Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Lies and Child Exploitation: The Making of "Kid Nation"

Paul Petersen and his organization “A Minor Consideration” are helping to expose a shocking piece of deceit and child exploitation on the part of CBS. The network’s motivation, as so often is the case lately when ethically questionable practices surface in TV production, was the creation of a new reality show.

For once, the show itself was not ethically unbalanced: “Kid Nation” was not designed to reward lies and betrayal like “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” or to let TV audiences make fun of middle class weirdos, as in the wife-swapping shows or “Bridezillas,” or to broadcast the message that women who don’t measure up to a “Cosmopolitan” ideal of beauty are pathetic losers, like the make-over shows. No, the idea behind “Kid Nation” —to put a group of children between eight and fifteen in charge of creating their own community in an abandoned town—sounded like a fascinating and entertaining social experiment. Maybe that’s why the show’s producers and the network decided that getting it on the air justified despicable conduct.

According to a report by James Hibberd on the “A Minor Consideration” website (, the production brought forty children to an abandoned New Mexico ghost town for more than a month. In order to get around the logistical and legal problems of complying with the juvenile labor requirements that govern underage performers, the production designated its activities as a “summer camp.”

This was a misrepresentation; a lie. The kids performed on camera seven days a week, for as much as 14 hours a day. The show’s creator, Tom Forman, sticks doggedly to the “summer camp” cover story. “We were essentially running a summer camp,” Mr. Forman has said. “They’re participants in a reality show. They’re not working. They’re living and we’re taping what’s going on. That’s the basis behind every [legal] document for the show.”

They weren’t working, Foreman says, but they were each being paid $5000 to be filmed on the show from 7 AM to nightfall for a month. It was a “summer camp,” but school was still in session. And just in case someone questioned this deception, Foreman took some other protective measures. All the parents involved had to sign confidentiality agreements, ostensibly to prevent premature revelations about the show after it was on the air, but also to stifle the publication of details that might make the project sound less like a camp and more like what it was: an intense workplace. The production’s choice of New Mexico provided extra insurance: a loophole in the state’s statutes exempted television and theatrical productions from child labor law restrictions. “Kid Nation” wrapped up shooting just before legislation passed on July 1 by the New Mexico legislature would have made its activities illegal.

“We didn’t have anything in our statutes that said they can’t work a child 10 hours a day, so we had hoped that [productions] would operate in the best interests and do what’s best for the children,” Tiffany Starr-Salcido, who specializes in child workplace rights at the New Mexico Department of Labor, told Hibberd. Talk about misplaced trust: when it came to choosing between the potential riches of a hit network reality series and the welfare of the children in their charge, Foreman and CBS quickly opted for profit. Though many of the most popular states for movie production require the presence of studio teachers, a parent or guardian, and the provision of regular meals, “Kid Nation” had none of these. The kids even cooked their own meals…it made for good television, after all.

In an emotional and damning editorial on his site, Petersen, who is the pre-eminent watchdog for the abuse and exploitation of children in the entertainment business, calls for an investigation and raises a series of powerful points and questions:

“Mr. Forman, quoted in USA Today (July 19, 2007) says, “There was a large adult safety net” standing by in case of violence, a la “Lord of the Flies.” Oh really? Who, exactly, was standing by this so-called “summer camp” when all the publicity says the piece was done without adult interference? What are the credentials of this so-called adult safety net? What were they paid and who paid them?”

“…show me the language in any state, particularly New Mexico where “Kid Nation “was filmed over 40 days and nights, that gives anyone the right to waive mandatory educational requirements. “Kid Nation” was taped in the middle of a school year. Can you spell t-r-u-a-n-c-y?”

“…who did the background and fingerprint checks of the production team? The laws for “camps” for children are pretty strict in every jurisdiction I know.”

… who, exactly, was consulted in the New Mexico Department of Labor and Department of Education… Were they told the truth about the absence of supervision…?

“At a minimum the parents of these children…remember, the stars of this production ranged in age from 8 to 15…ought to be questioned on the issue of child neglect. Who told these parents they had the “right” to abandon their children, for any amount of cash, to a bunch of Hollywood-types?”

For their part, Foreman and CBS are relying on rationalizions, irrelevancies and the fact that nothing horrible occurred to deflect the undeniable fact that their production neglected its obligations to the children involved, even if it managed to avoid directly violating the law.

For example, in a recent interview with TV critics, Foreman emphasized that the kids enjoyed themselves. “I exchange e-mails with every one of these kids and they’re doing just great,” he said noting that “almost to a one” they consider it a highlight of their lives. The Scoreboard’s response: so what? Unfair and endangering treatment of minors can’t be justified because the children may enjoy the experience. Kids might enjoy a trip to a bordello; they might have a great time at a casino, in a bar or at a cock fight. This doesn’t make it right for adults to take them to these places, Mr. Forman.

Foreman also was disingenuous in responding to the accusation that the production exploited New Mexico’s labor loopholes. Asked if he set the show in New Mexico because a loophole in its labor laws made the production possible, Forman said that was incorrect, then proceeded to demonstrate that it was correct. The state, he said, was picked because it had “the right location” and attorneys subsequently found no legal issues in shooting there. But “the right location” would have been an impossible location without the legal loopholes. Translate Foreman’s explanation, and the result is: “We shot in New Mexico because the loopholes in the laws let us get away with it.”

Finally, Foreman points to the fact that no children were hurt during the shooting. Well, that’s great, but it doesn’t mean they weren’t exploited, endangered, improperly supervised and over-worked. The fact that there were no significant injuries doesn’t make the production ethical, just lucky.

Americans love their entertainment, and are habitually inattentive to the often unethical, irresponsible, arrogant and even illegal conduct of those who create it. Too often the public outcry only comes after a tragedy, like the on location accident that killed actor Vic Morrow and two children during the shooting of John Landis’ “Twilight Zone” movie. The proper time for outrage, investigation, sanctions and reform is before a tragedy strikes, and as usual, Petersen and “A Minor Consideration” are performing a public service by sounding the alarm about the victimization of forty children in the making of “Kid Nation.” The Scoreboard urges every ethical person, parent and television viewer to help him convince CBS that such conduct will not be tolerated by the American public.

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