After a preview of “Kid Nation” — CBS’ upcoming reality show that weds “Survivor” with “The Lord of the Flies” by setting up 40 kids age 8 to 15 in their own isolated community — one viewer spoke for most everybody in the room when she muttered, “Who the hell would let their kids do that?” Well, stage moms, for starters, along with pageant pushers and those who eat bugs and endure various forms of abuse themselves to enjoy a few minutes of fame — though here, their questionable judgment oozes over onto the next generation.
“Kid Nation” is only the latest program to use kids as fodder for fun and profit, which doesn’t make the trend any less disturbing.
Already in the drive to reach beyond dating and elimination games and tap into the voyeuristic allure of family dynamics, we’ve had “Trading Spouses” and “Wife Swap,” “Supernanny” and “Nanny 911,” “Brat Camp” and “Fat Camp,” “Honey We’re Killing the Kids” and “Shalom in the Home.”
The newest wave, inevitably, seeks to one-up those predecessors, from “Kid Nation” to NBC’s British import “Baby Borrowers,” which hinges on having parents “loan” their baby to a teenage couple so the youths can experience what parenting is really like. Not surprisingly, the concept caused a ruckus in the U.K., where Michelle Elliot of the child-protection organization Kidscape dubbed participating parents “bubble-headed” and the entire experiment “absurd.”
“You wouldn’t loan your car to somebody who didn’t know what they were doing,” Elliot said at the time. “Why would you loan your child?”
The truth is that these programs are invariably less perilous than producers and networks would have them appear — much like a theme park ride that seeks to startle with the illusion of danger. The children of “Kid Nation” are surrounded by producers and camera crews, so it requires a certain suspension of disbelief to buy that they’ve been left “alone” to cook, clean and otherwise fend for themselves.
Nevertheless, the emotions roiled up by the experience — and most significantly, the lingering consequences of how these children are depicted on national TV — are real. And while Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth might have to endure being perceived as a bitch due to her behavior (or the editing of it) on “The Apprentice,” there’s a big difference between a grown woman willingly embracing such an image and an 8-year-old possessing the capacity to make the same decision.
Granted, these concepts are specifically designed to provoke — to inspire criticism (though not too much) that will foster media attention, spur curiosity and yield higher ratings. It’s why some media buyers sounded queasy about the shows in their post-upfront analysis — a reticence that tends to fade once something outlandish becomes a demonstrable hit — and why critics frequently feel stupid taking the bait, recognizing a rope-a-dope strategy when we see one.
On both scores, however, it seems misguided for those who examine, produce, schedule or sponsor TV to abdicate their responsibility and allow standards regarding children to slide without at least initiating a discussion about priorities, values and what’s potentially at risk. Calling for guidelines, by the way, might sound good, but would be unworkable. And don’t count on politicians to help, inasmuch as debating reality TV ethics lacks the glowing headlines (Sex! Violence! Smoking!) that traditionally attract them, moth-like, toward pop culture.
Nor should the deliberation be dictated by whether “Kid Nation” is a success (and it’s hard to believe even parents will want to spend that much time watching other people’s brats), because whatever its fate, each wrinkle has a way of emboldening the next project to push further.
So what comes next, “Zygote Hotel?” “Feral Child Island?” Fox — home of the benign “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” — hasn’t unleashed any fresh outrages in a while, so let’s pray nobody there is listening.
Since the genre arose in its modern form, each permutation of reality TV has demanded renewed scrutiny. With “Kid Nation” and “Baby Borrowers,” the inquiry begins (and perhaps ends) by asking a simple question of every executive and producer responsible for such programs: Would you let your kids do it? Almost without exception, my guess is not in a million years.