Does CBS wish it had never heard the words Kid Nation?
When CBS transported 40 whippersnappers ranging in age from 8 to 15 to New Mexico, the purpose of the project was to watch youngsters build an adult-free society. They cooked their own food, washed their own laundry, used outhouses, and even cleaned their own kitchen. And that’s how one participant on Kid Nation (premiering Sept. 19) came to mistake a water-and-bleach solution for ginger ale. He thought it tasted funny, so naturally, he asked three friends to take a swig.
Hey, kids will be kids, right? That bromide is being put to the test now that the bleach incident — as well as the minor grease burns suffered by a 12-year-old girl while cooking on a woodburning stove — has become national news, prompting the New Mexico attorney general’s office to look into whether CBS and Nation‘s producers violated child labor laws. While the office hasn’t launched an official investigation, says spokesperson Phil Sisneros, ”we are reviewing the information that we have.” In a statement, CBS stresses that the kids were ”under good care with…safety structures that arguably rival or surpass any school or camp in the country.” (By the way, the kids who drank bleach are fine.) The flap has upset executive producer Tom Forman, who says he’s ”horrified by reporters’ willingness to throw around phrases like ‘child abuse’…I would caution everybody to dial back their righteous indignation at least until they’ve seen it.”
Fair enough. There’s already plenty of righteous indignation aimed at the parents, who signed a 22-page agreement listing a variety of ways that their child might suffer ”serious bodily injury, illness or death.” While one mom’s complaint about her daughter’s grease burns prompted the current inquiry, most of the parents that CBS put in touch with reporters say they have no regrets. Sam, whose 11-year-old son Guylan appears on the show, insists the contract — which is a fairly standard reality TV show agreement — didn’t frighten him. (CBS is withholding last names for the participants’ privacy.) ”We asked all of the specific questions. If [the contract] says, ‘If your child gets swallowed by a shark, it’s not our responsibility,’ we asked, ‘Will there be sharks?’ ‘No, there aren’t going to be any sharks.’ Okay, so we’re not worried about our kid getting swallowed by a shark.”
By the time Nation does air, the controversy could fade — as when Survivor‘s ”race war” edition premiered to flat numbers last fall. Either way, CBS is stuck in a bind. If Nation is a hit — Forman has begun casting another round, just in case — producers may have trouble finding a place to film season 2. ”They were very stealthy the first time around,” says Carlos Castaneda, spokesman for New Mexico’s Department of Workforce Solutions, which monitors child labor laws. ”I’m interested to see what other state is ready to accommodate them.” So Kid Nation: Guatemala? ”No,” says Forman. ”The idea is to find a place that adults couldn’t make work, and give the next generation a chance. If we get to that point, we’ll be going back to history books looking for places adults screwed up.” Kid Nation: Reality Show Pitch Meeting might be a good place to start.
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