Thursday, August 23, 2007

Please don't watch this tv show . . .

I haven't been blogging much for a variety of reasons. I've been busy with a new job but, more importantly, I started becoming more concerned about my kids' privacy and safety. Because of their more or less public extra-curricular activities, having personal information about them on the Internet becomes more dangerous for them. Plus I've been feeling ambivalent about my stagemotherness - I don't really care how it might reflect on me but I care how it reflects on the rest of my family. So I decided that when I start blogging again, I need to try to steer clear of more personal things.

So what topic has brought me out of my blogging stupor? My anger at CBS about its upcoming reality show, Kid Nation. (I refuse to link to CBS' website for the show for reasons that will become clear).

CBS took 40 kids and plopped them in a "ghost town" in the middle of the New Mexico desert without running water or electricity for 40 days and asked them to "build" a new society. The parents weren't allowed regular contact - most, if not all of them, were not even in New Mexico during filming (none of the kids were residents of NM). It's no accident that - until recently - New Mexico was the only state without child labor laws. It's also no accident that none of the kids in the production are from California or New York - two areas where parents are more savvy regarding the child labor and safety rules. (And, of course, none of the kids were in the union so union safety and work hour rules didn't apply). This was (apparently) billed to the parents as an experience akin summer camp. Except with cameras on 24/7. And no camp counselors. And no state oversight/permits/inspections.

Here's a recent article from the New York Times about some of the controversy surrounding the show and the contract the parents and kids were made to sign. If you're interested, The Smoking Gun has published the entire contract here. Warning - if the idea of signing away your child's privacy, safety and life story ("in perpetuity and throughout the universe") bothers you, don't read it.

CBS claims the kids weren't "employed" and therefore no work permits were required and they weren't required to follow work safety rules. At least not for the kids. The crew was employed by CBS so presumably their unions had jurisdiction and all safety rules were followed for them. They didn't have to work 24/7. They didn't have to sign away their privacy rights or their right to say whether anything bad happened to them on the job.

CBS also claims that there were plenty of adults around to ensure the kids' safety and well-being. But the main job of every one of those adults was to make good television. All of those people were on the payroll of CBS. None of them were required by law to report signs of child abuse (unlike teachers and doctors). And since the families signed away their ability to talk honestly about their experience (or be liable to CBS for $5 million for breaching their confidentiality agreement), we'll never really know what happened during production. CBS can claim all it wants that nothing bad happened and no one with any first hand knowledge can contradict them without subjecting themselves to significant financial risk.

These kids were out of school for eight to ten weeks without a set teacher or other tutoring. Don't we have mandatory schooling laws in every state? I'm all for the idea that life experiences are as important (if not more important) than classroom learning. But how could parents have known in advance that this experience would be a good one? Sure, it could be a good experience but isn't there a significant risk that it would be a bad experience? Would you take that risk?

One of the reasons this bothers me so much is how it makes "stage parents" look. Just because we allow and encourage our children to act, doesn't mean that we would go to any lengths to get our children on TV or make them "famous" at all costs. Most parents of acting children take their child's safety and mental/emotional well-being very seriously. But these parents signed away their children's rights and their own parental responsibility just so their kids could be on TV. If this show is successful, it tells production companies that the public doesn't care about child safety and welfare on set as long as it's entertaining television. It tells them that it's ok to look for loopholes in the law and union regulations. It sets back children's rights on set immeasurably.

You'll see people compare this to summer camp or boarding school but those are very different. Those are ostensibly in business to educate children in one way or another. In most cases, parents aren't prevented from seeing or speaking to their kids. The kids do not sign away their right to privacy or their life stories. This was a TV show. The purpose is to sell advertising time and make money for CBS and the producers. These kids were exploited - whether they feel that way or not.

CBS is currently casting the second season. From what I understand, the child labor/safety laws in every state (now that New Mexico changed their laws) would prohibit CBS from filming the show (at least the way they did the first season). I don't know where they plan to film the show but they've asked those who are auditioning to bring their passports. Unfortunately, there are still places in the world that allow child exploitation. I'm sure the CBS execs will have fun jetting around trying to pick just the right one.