Sep 19, 2007

"Kid Nation": Summer Camp or Sweatshop?

The controversy over CBS's new program, "Kid Nation," is only the latest installment in the continuing debate over what it means to be a star of reality TV. Ever since 1992, when "seven strangers" first agreed to "have their lives taped" on MTV's long-running hit, "The Real World," commentators have been arguing over whether those featured in these shows are workers -- and, therefore, entitled to be paid for every hour they spend in front of the cameras. In the case of "Kid Nation," the question is particularly important: If these children were working, then CBS was obligated to follow child labor laws in its production.

On "Kid Nation," 40 children, ages 8 to 15, spend 40 days in the high desert of New Mexico, trying to turn a ghost town (actually a movie set used for westerns) into a functioning town that's run by kids. An early sign of possible trouble for the show came in the form of a complaint from a parent, who said that her child was spattered with hot grease while cooking, and other children needed medical attention after accidentally drinking bleach. Soon after, some started wondering in print whether this show was such a good idea after all.

Whatever you think of the show from an entertainment standpoint, the child labor law issue is troubling. Our child labor laws reflect our beliefs that children of a certain age should generally go to school, be protected from hazardous conditions, and be protected from overlong work days. Although the rules are typically quite a bit less strict for child actors and entertainers, New Mexico didn't make this distinction until after the show wrapped. So how did these kids end up working 14+ hour days, during the school year, with no tutor on set, doing strenuous activities like hauling wagons and cleaning outhouses, in conditions that allowed them to drink bleach and get burned by hot oil?

Because they weren't employees, but simply lucky participants in a special adventure, compared to "summer camp" by the show's executive producer. According to Mark Andrejevic, a professor at University of Iowa, (and author of the excellent book, where people grow and learn about themselves." And this is exactly the way some involved with Kid Nation saw it: A parent of one of the children who drank bleach explained that the show was an opportunity for her son to meet kids from other backgrounds.

The obvious problem with this interpretation is that money does change hands: Not only were the children paid (each received a "gift" of $5,000, plus the opportunity to earn more cash), but also the people who created and produced the show earned salaries, and are ultimately working to make money for the television network. When people are paid for their labor, and the fruits of that labor generate profit for the company that signs the checks, that doesn't look like "camp": It looks like work.

The Writers Guild of America says that adults who worked on the show -- including producers and camera operators -- were also victims of wage and hour violations. And here's an interesting twist: Among the workers who were allegedly underpaid were writers. That's right: These purportedly unscripted programs, which we are told feature real people "keeping it real," have writers. Enough writers to file not one, but two class action lawsuits a couple of years ago against several companies and networks, including the production companies behind "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé," "The Real Gilligan's Island" and the never-aired "Seriously, Dude, I'm Gay." Not necessarily the people I would choose to script my journey of self-discovery, but maybe that's just me.

Lisa Guerin