One of the few new reality shows coming this fall is CBS' "Kid Nation." It's an interesting concept -- sort of a cross between PBS's "Frontier House" and "Survivor Middle School" (or, as one reporter dubbed it, "Survivor Clearasil").
The show takes 40 kids, ranging in age from 8-15, and puts them in a New Mexico ghost town for 40 days without parents. (Though there are literally hundreds of adult crew members, as well as doctors, psychologist and other staff.) The kids' job is to improve the town, all while participating in "Survivor"-like challenges and vying for a $20,000 gold star that's awarded in every episode.
Producer Tom Forman and host Jonathan Karsh (the Jeff Probst of "Kid Nation"), joined reporters Wednesday to discuss the show, and they faced some pretty skeptical and challenging questions.
Reporters were all over a TV Week story by James Hibberd (read it here), which claimed that CBS took advantage of a loophole in New Mexico labor laws, a loophole that has since been closed. You can read Hibberd's piece for more detail, but essentially, he says New Mexico didn't consider TV programs something that could be covered under child-labor laws, so kid could "work" more hours each day than they could in California or New York. (For the same reason, no California or New York kids could be used in the show.)
Forman denied some of the charges, pointing out (correctly) that New Mexico didn't change the law because of the show, and taking issue with a Hibberd-quoted statement from an unnamed crew member claiming the kids worked long days and were woken up by adult staffers. Forman said "the kids woke up whenever they wanted and went to bed whenever they wanted." If you want more detail on that, Hibberd has a good follow-up here. (As one comment points out, Hibberd's piece never said the show was why the loophole was closed, but a critic quizzing Forman did say that, so Forman refuted him.)
A lesser issue that was tossed around was whether Bonanza City, New Mexico was a real ghost town, or a movie set. To me that's a really minor issue, but the truth seems to be that it was a real town in the 1880s, but since then has been used as a movie set, and many of the buildings are not original to the 1880s boom time.
--Forman said kids took a number of tests given by a child-psychology team before being selected for the show, and many kids were rejected. He also said kids were found via casting call and scouting trips. The show hasn't even aired season one yet, but CBS is already casting for a possible second season. Open casting call info is here, an online application is here (.PDF).
--Some critics were worried that the kids were too young to understand that typical reality-show behavior, including the inevitable crying jags and backstabbing of others, would be aired and seen by millions. One cited the classic British documentary series "Seven Up!", which revisits the same group of kids every seven years as they grew, and which has been criticized by some of its participants. "You could brand (a certain child) as "the crybaby on 'Kid Nation'," pointed out on reporter. Forman said although kids did cry, and some did go home early, no one was painted in this light.
--The 40 days of filming was in April and May of 2007, meaning most of the kids missed school for it. Forman says that "in every case we sat with them and talked to the school district to make sure this wouldn't affect them adversarially in any way."
GAEL'S GRADE: Critics were only shown about five minutes of the show, so I can't really grade "Kid Nation" fairly yet. I will say I was much less bothered by some of the issues discussed than some of the other critics were. The show looked like a fun experience for kids to have, but as an adult, I don't know that I'd be interested enough to tune in.