The new fall TV season is still several weeks away from launch, but already CBS has got the most talked-about show of the year. Unfortunately, not in a good way.
Scheduled to debut on Sept. 18, “Kid Nation” was supposed to be a slight twist on the standard reality show competition. The idea was to send 40 kids into the wilderness and allow them to create their own Lord of the Flies-style society, drafting their own laws, making their own food, etc. Now at least one parent and the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors are raising concerns about how the series was made.
The show was shot over the course of 40 days during April and May. Publicity claims it was lensed in the abandoned New Mexico ghost town of Bonanza City. In fact, it was filmed on the Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch outside of Santa Fe, a prop-filled outdoor movie set used in dozens of Westerns. Some 40 kids, ages 8-15, were set loose on the site and filmed for up to 14 hours a day, performing assorted producer-created tasks. The children are to be paid $5,000 apiece when the series airs, and one child per episode was awarded a “gold star” by the town’s elected government worth $20,000.
You’d think there are laws preventing children from working 14 hours a day with no teachers and no parents in attendance, and you’d be right. Sort of. New Mexico’s child labor laws specifically regarding child actors didn’t kick in until June 15, shortly after “Kid Nation” left the state. Lawyers for Good TV, Inc., the show’s producers, allegedly assured state officials the children involved were not actors but “volunteer contestants” who were not required to have work permits.
It seems state officials were largely unaware the “highly confidential” show was even being shot here. The New York Times recently quoted officials from the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department and the Department of Workforce Solutions as saying that state law required the show be reviewed and licensed but that CBS never contacted them.
Janis Miles of Fayetteville, Ga., claimed her 12-year-old daughter was splattered in the face with grease while cooking potatoes on a wood stove during the filming and that four other children required medical attention after they accidentally drank bleach on the set. Miles complained to a Georgia sheriff in June. Her allegations were forwarded to Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano, who said his office found “no prosecutable evidence of neglect or abuse.”
In the wake of all this, New Mexico Attorney General Gary King has said he will reopen an investigation into whether CBS and the show’s producers violated child-labor laws and other welfare rules. Defending itself, CBS recently announced, “The series was filmed responsibly and within all applicable laws in the state of New Mexico at the time of the production.” That carefully worded statement quietly acknowledges that what producers did is now illegal. So why did New Mexico wait until after production on “Kid Nation” wrapped to pass legislation protecting child actors? Seems like maybe our politicians are more interested in Hollywood dollars than children’s welfare.