A learning lesson from the CBS mess
HAVING DERIDED the “Kid Nation” concept months before it became fashionable, I’m hardly of a mind to defend the series now. Yet since CBS finds itself underneath an increasingly shrill media dog pile, perhaps we can at least transform this mess into an educational experience.The principal lessons don’t involve an overdue discussion about exploiting children as props for reality TV, although the belated outrage is surely welcome. Yet that’s not the big news here, even if drive-by commentators who don’t watch much TV — among them cable news and talkradio hosts — have seized on that element, conveniently ignoring other formats that incorporate kids in questionable ways, from “Nanny 911” and “Wife Swap” to “Honey We’re Killing the Kids.” The more pertinent and mostly overlooked point, rather, involves the Pandora’s Box CBS has inadvertently opened in scrambling to keep the jackals at bay, contending that despite what the promos say, “Kid Nation” isn’t very “real” at all. This marks a notable departure from the customary reality TV brouhaha, in which the network usually fends off charges of rigging scenes with the rejoinder “Pay no attention to those men behind the curtain.” By contrast, CBS has adopted the exact opposite approach, in effect stating, “Wait, did we say these kids were alone creating their own community? We were kidding! This isn’t ‘real’ real. It’s summer camp! Hell, we had teams of specialists standing just out of view the entire time!” This tacit admission carries implications for the entire unscripted genre, where producers have consistently laughed off charges of staging reality and viewers seldom bat an eyelash. From that perspective, the obscured headline amid all the righteous indignation isn’t “Ruthless Network (and Moronic Parents) Endanger Children” but “Sensational-Sounding Reality Shows Not Really Real After All.” “KID NATION” is hardly the only recent production reminding us of this awkward fact, with allegations of deception and potential fraud on A&E’s “Flip This House” — where authorities say an Atlanta con man faked renovations — and Discovery’s “Man vs. Wild,” where the host reportedly slept in posh hotels when he was supposed to be roughing it. Even with those incidents, however, the details to emerge surrounding “Kid Nation” have been striking — underscoring that disbelief needn’t be only suspended to enjoy many of these programs but also beaten up and locked in the closet. Precisely how much latitude producers have can be found in the “Kid Nation” contract posted on thesmokinggun.com. While many have fixated on the cover-your-ass liability language parents accepted, more eye-opening revelations reside in the God-like power producers granted themselves to shape dramatized images of reality. The production company reserved the right to “depict and portray the minor and the minor’s life story either accurately or with such liberties and modifications as (the producer) determines necessary … for the purposes of fictionalization, dramatization or any other purposes, including to achieve a humorous or satirical effect, and by means of actors who may or may not resemble the minor.” Loosely translated, this means, “We can edit this crap to make your kid look goofy and/or ridiculous, and there’s nothing you can say about it.” Oh, and as Columbo would say, one more thing: “The material may be edited, cut, rearranged, adapted, dubbed or otherwise revised or modified for any such purposes by the producers.” And hey, don’t bother with ink, just prick your finger and sign here. ADULTS HAVE LONG agreed to this Faustian bargain in exchange for 15 minutes of fame, but nobody applying such faulty judgment to their children should qualify for “parent of the year” honors. The bigger shock, though, is why viewers buy into obvious manipulation, as witnessed during a summer where the unseen hands of “story producers” (that is, writers) and editors proved so conspicuous many unscripted shows (think “Anchorwoman” and “The Two Coreys”) failed to strike a single convincing note. In this larger context, unscripted TV’s purveyors could come to rue CBS’ vigorous defense of “Kid Nation.” Because once you’ve conceded that what you call “reality” is little more than a puppet show, savvier viewers will become more reluctant to embrace such fabricated drama, even if they don’t immediately see the strings.