John Moore/Getty Images
Richard Heene, shown at his home in October, pleaded guilty Friday to a felony charge in the "Balloon Boy" case.
Richard Heene, shown at his home in October, pleaded guilty Friday to a felony charge in the "Balloon Boy" case. John Moore/Getty Images
From "Balloon Boy" Falcon Heene to Jon and Kate's eight, children in reality TV shows are often a ratings bonanza — but off camera, child advocates and others are trying to rewrite the script for reality TV amid concerns that youngsters are being exploited.
Mental health experts, child advocates, at least one actors union and others are pushing for a federal law that would standardize work and pay and ensure that increasing numbers of young reality stars are protected.
Child actor turned advocate Paul Petersen said children in reality shows are filmed longer than what's permissible for scripted shows, where cameras aren't always rolling. A Minor Consideration, the advocacy group he founded for young performers, wants to extend the legal protections available for kids in scripted shows to their reality TV counterparts.
"There's a pattern of abuse and exploitation of children in the entertainment industry," said Petersen, noting problems that can be traced all the way back to 1920s film star Jackie Coogan. "That's why we were so touched by the plight of Falcon Heene," better known by many as the Colorado balloon boy.
Attorney Gloria Allred, who joined the push for a federal law, said California closely regulates productions involving children, but elsewhere laws are spotty.
"Some states have no protection for child performers. It's a crazy patchwork quilt of laws throughout the United States," she said.
Balloon Saga Raises Awareness
John Moore/Getty Images
Six-year-old Falcon Heene had been reported to be aboard a helium balloon over Colorado before being discovered hiding at his home.
Six-year-old Falcon Heene had been reported to be aboard a helium balloon over Colorado before being discovered hiding at his home. John Moore/Getty Images
Last month, 6-year-old Falcon Heene became an overnight sensation when his Fort Collins, Colo., parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, placed frantic calls to a local television station, the Federal Aviation Administration and police to report that the boy was onboard a helium balloon that had come untethered from the family's home.
Television cameras tracked the balloon for hours as it pitched and swirled across the Colorado sky. When it came to rest in a field with no one inside, rescue workers scoured a 50-mile swath of countryside, fearing the boy had fallen out.
The story began to unravel within hours. Suspicions were aroused when it was learned the Heenes were two-time contestants on the reality TV show Wife Swap, a program in which mothers from two families with different backgrounds trade places. Later, a CNN interview with the family raised more questions when the boy said the whole thing was "for the show."
Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden accused the Heenes of encouraging their youngsters — Bradford, 8; Ryo, 7; and Falcon — to lie to get the attention of TV producers.
Friday, Richard Heene pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant. Mayumi Heene pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of filing a false report.
Show Participants Raise Concerns
Kevin and Jodi Kreider, who have appeared on the popular TLC reality show Jon & Kate Plus 8, also want federal guidelines for kids. The show followed the lives of Jon and Kate Gosselin and their children — one set of sextuplets and one set of twins.
"Our focus is that laws do need to be passed that protect children for the future," Kevin Kreider, the brother of Kate Gosselin, said on CBS' The Early Show in May.
Kreider and his wife said they were concerned because virtually every aspect of the children's lives took place in front of a camera. When they raised concerns about the effects on the kids, the Kreiders said, they were banished from the lives of their nieces and nephews.
Child psychiatrist and media expert Dr. Michael Brody said allowing cameras to invade children's privacy may cause them to believe there are no boundaries.
"It borders on abuse, and it sets the groundwork for abuse because the child might think that his body doesn't belong to him," said Brody, adding that cameras in the home create confusion over who's in charge — the parents or the producers.
And because their images are widely available on the Internet and on rebroadcasts, children may be vulnerable to criticism and ridicule for years, Brody said.
Florida mother Sheree Silver said clips of her family's 2007 stint on ABC's Wife Swap are posted on YouTube and other sites. In it, swapped mom Ashley Pitney called her surrogate sons — Andrew, 13, and Justin Silver, 10 — "girlie-men" because they sang and danced. The boys were labeled "wimps" and worse in numerous comments on the Internet.
Silver said the show, which was reviewed in the family's hometown newspaper, caused the family a lot of pain. After years of lessons, the boys even lost interest in dancing.
Still, the family decided to do it again, in part, because young Andrew wanted to "redeem" himself — and because the family needed the money. The poor economy forced Silver and her boyfriend to close their store, leaving Silver to support the family through her work as a hypnotherapist and psychic.
"For someone who's struggling, it's a lot of money," she said. The family was paid $20,000 for the first show and $30,000 for the March show in which she traded places with Mayumi Heene.
