'Kid Nation' Raises Controversy Ahead of Air
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
CBS is getting set for an opening that's only a month and a half away. It's already airing promos for a new reality show called "Kid Nation." The show features children left to manage their lives in an unpopulated town in New Mexico and all on their own. NPR's Kim Masters reports that the show is proving controversial.
KIM MASTERS: At first glance, "Kid Nation" has a concept that seems almost impossible to believe: 40 kids, aged eight to 15, left to govern themselves in an empty town; no contact with parents and no real adult supervision. So when CBS presented the show to a group of television reviewers a few weeks ago, the room was packed, and the critics had plenty of questions for the show's creator.
Unidentified Man #1: You know, these kids are very impressionable ages. You can ruin a kid for life. I mean, you could brand them as the crybaby on "Kid Nation." I just wonder what you would say to people who just fundamentally find the premise of your show objectionable.
Unidentified Man #2: Where did they get their food? Did they kill their food?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MASTERS: And there was, inevitably, this…
Unidentified Man #3: While you were developing this idea, how long was it before "Lord of the Flies" came up? And what specific measures were taken to ensure that, for example, Roger doesn't smash in Piggy's head with a boulder?
MASTERS: Producer Tom Foreman acknowledged that "Kid Nation" brings to mind William Golding's famous novel about the savagery of boys on a desert island.
Mr. TOM FOREMAN (Producer, "Kid Nation"): The minute we started talking about it, we stopped and said, are we making a reality "Lord of the Flies"? And I said, well, there will be elements. And I'm not going to deny the comparison. These are kids living on their own. That said, there are adults off camera waiting to step in if kids got violent. They didn't, we didn't have to, and that's okay.
MASTERS: Foreman said there were plenty of adults on the scene.
Mr. FOREMAN: There are cameramen there. There are producers there. There is a medic there in case something goes wrong. There is a child psychologist there in case they need them. Those people are there.
MASTERS: But they interacted with the children as little as possible. And even though the kids missed more than a month of school, they had no tutors. Still, Foreman said, they were learning new skills.
Mr. FOREMAN: As a parent out there, I was floored every day just by watching these kids get up, light a pioneer-era wood-burning stove, cook a breakfast for 40, do their own dishes, head out to the water pump, get water and bring it back. So just the experiment of the kids living in this world is fascinating to me.
MASTERS: CBS hasn't made a pilot available but provided a long preview that promises conflict and drama.
(Soundbite of TV show "Kid Nation")
Unidentified Man #4: Who does what job is decided in true Wild West fashion, a showdown…
Unidentified Man #5: Man your posts.
Unidentified Man #4: …in every episode. Kid against kid to determine their paycheck and role: laborer, cook, merchant, or upper class.
MASTERS: And "Kid Nation" will deliver emotion, both highs and lows.
(Soundbite of TV show "Kid Nation")
Unidentified Child: What I'm really missing is my brother, because he is in a wheelchair and…
MASTERS: There was plenty of pressure on the kids. They not only have to compete for position but for gold stars worth $20,000. Foreman says a team of psychologists cleared all the cast members. Any child who wanted to go home could, though Foreman admits that was not an easy decision because the kids knew they would not be permitted to return. He declined to say how many left, though some did.
Pediatrician William Coleman hasn't seen the show, but he has reservations.
Dr. WILLIAM COLEMAN (Pediatrics, University of North Carolina): My overall feeling is that it's not a good idea for the younger segment of the crowd.
MASTERS: Coleman specializes in child development and behavior at the University of North Carolina. And while he feels that most older children probably could handle the experience, the younger ones, those eight to 12 years old, probably could not deal with the stress. But they would still want to try.
Dr. COLEMAN: Well, I think it's very seductive, I think, for most kids to be a star, maybe to be discovered. I think most kids would have a hard time saying no to this kind of invitation.
MASTERS: Given their vulnerability to peer pressure, Coleman wonders whether kids really felt free to leave if that's what they wanted, or if they were subject to parental pressure to participate in the first place. Even if the producers explained the premise of the show, he says, it's not clear that any child could understand what that really meant.
Dr. COLEMAN: You can't be too informed as you make that decision. You never can predict what it's going to feel like to be with 40 kids in the New Mexico desert for 40 days.
MASTERS: Robert Butterworth, a child psychologist in Los Angeles, wonders how those kids fared who weren't at the top of the pecking order, or how kids will feel if they were edited out of the show altogether.
Dr. ROBERT BUTTERWORTH (Child Psychologist): I mean, you can screen to make sure the child is not disturbed before they get in, but who's checking to see if the child is having problems when they get out?
MASTERS: There are also legal questions about "Kid Nation." An article in "TV Week" reported that the children were on camera sometimes for more than 14 hours at a stretch, seven days a week. In the session with critics, producer Tom Foreman said, when the show was conceived, the understanding was that the kids were not going to be actors subject to the usual roles.
Mr. FOREMAN: We're not going to feed them lines, we're not going to give them set schedules, and on that basis we didn't see a labor problem.
MASTERS: The show also exploited a loophole in a New Mexico labor law that's since been closed. If there is a second season of "Kid Nation," Foreman acknowledges it's not clear where it would be legal to shoot it.
Kim Masters, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION.
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