This is the $64,000 question swirling around the CBS reality show that has gotten so much attention during the past few weeks from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the New Mexico attorney general's office. (Variety also has weighed in.) More than the intricacies of the state's child labor laws, more than the question of how and when CBS lawyers responded to inquiries from state officials, the big-picture issue hanging over "Kid Nation" has been the incredulous response provoked in many people by the show's underlying premise: "40 Kids. 40 Days. No Parents."
Show sent 40 kids, ages 8-15, to a ranch in a New Mexico ghost town to live in rustic conditions while establishing their own social order and "government" to set bed times, work skeds, chores and rules, etc.
My personal view of "Kid Nation" has been pretty dim (not being a fan of much reality-competish TV in general), fueled by the sense of over-my-dead-body righteousness that swells when I consider it not as a journo but as the mother of a rambunctious 6 1/2 year old girl.
So what kind of parent would respond to a reality TV producer from Hollywood asking them to enlist their kid in a parent-free social experiment in the painted desert -- during the regular school year, no less? I asked that question of "Kid Nation" exec producer Tom Forman, and frankly I was surprised at how his thoughtful response and description of the conditions during the shoot, took a some of the air out of my indignation. (Not enough to change the over-my-dead-body sentiment as a parent but enough to be more open-minded about the show as a journo.)
"People have very different ideas about what kids are capable of. Certainly, there are parents who wouldn't let their kids prepare a snack for themselves. Those parents wouldn't sign their kids up for this show," says Forman. "We assembled a group of incredibly articulate, incredibly intelligent and very independent kids. And they proved they were capable of much more than people could imagine."
Forman, a reality TV vet known for piloting "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" to mega-hit status for ABC, knew going in that he was working with an out-there concept that was likely to draw some fire from the outside, no matter how earnestly he believed in his vision of "Kid Nation" being a social experiment designed to empower, not exploit. But B.F. Skinner, he's not. He's a Hollywood TV producer pushing a commercial venture for a network seeking to turn a profit. He's also a father.
"I knew from the start that it would be provocative," says Forman (pictured at right with "Kid Nation" host Jonathan Karsch in background.) says. "I think the more interesting issue and the more controversial issue is: Just what kids are capable of?"
As with any television show, casting in "Kid Nation" was crucial. The kids, or "pioneers" as the show dubs them, were recruited in part through standard reality TV open casting-call techniques in various cities. But they were also looking for some very specific types in order to assemble the right mix to give the venture any hope of lasting 40 days. (For bios of the kids and a promo clip of "Kid Nation" click here.)
Producers knew they needed bright kids so they looked for high academic achievers, working with various schools and orgs with programs for gifted and talented kids. They wound up with a spelling bee winner as the show's resident genius. They knew they needed a number of kids from farming backgrounds to handle the animals in the show. They needed kids with lots of experience cooking their own meals to make it through meal times. Forman says he met "face to face with every parent for as long as they wanted to talk. We talked about the structure of the show and the places they'd be living. We talked about the choices they'd be given, and we talked about the kid's (background) and we tried to figure out together whether it was a good match for them and for the show," he says.
As a condition of participating in "Kid Nation," the kids had to arrange with their schools to make up the course work missed during the April-early May shooting sked later this year. If the school balked at the idea, the kid was not cast.
When the kids first arrived in Bonanza City, they were asked to arrange themselves into four "districts," each with a chosen "leader" to help guide their group. The kids organized themselves in a way that surprised producers. No, the older kids were not automatically chosen as leaders, Forman says.
The kids were free to go home at any time, natch. The show is not built around an elimination ritual at the end of each episode, but a "Town Council" meeting in which the kids picked the pioneer worthy of that week's $20,000 "Gold Star" prize.
In response to the allegations that the show was reckless and possibly unlawful, CBS has detailed the precautions and procedures put in place to ensure that adults were ready to step in should real danger arise during the shoot. The safety net included "on-site paramedics, a pediatrician, an animal safety expert and a child psychologist, not to mention a roster of producers assigned to monitor the kids’ behavior."
Producers and the security team had surveillance equipment to keep an eye on the four groups, and they were on patrol the entire time, looking for material for the storylines of the show's 13 episodes, but also looking to defuse any hint of danger, Forman says.
"Our obligation as producers was to give them a chance to do things on their own and to be there to help them if something goes wrong. There were people on the ground moving amongst the kids all of the time. When they were sleeping in their bunkhouses, there were monitors walking up and down outside all night looking up and down the streets to know if someone walked in or out," he says.
The show's promo blurbs have focused heavily on the kids being out on their own, but in reality, adult monitors were visible to the kids in virtually every situation, including during preparation of meals in the central kitchen, Forman says. The complaints that got the attention of New Mexico's A.G. stemmed from the mother of a 12-year-old participant who says her daughter, Divad, did not receive adequate medical care for grease splatter burns she suffered on her face while cooking. But those ever-present monitors are never seen on-camera in the episodes; only host Jonathan Karsch in the Town Council bits, Forman says.
In some ways, the "Kid Nation" controversy has been fanned by the show's marketing spin. Producers were there but tried to stay out of the way and encourage kids to make their own decisions, Forman says.
The Associated Press on Thursday quoted Michael (pictured left), a 14-year-old participant from Washington state, as declaring: "I never for one instant felt uncomfortable or unsafe. We did do some physical work, but it wasn't like we were chained to water buckets all day."
A parent from Chicago, Daphne, told the AP that her 14-year-old son, DK (pictured right), accidentally used bleach when he was mixing a soda drink but felt fine after he tasted it. She said the show was an opportunity for her son to meet kids from other backgrounds.
"These 40 kids were all very different and they learned that the hard way," Forman says. "Some wanted to get down to work right away, some wanted to knock back and enjoy themselves. Some wanted to sleep in late. They had to figure it out on their own," Forman says. "These brilliant kids taught us incredible things every day."