'Nation' of controversy: parents, unions question ethics of reality-show labor practices

by MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ, LA Times

For 40 days, the children of Kid Nation hauled wagons, cooked meals, managed stores and cleaned outhouses, all in the name of building a society in front of reality TV cameras.

Were they working? There doesn’t seem to be a simple answer. But what is clear is that CBS’ new reality venture, which placed 40 children at Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch, eight miles south of Santa Fe, without contact with their parents, has become a flash point in a polarizing television genre.

Scheduled to premiere Sept. 19, Kid Nation has become the subject of several official investigations, highlighting some of the inherent problems in reality television, which keeps costs down by avoiding paying writers and actors. The stakes are high for the networks that profit off the entertainment and for the Hollywood guilds that have joined the Kid Nation fight as the industry girds for a possible strike this year. Reality shows have been an area of concern for the unions because the nonguild members work long hours without health benefits and overtime pay.

“To me, this is the sweat shop of the entertainment industry,” said Jeff Hermanson, assistant executive director of Writer’s Guild of America, West. “What’s happened with Kid Nation is typical and universal, but then it’s that much worse because it’s about children. The exposure that reality television is getting as a result of the Kid Nation case really has much greater import in the big picture.”

It also has shone a light on the common network practice of creating subsidiary companies that can contract with production companies that are not bound by union labor laws and also can shield networks from having their corporate image tarnished.

“The purpose of using these companies is to distance themselves from any liability for labor practices or lawsuits of any kind,” Hermanson said. “But it’s an insidious practice in my opinion because when you look at who is deriving the benefit ... it leads right to the network’s door.”

Last week, after a complaint charging “abuse and neglect” by the mother of a 12-year-old girl who was burned in the face while cooking was made public, New Mexico Attorney General Gary King said he would investigate whether producers lawfully kept state inspectors who wanted to review the children’s work permits from the site. CBS lawyers maintain no work permits were needed because the children “were participating” and “not working” during the filming of the program .

On Aug. 27, the Screen Actors Guild joined the fray, having received calls from parents, members and former young performers who “called and yelled at us because they were really appalled at the way these kids were treated,” said Pamm Fair, SAG’s deputy national executive director.

“We’ve looked at (the contract between parents and producers), and it’s been a long time since we’ve seen such egregious provisions for any performer, let alone children,” she said. “We have a lot of people who are very upset about this show so there may be action down the line to let the network know that people are unhappy about the treatment of children and how it’s reflected in the series.”

SAG is following its union sibling, the American Federation of Television And Radio Artists, which announced it was looking into reports of abuse of children on the set. AFTRA covers the host and announcer of Kid Nation, but the organization is now reviewing the contract between the children and the production.

Although the CBS Corp. board of directors has not met on the issue, board member Linda Griego said members are making inquiries to make sure the laws were followed.

CBS owns the copyright to the show through a subsidiary company, Magic Molehill Inc., which was incorporated in 1995 and has held copyrights to other reality fare on CBS and the CW, the network CBS co-owns with Warner Bros. CBS contracted Good TV Inc., which belongs to Tom Forman, the creator of Kid Nation, to produce the show.

Although Magic Molehill is a nonunion entity, Good TV had agreements with AFTRA to cover the Kid Nation host and announcer, with the Director’s Guild of America for the show’s director and with the Teamsters to cover the drivers. But the production crew was nonunion.

Since Survivor premiered on CBS in 2000, reality TV has shown it can yield a hefty bounty for networks and producers when the shows hit big. But over the years, skepticism has grown about how real the shows were .

Producers have admitted to writing scenarios that contestants are later asked to carry out. And contestants have revealed they work long hours on set and are often asked to do different takes of scenes to make them more interesting or controversial. For these reasons, union representatives argue the shows have writers who should be compensated according to union guidelines, and some contestants are performers who could be covered under collective bargaining agreements.

Like the amateur contestants on game shows, the children of Kid Nation each received a $5,000 stipend — “as a thank you for participating,” says Forman — and some won prizes of $20,000 or more. The participants, ages 8 to 15, hailed from 15 states, excluding California and New York, which have some of the nation’s strictest labor laws.

In an interview Aug. 9, Forman said he avoided children from those states because “as we looked at the labor issues, there were some issues there.” But, he said, “I was OK with it, too, because that’s where I thought we would find kids in the entertainment business, not the all-American kids we were looking for that I think the viewers would relate to.”

Although only one child from the Kid Nation cast has turned out to be a professional actor, almost half have expressed an interest in performing or acting. In interviews, some of the children and parents have said the children did not “work” when they were filmed for 14 hours or more a day because they set their own hours and decided what chores they were going to do without direction from the adults.

In statements to the media last week, CBS expressed support for its show and production. Forman also emphasized in interviews that the children “were not taken advantage of.”

“I think that some of the controversy comes from people who don’t believe that kids are as capable as I know they are,” Forman said. “I saw it in my own kids and I saw it in these kids, that if you let them step up and take responsibility, they are smarter than anyone gives them credit for.”

But reality show producers, citing documentary filmmaking as their inspiration, claim their shows are more than a form of entertainment just to get what they want, said Matthew Andrejevic, author of Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched.

“In order to legitimate the free labor that they extract from cast members, every reality show producer claims that this is some kind of experience where people grow and learn about themselves,” Andrejevic said. “ he producers rely on the tradition of the documentary to make this seem like it’s not exploitation when the only true commitment they have is to turn a profit.”

article originally published at http://www.freenewmexican.com/news/67629.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey