The entertainment industry has strict limits on how children can be used in television and film production. The government imposes workplace safety regulations, limits on working hours, and requirements for educational support, mostly based on abuse that occurred in the industry's history. So why did CBS think that they could haul dozens of kids off into the New Mexico desert for a reality series that explicitly broke all of the rules?
The ads promoting “Kid Nation,” a new reality show coming to CBS next month, extol the incredible experience of a group of 40 children, ages 8 to 15, who built a sort of idealistic society in a New Mexico ghost town, free of adults. For 40 days the children cooked their own meals, cleaned their own outhouses, formed a government and ran their own businesses, all without adult intervention or participation.
To at least one parent of a participant, who wrote a letter of complaint to New Mexico state officials after the show had completed production, the experience bordered on abuse and neglect. Several children required medical attention after drinking bleach that had been left in an unmarked soda bottle, according to both the parent and CBS. One 11-year-old girl burned her face with splattered grease while cooking.
The children were made to haul wagons loaded with supplies for more than a mile through the New Mexico countryside, and they worked long hours — “from the crack of dawn when the rooster started crowing” until at least 9:30 p.m., according to Taylor, a 10-year-old from Sylvester, Ga., who was made available by CBS to respond to questions about conditions on the set.
Taylor and her mother, and another participant and his mother, all spoke enthusiastically about the show and said they believed the conditions on the set were adequate. But Divad, an 11-year-old girl from Fayetteville, Ga., whose mother wrote the letter of complaint and who was burned with hot grease while cooking, said she would not repeat the experience. She said there was no adult supervision of the cooking operation when she was hurt, although there often was an adult “chef” present in the kitchen.
New Mexico's child protection services are not amused. They have indicated that had they known CBS had set up a residential facility for the children, they would have taken steps to ensure that CBS followed the law. In fact, the network never bothered to contact the Children, Youth and Families Department. The state sent a labor inspector to the set, but the producers didn't allow an inspection to occur, according to New Mexico.
This takes child exploitation back to 1930s Hollywood. Regardless of whether CBS thinks this was some grand sociological experiment, the bottom line is that they had these kids working in harsh and apparently somewhat unsafe conditions for fifteen or more hours a day. They provided little adult supervision -- in fact, that was the point of the production -- and no educational support, even though this took place during a school year.
And for what purpose? CBS just wanted another cutting-edge reality series. They wanted "Survivor -- The Elementary School Edition".
And why New Mexico? Well, that's where the story hits at the heart of CBS and Viacom, its parent corporation. New Mexico doesn't have all of those restrictive laws regarding child labor in the entertainment industry. CBS scouted for a location where those restrictions would not interfere with their pursuit of a unique concept that would draw viewers and advertisers. Never mind that those laws in California, New York, and other entertainment centers protect children from exploitative conditions and physical harm.
CBS didn't give a damn about the kids. They wanted the bucks. And they insist that even New Mexico's regular child labor laws didn't apply -- because the children were not employed by the production. They didn't get paid a dime for this blockbuster reality series on network television. Talk about exploitation! (via Instapundit)
Addendum: Yes, I'd like to know what the hell the parents were thinking, too. They should all get investigated by Child Protection Services for their apparently careless approach towards their children. Did the parents get paid off?
UPDATE: The kids did get compensation for this project. They received a $5,000 "stipend" as CQ commenter justme pointed out in the comments. But let's put that into perspective. According to the description from the article, the children worked from dawn to after 9:30 pm every day for the 40 days they were at this camp. Assuming that means 15 hours of work a day, it amounts to 600 hours of work, or around $8:33 per hour -- without overtime.
Using California overtime standards, however, it's much less. The first eight hours get paid at straight time, but anything over than that is paid at time and a half, and anything over 12 hours at double time. That would mean pay-hours for each day would be not 15 hours, but actually 20. Eight hours would be straight pay, the next four would pay like 6, and the last three as 6, too. That actually makes their pay $6.25 per hour.
It also moots the CBS argument that they didn't employ these kids.
UPDATE III: I do like Libby's take at Newshoggers: "I expect their children learned more about responsibility and co-operative living from enduring the hardships, than they will by observing the parents trying to change the rules after the game has already been played."