August 17, 2007
By EDWARD WYATT
LOS ANGELES, Aug. 17 — 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.
Her mother, Janis Miles, declined to speak to a reporter.
A New Mexico official whose department oversees licensing of congregant child-care settings said in an interview that the project almost assuredly violated state laws requiring facilities that house children be reviewed and licensed.
The official, Romaine Serna, public information officer for the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, said Friday that CBS had never contacted the agency. If the department had known of the parent’s allegations when the incidents occurred, she said, “We would have responded and would have assured the children’s safety.”
CBS officials say they broke no laws. “We feel very comfortable that this was appropriate from a legal point of view,” Ghen Maynard, the executive vice president for alternative programming at CBS, said in an interview Friday.
Jonathan Anschell, who oversees CBS’s West Coast legal office, said that a state labor department inspector visited the set of the show unannounced during the production. But Carlos Castaneda, a spokesman for the state labor department, now known as the Department of Workforce Solutions, said that the inspector was not allowed on the site and left without inspecting anything.
Mr. Anschell said that after the visit from the labor department inspector, the network contacted the attorney general’s office about its program but was never advised that it was not in compliance with the law.
The question of how CBS accomplished the feat of taking 40 young children into the New Mexico desert for nearly six weeks during the middle of the school year, allowing them almost no contact with their parents, in order to produce a television show has attracted attention. The network has heavily promoted “Kid Nation,” which executives are hoping will be one of its breakout hits this fall.
Almost from the time CBS announced the concept in May, doubts have grown about whether its actions skirted state or federal laws regarding child welfare and child labor. The show’s executive producer defended the project in a heated session with television writers in Beverly Hills last month, but the previously undisclosed allegations of neglect raise questions about how the experience was structured.
It also raises questions about the still-growing genre of reality shows, or unscripted programming as it is known in Hollywood.
As reality producers have been forced to reach further to invent something new or exciting, many shows have apparently left reality behind. The Discovery Channel last month said it would re-edit some episodes of “Man vs. Wild” after a British television network reported that the show’s star, adventurer Bear Grylls, was staying in a hotel on some nights when the show depicted him sleeping in the wild.
The Oxygen cable network heavily promoted a reality show that featured the actress Tori Spelling investing her inheritance from her television producer father, Aaron Spelling, in a bed and breakfast that she was to run with her husband, only to have it later revealed that she never actually bought the property. A lawsuit filed in New York last month charged Gordon Ramsey, star of the upcoming reality show “Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares,” with faking scenes, including hiring actors to pose as customers. The parties were ordered to go to arbitration by a Manhattan judge.
Until “Kid Nation,” no reality show had focused on taking a group of children from their homes and placing them in unknown situations, forced to deal with whatever arises and recording the results.
Just days after the shooting of “Kid Nation” ended, an anonymous letter was sent to the New Mexico governor’s office, the attorney general’s office and the sheriff of Santa Fe County, spelling out the bleach-drinking incident and other potentially harmful circumstances. That was followed three weeks later by a letter from Ms. Miles, the parent of Divad, that detailed many of the same incidents and injuries.
The program, which is scheduled to have its premiere on Sept. 19, was produced on the Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch, located on several thousand acres about eight miles south of Santa Fe. The ranch contains several dozen buildings in various locations, most of which were built for the filming and production of movies like “Into the West” and “Silverado.”
Tom Forman, the executive producer of the show, told television writers last month at the semi-annual Television Critics Association press tour that New Mexico had been chosen because Bonanza Creek offered a unique setting. New Mexico also had no specific regulations concerning the use of child actors in television and film production, which many states, including California and New York, do have.
Though the children spent six weeks away from school in April and May, no tutors were present on the set. Though many states limit the number of hours children can work a day on television productions, Mr. Forman said the children set their own hours.
Ms. Miles’s letter, which requested an investigation into issues of child abuse, neglect and endangerment, was sent to her local sheriff’s office, which forwarded it to the sheriff’s office in Santa Fe County. Greg Solano, the Santa Fe sheriff, said he had investigated the allegations but found no criminal activity. He sent the letter along to civil authorities.
Ms. Serna’s office was among those that received the information, but by that time the production was already packed up and gone from New Mexico. “This type of setting, with 40 kids away from their parents for an extended time, would have required some notice and work prior to actually bringing the children into the state,” she said.
Mr. Anschell of CBS disputed that, saying that the network’s correspondence with the attorney general’s office produced nothing except a warning that as of June 15, state law had been changed to limit the number of hours that children can be on the set of a television production.
Mr. Anschell also said that state labor laws did not apply. “The children were not employed under the legal definition,” he said. “They were not receiving set wages for performing specific tasks or working specific hours.”
But the parents were told before the children left to go to the set that they would receive a $5,000 stipend for their participation. The children also had the opportunity to earn a gold star that was given at the end of each episode — or roughly every three days of filming — that at the end of the session could be turned in for a $20,000 check. In addition, the children were assigned tasks and were paid for those with buffalo nickels, which they could then use to buy items at a dry-goods store or a candy shop or to buy drinks at a root beer saloon.
Nevertheless, Mr. Anschell said, “those were not wages and did not create an employee relationship.”
The children’s definition of work is somewhat different. “Everyone usually had a job,” said Mike, an 11-year-old from Bellevue, Wash., who participated in the show. Among them were cooking, cleaning, hauling water and running the stores, where, he said: “It was hard work, but it was really good. It taught us all that life is not all play and no work.”
Taylor, from Georgia, agreed. “I learned I have to work for what I want,” she said.