'Kid Nation' Borders Open To a Flood Of Bad Publicity

"40 children, 40 days, no adults," CBS said when promoting "Kid Nation" in the spring for its fall lineup. (Photos By Monty Brinton -- Cbs)
By Lisa de Moraes
Saturday, August 25, 2007

CBS, which said it wanted to make some noise with its swing-for-the-fences-programming choices this fall, has received manifold blessings from its upcoming reality series "Kid Nation."

Forty kids, ages 8 to 15, were cast, taken out of school for 40 days, placed in a faux ghost town in New Mexico and asked to form their own society and government, a la "Lord of the Flies" -- only without the whole Piggy-death thing.

Not since the race wars edition of "Survivor" has a CBS reality series ginned up so much coverage. Granted, most of it has been negative, but CBS actively courts the kind of reality show that churns out bad press -- "Big Brother," "Armed & Famous," "Survivor" -- but tends to attract an audience younger than the typical CBS crowd.

The news reports on "Kid Nation" to date are the stuff PR-nightmare legends are made of: charges of thwarting child-labor laws; parents signing away their rights to sue if their child dies, is severely injured or contracts a sexually transmitted disease during the shooting; the mother of one child complaining her daughter was burned on the face and not properly treated; several more children allegedly drinking bleach by accident. More proof of the downright cravenness of Hollywood, debuting Sept. 19.

" 'Kid Nation' Parents: What Were They Thinking?" screamed one distraught newspaper headline writer.

"A CBS Reality Show Draws a Claim of Possible Child Abuse," wailed another.

"Is Child Exploitation Legal in 'Kid Nation'?" yet another asked rhetorically, like they meant it to sting.

So great was the media pile-on this week, the New Mexico attorney general's office said that "because of all this publicity and concern we will be putting together some sort of an action plan" in the near future.

"There may be some things we want to know more about," Phil Sisneros, a spokesman for Attorney General Gary King told The TV Column.

It all started in mid-July -- about two months after the show had been announced for CBS's fall prime-time schedule -- when the trade publication TV Week published a story on "how CBS navigated legal, PR and logistical shoals to produce" the reality series rivals said couldn't be done from "a legal, labor, public relations and logistical standpoint."

"How'd they do it? By literally declaring the production 'a summer camp' instead of a place of employment, by taking advantage of a loophole in New Mexico labor rules two months before the state legislature tightened the law," the trade paper wrote, noting that New Mexico has long been considered to have "some of the most lenient labor rules governing kids on entertainment productions." The story cited a member of the production crew saying the kids were woken at 7 a.m. and sometimes shot until midnight.

In addition to taping the series in a state "that didn't govern child labor on TV shows," the article said, the show's creator explained the kids weren't actually working anyway. "We were essentially running a summer camp," exec producer Tom Forman told TV Week. "They're participants in a reality show. They're not 'working.' They're living and we're taping what's going on," he explained. It's the same principle under which other reality series are shot -- but it sure sounds icky when you're dealing with children.

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