AS THE FALL TELEVISION season sneaks up on us, all anyone is talking about is CBS’s highly promoted Kid Nation, but for all the wrong reasons.
The scandal surrounds the reality show’s featuring of 40 kids, ages 8 to 15, living on their own in a deserted mining town in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico while cameras chronicle their Lord of the Flies trials and tribulations. Already, editorials condemning CBS have appeared in The Baltimore Sun, New York Daily News and The Boston Globe, which urged viewers to boycott the show and “reestablish the line between entertainment and exploitation.” Meanwhile, several state and union investigations into the show are asking the same questions I am: If CBS were as proud of Kid Nation as the network would have us believe, then why were such pains taken to shoot in secrecy, and do it in a state that did not protect children on show-biz sets, and in such a way that guild rules didn’t apply? I predict that any minute Congress, which back in the 1950s discovered that TV quiz shows were fixed, will use its oversight and subpoena powers and begin a probe as well.
And smack in the middle of all the controversy sits the smart but smarmy Les Moonves, CBS’s chief executive, who is busy talking out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand, I’m told his CBS board of directors has been assured that the company is conducting “an internal investigation” into Kid Nation. A director tells me that CBS has pledged that “everybody is being interviewed. All the footage will be watched. We will give the board a full report on what happened. This is of great concern.” But publicly, CBS is denying allegations it violated any laws or put any children in jeopardy during the production. So how can Moonves stand behind CBS’s denials when its own internal probe has barely begun? Or is there really no internal probe going on? Meanwhile, he hopes to ride the publicity all the way to great ratings for the 13 episodes starting September 19.
CBS’s general counsel only alerted its board about the allegations of child abuse and violations of child safety and labor laws in advance of a tough New York Times article that came out on August 18. Of course, the New Mexico newspapers had been covering the controversy for weeks before that. And TV Week besides. A July 18 Albuquerque Journal article accused CBS of working kids up to 24 hours a day on the set and paying them only $5,000 for the experience. At the same time, TV Week raised early and tough questions of CBS, like why Kid Nation was filming during the school year yet no studio-provided teachers were present, and why were kids working on a major television production with no parents around? The trade also chastised CBS for choosing New Mexico because it has some of the most lenient labor rules governing kids on entertainment productions.
But even as these reports came out, the CBS board was kept in the dark about these problems until just before the New York Times piece, because presumably the company and directors only read that paper. Since the Times piece, “a couple of board members have asked Les questions, and he’s responded,” a CBS source told me. “What Les said to the board is that he’s confident there was nothing inappropriate done and the children were treated very well.” But Moonves doesn’t know that. While some board members were led to expect a serious internal investigation by CBS, it looks to me like the company’s chief has taken a perfunctory look into this at best. “He’s spoken to the executive in charge of the show. He’s spoken to the people involved with the show. He’s seen the show,” a CBS source told me. And if anything further comes up, Moonves will involve himself, the source said.
With news reports of children being hurt on set (one girl was burned while cooking, and four kids drank bleach from an unlocked container; others were rushed to the hospital with god knows what else), such a superficial look into Kid Nation’s production is irresponsible at best and callous at worst. After all, the marketing for the reality show as far back as May boasted how there’s “no adult supervision.” At the time, a Washington Post TV writer made the unfortunate joke, “Heck, where I grew up in Colorado they call that summer camp.” Which is exactly what CBS wanted to fool everyone into thinking.
The local paper hadn’t even heard about the show shooting at the Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch, eight miles from Santa Fe, in April and May until after filming wrapped. Lisa Strout, director of the state Film Office, had the production described to her as “more like a camp” than work. And by calling it a summer camp, the network was able to avoid SAG guidelines too. In other words, CBS took advantage of every loophole in kid-protection laws available. (On July 1, well after Kid Nation finished filming, New Mexico finally enacted legislation in the works for some time governing how children are treated on show-biz productions.)
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MOONVES SHOULD LIFT THE GAG orders on the 40 children and their parents, who signed a 22-page agreement in which a strict confidentiality clause prohibits disclosure of information about the show and contact with the media over the next three years. If violated, a $5 million penalty is levied. I say, if CBS has nothing to hide, then let everyone involved talk freely.
I see that CBS has already rolled out a few kids and parents to the media, primarily because they’re talking positively about their Kid Nation experience. Two Kid Nation Minnesotans, 14-year-old Maggie and 11-year-old Brett, and their mothers (CBS withheld their last names for “security reasons”), recently did interviews arranged by the network. The St. Paul Pioneer Press revealed that Maggie suffered a stress fracture in her thumb during filming. The network has still not acknowledged that injury.
Look, everyone in Hollywood knows that many kids’ parents can’t be trusted to do what’s best when the bright lights of show biz beckon — even more so in the case of Kid Nation, when $20,000 is awarded each week as a “Gold Star” prize to one of the children. So CBS had a duty to take extra precautions to protect those kids, not just protect itself from corporate-liability issues. That’s why I put this scandal squarely on Moonves’ expensively tailored shoulders, even though he’d like to hide behind CBS’s lawyers. Of course, only after The New York Times started to raise questions about Kid Nation did CBS shift into PR-crisis mode (whereas the Los Angeles Times soft-peddled it a day earlier but got tougher after the NYT pushed the envelope). Presently, both papers are competing with one another to beat up on CBS, and rightfully so. And now every New Mexico authority and Hollywood guild is investigating Kid Nation up the wazoo.
For this and so many other reasons, Moonves needs to cancel the broadcast of Kid Nation. And the board of directors needs to make that decision for him. Too many corporate boards are little more than lap dogs. But CBS, which recently split off from parent company Viacom, still has a relatively new board. Six freshman directors have come on since January, and many of them were asked to serve by Viacom boss Sumner Redstone, not Moonves. They should exercise their independence and demand not only a full investigation conducted beyond Moonves’s manipulation but also grill the CBS boss on why he went ahead with this despicable reality show in the first place.