By Tom Shales
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Television has been exploiting children virtually since it began; a pioneering TV personality named Art Linkletter made hay and plenty of dough proving that "Kids Say the Darndest Things" by interviewing tots and toddlers on his program. The latest chapter in the saga is a long way from the relative innocence of those early days: an appalling monstrosity called "Kid Nation," unveiled on CBS last night amid a flurry of hype and controversy.
Essentially a children's version of the popular reality show "Survivor," the new series, not made available in advance to critics, asks and answers what would happen if 40 children, ages 8 through 15, were plopped down in a desert ghost town and told to fend for themselves. The results were taped, heavily edited and turned into 13 hour-long shows, each ending with the presentation of a $20,000 gold star to one of the kids. That's in addition to the $5,000 paid to each child.
If nothing else, "Kid Nation" will teach them the value of money. Or at least that pursuing it is the noblest activity available to humankind.
Setting up a town economy was one of the first items on the agenda in the opening show, as children took over the empty New Mexico village (often used as a location in western movies) and agreed to play the roles of shopkeepers and customers. It's not so much an exercise in socialization as the indoctrination of children into a consumer culture.
Stratified into four color-coded groups, the ethnically and racially diverse children were assigned such tasks as cleaning and cooking -- but only those in the working classes, green (the laborers) and yellow (the cooks). At the top of the ladder: the upper class (red), with the market class of shopkeepers (blue) right below them. A town "saloon" serves only root beer; aww, isn't that cute? But children have to buy it with real money, the coins parceled out to them according to their predetermined stations in life.
CBS has been advertising and promoting the show with the dubious pledge that "no adults" would be involved in the running of the town, but a big and obnoxious adult named Jonathan intruded several times during the hour, talking with infernal condescension to the kids and shouting entreaties such as "Let's go, pioneers, and welcome to the very first Bonanza City town hall meeting!"
Perhaps that's not such a long way, when you get down to it, from "Hey, kids, what time is it? It's 'Howdy Doody' time!" But the kids in the peanut gallery were given prizes, not cash, and they were all treated as equals.
In "Kid Nation," a kind of politburo, the "town council," whose four members were preselected by producer Tom Forman, decides among other things who gets the 20,000 bucks at the end of each episode (town council members presumably are disqualified). The winner last night was Sophia, 14, who told the crowd in her Oscar-like acceptance speech, "I'm sorry that I've been bossy."
She was then given a key to the only building in town with a telephone and allowed to go call her mommy. Not only did cameras follow her, but so did a dramatic musical soundtrack, welling with emotion as Sophia spoke to her mother on the phone. By some luck, cameras were also present in the mother's kitchen as she accepted the call -- or perhaps reenacted the call later. "Reality" is a relative thing on reality shows.
Earlier, the kids were given a game to play, much as the contestants on "Survivor" and the other shows of its ilk have to plod through ridiculous tests of endurance and athleticism. For the kids, it was the relatively simple matter of pumping colored water out of the ground. At the end the kids got to decide if they wanted, as a special group prize, a TV set or seven portable toilets to supplement the lonely one that had been provided.
One bathroom for 40 children is patently unsanitary, but luckily the children chose more port-a-potties over the fake-looking TV.
Of course, you don't put 40 children together and not come up with adorable stuff. Only one child took the option, offered each week, of going home instead of staying on for the full 40 days: a little boy named Jimmy, 8, who said: "I'm really homesick. I'm not mature enough for this." Announcing his decision to leave, he added, "I thought it would be like a big fun adventure the whole time." No, indeed.
And they really still do say the darndest things: "I really like the young kids," said Michael, a boy of 14. "I think they're fun to have around." When it looked as though they'd have only that one bathroom, one boy said, "I hope I don't have to take a poo, because I am not ever going into that thing."
One of the girls in yellow, and thus assigned to kitchen duty, declared after the first meal was served and cleanup time came around: "I'm a beauty queen. I don't do dishes." Contemplating the choice of the TV over the outhouses, one boy noted, "People are desperate for something to do." Once they were divided into teams, the kids became instantly territorial (or so it was made to appear), prompting one boy to shout, "Screw the blue team!"
One wonders if the mighty arm of the Federal Communications Commission will swoop down and slap that kid with a hefty fine for using bad language. Those children may not have a nanny, but the United States does.
Among the controversies that preceded the first telecast were revelations that four of the children reportedly became sick when they accidentally drank bleach during taping and even questions about whether CBS circumvented child labor laws by taping in New Mexico, which doesn't sound like a very nice thing for a mean old network to do. Parents had to sign waivers that indemnified CBS against, among other things, a child's death. It's all got a very ugly side, uglier even than the reality shows that merely humiliate and torture adults.
Since the first commercial break didn't come until 38 minutes into the show, there's reason to suspect that sponsors, fearing contamination by controversy, stayed away in the proverbial droves -- or one drove at least. Among those who remained: the makers of a "screening kit for vaginal infections," of questionable taste on a show bound to attract viewers as young as its cast.
No matter how the show is criticized or received, however, CBS appears ready to stay with it. The network's Web site is already asking for volunteers to participate in "Kid Nation 2." Wouldn't it be great if there weren't any?