CHILDREN’S TELEVISION WORKHOUSE: According to the Los Angeles Times, CBS President of Entertainment Nina Tassler had been looking for a big buzz show for a couple of seasons, and it looks like she got it with Kid Nation, a show that’s been drawing all kinds of press since before teasers were shown at upfronts in May. Last week, however, Tassler got all the wrong kind of buzz when both the L.A. and New York Times ran stories alleging complaints about the exploitation of children on the show’s set.
The premise for Kid Nation is simple enough – Survivor meets Lord Of The Flies. Forty children between 8 and 15 are “stranded” in a desert ghost town with supplies and a mandate to create their own society; this is reality TV, of course, so the use of quotes is always politic, since no verb or noun really conforms to its dictionary definition when put through the reality TV filter. The word reality, moreover, should probably be pronounced with a theatrical lilt, accompanied by raised eyebrows and a firm nudge.
On Friday, the L.A. Times noted that “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.” The next day, the New York Times noted that “(t)he question of how CBS accomplished the feat of taking 40 young children into the New Mexico desert for nearly six weeks during the middle of the school year, allowing them almost no contact with their parents, in order to produce a television show has attracted attention.”
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The NY Times piece also carried a list of alleged onset accidents that have come to light, including an 11-year-old girl whose face was burned with grease during a cooking accident, and several children who required medical attention after drinking bleach that had been left in an unmarked soda bottle.
“The children were made to haul wagons loaded with supplies for more than a mile through the New Mexico countryside,” said the story, “and they worked long hours — “from the crack of dawn when the rooster started crowing” until at least 9:30 p.m., according to Taylor, a 10-year-old from Sylvester, GA.”
“Can they succeed where adults have failed?” the show’s promo spot asks. Failed at what, one wonders? Five millennia of painfully constructed civilization is no small task, especially one that allows us to enjoy entertainments this painstakingly contrived. One wonder, however, when young Taylor tells the NY Times that “I learned I have to work for what I want” during his time on the show. I had assumed – wrongly, it would appear – that this was the sort of lesson a parent taught a child, and not a network reality show designed to create, as the L.A. Times put it, “water cooler buzz.”