'Kid Nation': Reality TV Gone too Far?

CBS show leaves 40 kids to start a new society and stirs up controversy.

ByABC News via via logo
January 08, 2009, 1:43 AM

Aug. 23, 2007 — -- New CBS reality series "Kid Nation" is at the center of controversy.

The show features 40 children, ages 8 to 15, placed in the New Mexico desert with the goal of creating a society. And it's all in an effort to win tens of thousands of dollars in prize money.

The show has raised questions about whether child labor laws were violated and whether or not the children were exploited.

In the spring, a group of parents waved goodbye to their kids and put them in the hands of a television production company for six weeks.

For 40 days, the 40 kids worked to build their own society, free of adult influence and free of many modern-day luxuries: no electricity, no indoor bathrooms and no school. The contestants worked from sunup to sundown every single day — prompting the initial controversy.

At the beginning of filming in April, New Mexico's Workforce Solutions Department received a tip from California, suggesting that it send inspectors to the set to investigate whether child labor laws were being broken.

But the inspectors never made it onto the property. A spokesman for the Workforce Solutions Department says CBS never told any state authority what was happening at the ranch.

"It wasn't until midway through the production that we learned they were actually out there," said Carlos Castaneda of the New Mexico State Labor Department. "We had no idea and that's very unusual when a production comes into New Mexico."

In May, another anonymous complaint came that children "were unattended" and four children had accidentally "drank bleach" while one was "burned in her face with hot grease."

"It sounds to me like these kids were exploited. Think about it. If we have child actors on a movie set or a TV show, their hours, their working conditions are very carefully regulated by the state," Court TV anchor and former civil rights lawyer Lisa Bloom said. "They have to have tutors on the set. These kids were six weeks away from school."

By the time the local sheriff's department tried to investigate, production on the show had ended.

In a statement, CBS says, "The few minor injuries that took place were all treated immediately and by professionals."

Additionally, "Kid Nation" was "filmed responsibly and within all applicable laws," the statement said.

The show's producer conceded, however, that CBS may not have been able to film so easily under stricter laws in other states.

"Kids were in good hands and under good care. … The overwhelming majority of kids are highly enthusiastic and happy," the CBS statement said.

"When you've got kids involved, it does cross a line. It's different. Consenting adults — if you want to make them eat flies or run around in the sand half-naked, they agree to do it. Children is different," said Howard Kurtz, Washington Post media reporter.

Before the children began filming, every parent signed a 22-page contract. After reviewing a copy, The New York Times reported parents had agreed to allow their kids to "do whatever they were told to do by the show's producers, 24 hours a day, seven days a week or risk expulsion from the show."

"There are certain rights that children have, that parents cannot sign away. And if the parents want to file a lawsuit, that can't be signed away by a waiver form," Bloom said.

The contract also included a confidentiality clause, which, according to the Times, extends for three years and carries a $5 million penalty.

When ABC News contacted CBS to speak to parents involved in the show, CBS refused.

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