Unions not welcome in Kid Nation

While it’s true that many parents would like to see their children become a bit more enthusiastic about household chores, they probably wouldn’t want to see them in the kind of world depicted in “Kid Nation,” the new CBS reality TV show. The show debuts Sept. 19.

For six weeks the children of “Kid Nation,” a 2007 version of William Golding’s 1954 novel “Lord of the Flies,” pulled wagonloads of wood, cooked all their meals from scratch and scrubbed outhouses, all to show that they could survive in a brave new adult-free world in front of TV cameras.

Actors’ unions have been describing reality shows as the “sweatshops of the entertainment industry,” because producers keep costs down by not having to pay writers and actors.

What CBS did in “Kid Nation” was create a nonunion subsidiary company, Magic Molehill Productions, which contracted with other nonunion production companies. CBS was thereby able to put out a whole new series, evade union standards and get away with an untarnished corporate image.

Jeff Hermanson, assistant executive director of the Writers Guild of America, wrote in his union’s newsletter that the networks don’t want to talk about these conditions, because they don’t want to address their legal or moral responsibilities.

Christopher Knight, who played Peter 30 years ago on “The Brady Bunch,” said on an MSNBC talk show, “All the TV [production] sets were union in those days. As a child actor I was completely protected by union regulations. My health and safety were paramount, and even as a child, I could not be pushed just to meet production demands.

“These children on ‘Kid Nation’ had none of those protections,” Knight continued.

A complaint charging “abuse and neglect” filed by the mother of a 12-year-old girl who was burned in the face was made public in August. New Mexico’s attorney general, Gary King, says he will investigate why producers kept state inspectors, who wanted to review work permits for the children, from visiting the site.

CBS lawyers claim that work permits were unnecessary because the children were “participating,” not “working.” It sounds almost like Wal-Mart calling its employees “associates” instead of “workers” in order to cheat them out of overtime. (Rather than working at Wal-Mart, they “associate” there!)

The children on the show were paid no more than what amateur contestants on game shows typically get. Each child received a $5,000 stipend for participating.

Tom Forman, the producer of “Kid Nation,” was asked by the Los Angeles Times why all the children on the show came from states with weak labor laws. There were none from California and New York, states with the strongest labor laws, for example.

Forman admitted, “There are labor issues in the big states, but the real problem is that too many kids in those states are into the entertainment business. We were looking for all-American kids our viewers could relate to.”

Union reps argue that “Kid Nation” and all the reality TV shows have writers and actors who should be compensated according to union guidelines and covered by collective bargaining agreements. Lawsuits are pending in California Superior Court on behalf of groups of writers and actors who are charging several nonunion production companies and networks with violations of labor law, including laws governing overtime, wages and meal periods.

“Kid Nation” and all reality show producers are not living up to any kind of tradition of documentary or television film art. They are not providing children, or anyone else for that matter, with opportunities to grow and learn about themselves, as they so often claim. They are exploiting cheap labor and they should be stopped.

jwojcik @pww.org