LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Reality shows might need to court controversy to succeed, but a spreading hubbub around CBS’ “Kid Nation” suggests that sometimes execs need to be careful what they wish for.
The American Federation of Television and Radio Actors (AFTRA) said Friday that it will probe whether producers of “Kid Nation” violated their union contract with harsh treatment of amateur kid performers on the CBS reality show, set to premiere September 19.
Shot on location at a ghost town in New Mexico, the show assembled a group of 40 kids ages 8-15 who had to fend for themselves by cooking, cleaning and even forming their own local “government.” Questions have been raised about medical care and other conditions during the six-week shoot, which wrapped May 10.
CBS has defended its producers on the show and denied any allegations of mistreatment. But New Mexico authorities said earlier this month that they were looking into the situation, and AFTRA promised to investigate abuse reports.
“We’ve had a number of complaints from some of our members about the reports they have, and we have read press reports about long hours and that sort of thing,” AFTRA spokesman John Hinrichs said. “So we just want to take a good look at it and see if the kids are covered by (AFTRA’s Network Code) agreement.”
As nonpros, the kids don’t belong to AFTRA, but at least one host of the series does, Hinrichs said.
He said union officials intend to “have some conversations with the producers and those types of things” in an effort to determine whether AFTRA guarantees extended to the children performers on the show.
“AFTRA members deplore and condemn the exploitation of children,” national executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth said. “We are concerned about reports of abuse arising from ‘Kid Nation,’ which was produced under the AFTRA National Code of Fair Practices for Network Television Broadcasting.
“Under this agreement, the host, announcer, reporters and other professional performers on reality and contest programming are specifically covered by the terms of the Network Code, while the amateur contestants are generally not,” Hedgpeth added. “AFTRA is investigating whether the terms and conditions of the Network Code were violated in the production of ‘Kid Nation.’ We will take all legal and moral steps available to protect the rights of the performers and children on this program.”
So far, the controversy hasn’t affected the show’s premiere plans.
“There’s no change in the show’s status,” CBS spokesman Chris Ender said.
Amid earlier reports of concerns over the kids’ treatment on location, CBS characterized “Kid Nation” as “a voluntary television experience.”
The network added: “The series was filmed responsibly and within all applicable laws in the state of New Mexico at the time of the production. What was extraordinary about ‘Kid Nation’ was the behind-the-scenes support structure, which included on-site paramedics, a pediatrician, an animal-safety expert and a child psychologist, not to mention a roster of producers assigned to monitor the kids’ behavior.”
As long ago as a July 18 press session during the Television Critics Assn. conference in Beverly Hills, CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler found herself defending the reality series.
“To really get out there and change the landscape of television, you have to sort of stir public debate,” Tassler told the assembled press. “We know we’re going to create some controversy. We know people are going to be talking, (and) it’s good that we’re talking.”