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Originally published August 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 21, 2007 at 4:50 PM

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Is television's "Kid Nation" exploitation or summer camp?

Just when Americans thought they had seen it all when it comes to reality television, CBS, the oldest-skewing network, has come up with...

Los Angeles Times

Just when Americans thought they had seen it all when it comes to reality television, CBS, the oldest-skewing network, has come up with a humdinger: "Kid Nation."

For 40 days in April and May, CBS sent 40 children, ages 8 to 15 — including three from Washington state — to a former ghost town in New Mexico to build a society from scratch. With no access to their parents, not even by telephone, the children set up their own government, laws and society in front of TV cameras. The goal, according to creator Tom Forman ("Extreme Makeover: Home Edition"), was for "kids to succeed where adults have failed."

One thing at which "Kid Nation" has succeeded already, weeks before its Sept. 19 premiere, is drawing attention. And not all of it positive.

On July 16, Television Week revealed that sources in the New Mexico Department of Labor claimed the children worked as many as 14 hours a day and were taken advantage of because of statutes on the books that protected theatrical and film productions from child-labor restrictions.

That same week, CBS kept the children and parents away from the media during a news conference in which TV critics grilled Forman and the show's host about the legal, moral and ethical issues arising from their unconventional production.

And most recently, an Aug. 17 story in The New York Times reported that one of the participants, Divad, an 11-year-old girl from Fayetteville, GA., was burned with hot grease while cooking during the show. The story refers to a letter of complaint to New Mexico state officials written by Divad's mother, Janis Miles.

Some children who drank bleach that had been left in an unmarked soda bottle required medical attention, according to Miles and CBS, the newspaper noted.

CBS officials defended the show to The New York Times. "We feel very comfortable that this was appropriate from a legal point of view," Ghen Maynard, CBS' executive vice president of alternative programming, told the newspaper on Friday. Of the 40 children, 12 are 10 or younger and only one is 15. Eighteen of the participants are girls.

The Washington state residents are Michael, 14, of Monroe; Mike, 11, of Bellevue; and Sophie, 10, of Issaquah.

"Who is ultimately responsible here, the network that dangles the $20,000 prize in front of these parents or the parents who have allowed or encouraged their children to move forward with this situation?" asked Matthew Smith, chairman of the Department of Communication at Wittenberg University in Ohio and editor of "Survivor Lessons: Essays on Communication and Reality Television."

CBS' stance is that the children were not employees of the network. Forman, a 34-year-old father of two, likens the experience to "going to summer camp" and says the children, like all reality show stars, "were not working; they were participating" and set their own hours.

None was eliminated, and all were free to leave at any time. (In fact, a few did. A request to interview those participants was denied by CBS because of the potential for spoiling story lines.) During telephone interviews this week with four of the children after CBS announced the cast, the "pioneers" revealed they awoke about 6 a.m. to a bell on top of a hill and decided on their own when to turn in for the day. In the evenings, after cooking sometimes for "3 ½ hours or something" on a wood-burning stove, the children relaxed in each other's bunk rooms or threw parties at the town saloon, where they could buy root beer.

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"To say that these kids aren't working is absurd," said Mark Andrejevic, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa and author of "Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched." "This is a smooth move that reality television has been able to make, and I think the only reason they get away with it is that they're trading on a history of documentary filmmaking. ... In any other industry, this would be called exploitation."

The children were paid a $5,000 stipend each, and some received other financial rewards for challenges, but parents interviewed this week said they had no knowledge there was the potential to earn $20,000 gold stars until the children returned. Producers had mentioned hypothetically during the interviews that the children might win products, such as iPods or computers.

"I didn't even ask that," said Peggy, the mother of 12-year-old Laurel of Boston. (CBS, which arranged the interviews, would not release the children's or parents' last names to protect the privacy of the children.) "I don't think that she or I feel that she worked any of the time she was there. For her, it was just her normal everyday. She feels like it was summer camp. ... This was a fun adventure for her."

In the past month, critics also have lambasted the parents, especially those with very young children, for allowing them to take part. But the parents interviewed said part of the reason they felt their children would be safe is that, even though the show's trailers claim there were no adults, there were plenty: The production staff, physicians, psychologists, animal wranglers and wildlife experts were always on hand.

"Any kind of television experience is fraught with potential rewards and detriments," Smith said. "When a parent sends a child into this situation, there's a good chance that it could help the child build self-confidence, build social skills and build a network. But you don't know that going in, because it could be that your child suffers the detriments. It could suggest deficiencies that they have. They could regret the appearance and they could regret the fame."

Forman says he thinks the criticism is "reasonable," considering no one has seen any actual footage. The mothers of three of the children gave their resounding support for the producers and network this week during interviews.

Said Suzanne, the mother of 10-year-old Zachary of Miami Beach: " ... I know that Zachary came home a stronger, more confident and more self-reliant child."

Four weeks before the show airs and the network president learns if "Kid Nation" is the "next big reality hit," as she's been touting, CBS began casting a second season "to get ahead of the curve," Maynard said.

Additional reporting by Seattle Times staff reporter Florangela Davila

Rules of the game

No one on "Kid Nation" ever gets eliminated. So how does this reality competition work?

Producers divided the 40 children into four districts. Every three days, the contestants participated in "showdowns" that determined their jobs and paychecks for that episode. The first-place team earned "upper class" status, $1 in buffalo nickels (the town currency) and could do whatever it wanted. The second-place "merchants" earned 50 cents and ran the stores. The "cooks" were in third place and earned 25 cents to cook all meals and wash dishes. The last team was the "laborers" who earned 10 cents for cleaning the entire town.

If every resident of Bonanza City completed the challenge, the town would get a reward — a choice between something they needed and something they wanted.

The Town Council (one representative from each district) chose the reward and also determined which child deserved to win a gold star worth $20,000 at the end of each three-day cycle.

Los Angeles Times

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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