Kid Nation’ Producer Uses Loophole in Child Labor Laws

kid-nation-dramatizaion.jpg ‘Kid Nation’ Producer Implies Reality TV not Subject to Child Labor Laws Outrage sparked and ethics questioned on child labor issues over CBS Series
By Carmen Wong for Hollywood Today

HOLLYWOOD, CA (rushprnews) July 25, 2007– “We didn’t see a labor problem,” said ‘Kid Nation’ producer Tom Forman, even though children reportedly had to work 14 hours a day, 7 days a week in a boiling hot New Mexico ghost town without parents or teachers during the school year. They have been accused of shooting the series in New Mexico because there was a short-lived loophole in child labor laws in the state.

He justified the show, which put 40 kids in a deserted town and had them build a society a la “Lord of the Flies,” by saying reality shows do not have to even follow Screen Actors Guild guidelines as they use “participants” not actors who are not fed “lines or schedules.” Parents and studio teachers were not allowed to accompany the kids as on most movie and TV productions.

Their actions may have prompted New Mexican legislature to change its bizarre child labor law loophole by shining a bright light on a case tribal Native Americans had brought that their children were being abused. CBS used a loophole in New Mexico law to declare the production a “summer camp” rather than a place of employment, just before the law was changed.

Two years ago, the TNT network ran into trouble with Native American groups when there were complaints that adults and children were overworked and mistreated on the show “Into the West.” Then in July, the New Mexico legislature passed a law closing a loophole that strangely exempted television and theatrical productions from child labor laws.

CBS seems to be reveling in the child labor mistreatment controversy, calling the show “the most talked-about series” coming this fall. But outrage is growing among parents groups as word gets out and CBS may find themselves in an uphill PR battle.

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Reporters confronted Forman when he bowed clips recently from the series at the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills, asking whether or not they had anything to do with the New Mexico child labor law changing.

“We picked New Mexico because it had the right location. We subsequently checked with our attorneys who investigated the legality of shooting the show and reported back that there wasn’t any problem,” said Forman. “One of the issues we run into when we make reality television shows or news and documentaries, the participants is just that. They’re participants. They’re not acting.”

Forman justifies “Kid Nation” further by stating that they shot this show like any other reality TV show. “We went ahead and made this show as we make every reality show with the understanding that they’re going to do whatever they do, and we’re going to tape it. We’re not going to consider them actors. We’re not going to feed those lines. We’re not going to give them set schedules. And on that basis, we didn’t see a labor problem,” said Forman.

The show was unable to be shot in California or New York where the child labor law prevents kids from working over 17 hours a week and kids need at least three hours of mandatory schooling. The New Mexico child labor laws for archaic reasons exempted television studios to follow these same rules.

The show has also been compared to as the reality TV version of “Lord of the Flies.” “The minute we started talking about it, we stopped and said, ‘Are we making a reality ‘Lord of the Flies’?” and said, ‘Well, there will be elements.’ I mean — and I’m not going to deny the comparison — these are kids living on their own.”

Furthermore, the tagline for the show was a bit exaggerated when it stated that the kids will rebuilt the ghost town, Bonanza City. This town is 20 minutes outside of Santa Fe and it used to be an old mining town but it is now the Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch and their were over hundreds of crew members present to watch the child’s every move. There was a lot of support system on the show when the kids are “deserted.” Adults were involved behind-the-scenes—if the goat got hurt or somebody fell and medics were used. The show had pediatricians, child psychologists, and animal wranglers.

“A large adult safety net was there to make sure that if anything happened we had a contingency plan in place. But they woke up whenever they felt like it. They set their own bedtime. And they discussed those things and debated them. So there were mornings they got up early. There were mornings they slept in. We taped whatever happened,” said Forman.

They were all “Mostly standing back and watching the kids with instructions to step in if something was going wrong and anybody was in danger.” said Forman. “All of those people, like any reality show, are there and probably more. I mean, this was as well thought out, i’s dotted, t’s crossed a show as I have ever seen in terms of contingency plans lest any little thing go wrong.”

However, Forman said he was surprised how little the kids needed help from the adults. “I think we were all shocked by how little we had to do for them. And really made a commitment amongst ourselves that we were going to let them do everything they could on their own until we had to step in,” said Forman.

According to Forman another reason they chose Bonanza City was because it was one of the only places that had enough buildings to place all the kids. “We also needed a place with 45 real buildings that these kids could populate and live in safely where we had the flexibility to actually make a television show. So some of the buildings are originals. Some have been built over the last hundred years. A couple we built ourselves when we got there. So it is a mix of old and new all on the site of a real ghost town.”

Prior to entering the show the kids to go through psychological conversations to make sure that they could handle the situation they were going to be put in. “Spend a long time with the child psychology team,” said Forman. “But they spent time and cleared everybody, and there were a number of kids left that we met that they thought could not handle this, and those kids didn’t come.”

Kid Nation is about 40 kids spending 40 days alone in an old mining town with no contact with their family and friends. The show has no vote-off at the end of each episode. The closest thing they have is at the end of each week there is a town hall meeting where kids can raise their hand and say that they don’t want to be here anymore and they want to go home. At the end of each episode one child wins the gold star where they are allowed to call home and speak with their parents. The first season will contain 13 episodes.

“The show chose a variety of different types of children from the whiney, little snot-nosed brats, the smart kids who can build things, and of course kids who have been around barn yard animals so they know what to do with them. We cast it like we would almost any show. Casting associates fanned out across the country and started meeting kids any way they could.

Some through open casting calls, some through going to programs for gifted kids or 4H programs like you’re talking about. Some are regular kids that had some spark in them and a desire to do this and that we sparked to. There is literally every kind of kid there. Forty is a huge number,” said Forman. “They’re from every background. They’re from every economic distinction you can think of.”

The goal of “Kid Nation” is for people to understand that there are things that kids can do just as well as adults if not better. They were looking for a show that would be unpredictable.

“They are, if nothing else, incredibly honest. They tell you what they think. They tell you how they feel,” said Forman “It’s everything that’s best about human beings and, at times, worst, because they really do – they just don’t censor themselves. And it is — you know, I think, for that reason and a number of others, more interesting than almost anything I’ve seen.”

Jonathan Karsh, the host, explains that the kids will be dealing with all the topics that today’s societies have trouble discussing but the forefathers of Bonanza City had no problems working out. “They’re going to talk about religion. They’re going to talk about pollution. They’re going to come up with their solution. Sometimes it stumped them, and I think they did worse than adults today do. Sometime they nailed it and, in a couple of minutes, would solve the problem that adults can’t seem to solve.”

The show flew every parent to set and sat with them as long as they wanted. Some parents thought of the trip as a 40-day vacation from their kids. The parents asked about what the kids would be doing, living, type of food they would be eating, would boys and girls sleep together, medical facilities and etc.

“It really was unlike anything else I’ve ever worked on before, sort of a mutual audition process. We were clearly trying to get to know them and their child. They were also trying to get to know us and make sure they felt comfortable,” said Forman “And everyone we met with opted to go ahead with the show, so it was pretty exciting.”

Forman was the executive producer for other reality TV shows such as “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” and “Armed and Famous.” He has won four Emmys.

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