Desert reality

August 24, 2007

CBS should be ashamed of itself. Taking 40 kids to a New Mexico desert for 40 days of "nation" building, promoting the pint-sized pioneers as the stars of a new reality TV show, and then likening it to summer camp when concerns about child-labor-law violations are raised? Someone at CBS needs a dose of reality.

Campers don't sign contracts, and they don't get paid $5,000 stipends. And they aren't prohibited from talking about their "camp experience." The dust-up over the production of CBS' Kid Nation again unmasks the reality of reality shows, which is that all is not what it seems. That's nothing new, but when children are involved there should be cause for concern.

Here's the setup: A group of children, ages 8-15, are left to fend for themselves in a ghost town in New Mexico. No parents, no teachers, and the kids make all the decisions. "It's totally up to them," says the show's promotional video. But of course, it wasn't.

FOR THE RECORD - A line was dropped from an editorial, titled "Desert Reality," in yesterday's Sun. The final sentence should have read: "The reality - and shame of it - is that the controversy over Kid Nation is sure to make it a hit." The Sun regrets the error.

The contracts signed by children and parents required the kids to do whatever they were told to do, 24/7, or risk being bounced from the show. The producers, Good TV Inc. and Magic Molehill Productions, also could change the portrayal of the children - for effect. And when someone dropped the dime on the production's filming this spring, the New Mexico attorney general's office suggested the state's child-labor laws may have applied to the show. The office is investigating - although the production has long since left the state.

The show's creator has an answer for the attorney general: The kids weren't working at all. It was more like "going to summer camp." Now a parent has raised concerns about the treatment of the children and asked for an investigation. But let's be real; parents who were willing to sign over their kids to the production for 40 days bear some responsibility.

If the children were treated superbly and a good time was had by all, the show's producers should allow the kids and their parents to speak freely. There's a $5 million penalty for breaking the confidentiality clause of their contract.

The reality - and shame of it - is that the controversy over Kid Nation is sure to make it a hit.

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