, no kids were harmed during 'Kid Nation'

Rick Kushman
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

In today's case of Be Careful What You Wish For, CBS has itself a nice little firestorm over the fall reality show "Kid Nation," which may have broken child labor laws, may have been a fun camp experience and may or may not be worth watching.

"Kid Nation," if you've missed the hollering, promises to take a bunch of kids, ages 8 to 15, and have them create their own society - no grown-ups allowed - as they repair a New Mexico ghost town.

The promos say "40 children, 40 days, no adults" and, yeah, lots of people have made the "Survivor" meets "The Lord of the Flies" joke.

First thing, turns out it was only sort of a ghost town. The trade magazine Television Week reported that the show was filmed in late spring at Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch, a privately owned town used for films like "Silverado" and "All the Pretty Horses." The ranch was built on the site of the Bonanza City ghost town, if that helps.

But, really, who cares. This is reality TV, which is to say, unreal, and don't start down that road. Everyone just calls it "reality." No one expects, you know, realness.

However, in the last few weeks, CBS and "Kid Nation," which premieres Sept. 19, have started hearing some genuine complaints about the production.

CBS may have skirted New Mexico child labor laws by declaring the town a camp and not a working production set. That also meant the kids could shoot for 40 days - 40 very long days - without making arrangements for school or tutors, and that parents did not need to be present.

There have been allegations that one girl was burned by splattered grease while the kids cooked without adult supervision and that the children worked 12-hour-plus days "rebuilding" the town or doing chores.

Last spring, New Mexico had some of the most lenient child labor laws in the country, but it has since made them tougher (in legislation unrelated to CBS and "Kid Nation"). However, since the stories and complaints started showing up in newspapers and on the entertainment "news" shows, New Mexico officials have promised some sort of investigation, although the CBS crew and the kids have long since left.

CBS, meanwhile, has backpedaled some, lifted the curtain some, and because this is more or less Western-themed, circled the wagons.

In July, when CBS execs and "Kid Nation" producers met TV critics, their general attitude about controversy was "bring it on." The operating theory was, any publicity is good publicity, just get the "C," the "B" and the "S" in the right order.

"To really get out there and change the landscape of television," CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler told TV critics, "you have to sort of stir public debate. We know we're going to create some controversy. We know people are going to be talking."

In short, get people hyped about "Kid Nation" any way that works, just like the "Survivor: Race Experiment" a couple of seasons back got lots of publicity.

But when you mess with children, you mess with fire. Media reports have made everyone from the network to the producers to parents sound like kid-eating ogres living under bridges. In recent days, CBS has downplayed the whole "Lord of the Flies" isolation thing.

Basically, the network said in a statement and through its publicity people, the kids were alone only on camera. "These kids were in good hands and under good care," the statement said, "with procedures and safety structures that arguably rival or surpass any school or camp in the country."

And just out of view, CBS said, the place was crawling with grown-ups, including "on-site paramedics, a pediatrician, an animal safety expert and a child psychologist, not to mention a roster of producers." No word on whether there were additional adults to protect the kids from the producers.

It's hard to know exactly what happened there, in big part because the kids and their families signed the standard reality show confidentiality agreement that prevents contestants and their families from saying anything public for three years without permission from the network.

A few kids and their parents have talked to reporters at the behest of CBS and said it was a grand old time. On the other hand, one parent wrote to New Mexico officials to complain about the long hours and weak safety precautions.

When 40 people are involved in anything, you're going to get a mix of reactions to the experience, just as hearing kids complain about being overworked brings up everything from protective instincts to some old-school sentiment that it's about time kids got off their video-game-enlarged rears.

As with anything, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. And as with anything on television, the ultimate arbiter will be the ratings, and on that score, CBS is getting its wish for lots of publicity.


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