Despite the money the family was paid, Silver said they are no better off than they were before the show. Every cent went to pay bills, and the way she was portrayed initially hurt her business, she said.
Petersen said child performers are too often deprived of the financial benefits of their labor, and he's very concerned about reality show kids. He's pushing Congress to pass legislation akin to California's Coogan's Law, which requires that a portion of a child's earnings be set aside in a trust.
The law was named for child actor Jackie Coogan, whose parents raided the fortune he earned from movies and promotions and left him penniless as an adult.
Ellen Gonzalez, publicist for the ABC show, deferred comments to Wife Swap's production company, RFD USA. RFD publicist Brooke Fisher did not comment.
Groups Want Protections
Evin Daly, executive director of Child AbuseWatch, has asked Congress to pass legislation regulating the use of children under 16 on reality shows, where they may be subjected to undue anxiety.
"The children participating in these TV shows do so at the will of their parents. They have to deal with both the short- and long-term consequences," Daly said in an August letter to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).
The Gosselins have maintained that their sextuplets, who turned 5 in May, and 9-year-old twins have enjoyed their stint on TLC. But after the couple filed for divorce, Jon Gosselin told show producers they couldn't film the children. "It's not healthy for my kids to be on the show," he told talk show host Larry King. "It's detrimental to them." He also restablished contact between his children and the Kreiders.
Mark Momjian, Kate Gosselin's attorney, attributed Jon Gosselin's remarks to divorce strategy. And he discounted the Kreiders' remarks, saying Jon has acknowledged his wife's excellent parenting skills.
TLC accused Jon Gosselin of pulling the kids off the show because producers planned to diminish his role — a claim he has denied.
The concerns about the family are not new. Earlier this year, Pennsylvania's Department of Labor and Industry's Bureau of Labor Law Compliance began investigating whether Jon & Kate, which is filmed in Pennsylvania, is meeting legal requirements when filming the kids.
Christopher Manlove, spokesman for the agency, said the investigation is continuing, but he declined further comment.
Anne Henry, co-founder of BizParentz Foundation and the mother of a child actor, said children in reality shows are vulnerable to poor wage and labor standards because producers contend they are "participants" or "contestants" — not performers.
The shows also tend to film outside of California and New York — where stronger laws protect young performers — and are most often not union productions, so there aren't mandatory wage and hour standards, she said.
Henry said young reality stars are paid well below the standard rate for union performers and may be given a monetary "prize" or "gift" in lieu of a salary. They may also work longer than child actors, with no allowances for their schooling.
Industry standard for a child's workday — similar for both the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists — are highly structured according to the child's age, Henry said. Kids from 15 days to 5 months can work 20 minutes a day; 6- to 8-year-olds can work four hours, with three hours in school, one hour for rest or recreation and 30 minutes for meals.
Although BizParentz doesn't favor legislation that would impinge on parents' rights, Henry said families should be educated about industry standards if they're working in reality TV.
"The parents who are chosen [for reality shows] are clueless," said Henry, who has counseled reality show parents and appeared in court as an expert. "They're relying on the producers to educate them about how things work — and that's like the fox guarding the henhouse."
Even as actors, children in the entertainment business have only limited protections. Young performers have been exempt from federal child labor laws since the 1938 "Newsie" exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mostly leaves it to the states to regulate child performers.
According to Petersen, 19 states have weak or no laws to protect young performers.
Peterson and A Minor Consideration filed a lawsuit against "Octomom" Nadya Suleman earlier this year to make sure California law is satisfied in Suleman's upcoming show.
The mother of 14 gained fame when she gave birth to octuplets in January. Suleman was unemployed and unmarried when she had the babies, causing a public backlash in California when it was learned she had six other youngsters at home.
Attorney Jeffrey Czech, who represents Suleman, maintained that California law has been followed to the letter. He said Eyeworks has already completed filming and deposited money into the children's accounts.
Czech said Suleman opted for a one-hour documentary, rather than the more intrusive reality show format, because of her concern for her children.
Advocates Say Draft Near
Tom Carpenter, director of legislative affairs for AFTRA, said publicity surrounding Falcon Heene and the Gosselin and Suleman children has thrust the effort for federal legislation into high gear.
Although California and New York have been the country's primary television and movie production centers, other states are entering the mix by offering big tax incentives to lure production companies away from the coasts.
That migration could put more kids at risk and makes federal regulation even more important, Carpenter said. And although the actors unions protect youngsters, most of the reality shows are nonunion productions, he said.
AFTRA and A Minor Consideration have joined Child AbuseWatch.net and others in pushing for standardized financial protections, workplace conditions and hours of work to be drafted by the end of the year.
"We're hoping something good can come out of the recent incidents involving kids in realty shows," Carpenter said.