When “Kid Nation” premiered on CBS 10 years ago, it was amidst a firestorm of controversy. Ever since the reality series was first picked up, critics and viewers alike were raising questions about the wisdom of putting 40 children — between the ages of 8 and 15 — in a makeshift town and having them fend for themselves without adult supervision.
Addressing the Television Critics Assn. a few months before the premiere, then-CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler took the controversy in stride, saying that in order for a reality show to “change the landscape of television, you have to stir public debate.” CBS’ goal, said Tassler, was to “do something different, and try and reach out and have people talk about the show.” And in that, they certainly succeeded. Here, executive producer Tom Forman talks with Variety about the genesis of the show, his take on the controversy, and whether he’d ever revisit the idea.
Forman, who had won the reality program Emmy two years in a row for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” on rival broadcaster ABC, had an overall deal with CBS, and worried the reality genre was growing stale, wanted to make a big splash with his next show. Forman sat down with then-head of alternative Ghen Maynard to brainstorm ideas. “Is there a fresh casting pool out there?” Forman recalls thinking. “The people we were putting on these shows had watched too many of these shows and were saying what was expected of them. We quickly realized, yes, there was, but they may just be ages eight to 15.”
It was from that conversation that “Kid Nation” was born. Forman, who was a father himself, became fascinated by the idea of what kids would be capable of if allowed freedom of thought. Developing the show during George W. Bush’s presidency also lent itself to the themes he wanted the show to explore. “If you took extraordinary kids and gave them the chance to rethink government or religion or education – these issues that plagued us then and today – what would they come up with if unencumbered by our legacy issues as adults?” Forman says.
A self-professed “history buff” and “fan of social experiments,” Forman says he initially saw the show as a straight documentary series with a large cast. “‘Lost’ was a big hit on TV at the time, and that was sort of how I envisioned this working, too, in that there were hundreds of people stranded on the island, and there were a few key characters front and center of every episode, but at any time someone else could do something interesting and become an episodic or multi-episode arc,” Forman says. “I hadn’t seen that in non-scripted before.”
As Forman began to flesh out details of the show, it became clear “Kid Nation” would have to include game metrics, as well. “Those elements were what you needed to power up broadcast reality series in the development process at the time,” he says.
The show grew into a hybrid that saw the kids moving into bare bones quarters in Bonanza, New Mexico — it was such a ghost town there were no bathrooms, just outhouses. It was in this makeshift town that they lived — eating and sleeping and doing chores – as well as worked, earning money they could spend recreationally. They were guided by a “Pioneer Journal” production left behind, learning to churn butter and even butcher chickens. The town was also where they took part in competitions designed to encourage teamwork, push forward leaders, earn individuals gold stars which could be turned into more practical rewards.
Though the show was not entirely how he initially envisioned it, Forman was not deterred. “Some audience members might not pay much attention to the competitions,” he says. “The part that was amazing and controversial and groundbreaking was the social element and the documentary element as the kids figured it out.”
In order to succeed at the social experiment portion of the show, he knew casting would be key. Finding “remarkable” kids meant outreach with “gifted and talented programs” at schools, rather than casting calls that would net aspiring actors. “It was almost a year of talking to those kids to make sure they were right for the show and talking to their parents to make sure they felt comfortable with what we were about to do,” Forman says.
The parents had to sign a 22-page liability waiver – a document that ended up getting as much press as the show itself because of the legalese that signed away their rights to sue the production company or network if their children were exposed to “unmarked and uncontrollable hazards and conditions that may cause the Minor serious bodily injury, illness, or death” as well as the possibilities of encountering wild animals or extreme weather.
But Forman says the kids were never truly at risk. “They had to be safe and cared for at every turn,” Forman says of the young cast. “It was the only show I’ve ever run and possibly the only show in the history of television that had a full-time pediatrics department. It had counselors – both life and psychological counselors but also our equivalent of camp counselors who were living among the kids at all times but taking a step back when it came to leadership.”
During the show’s short run — it premiered on Sept. 19 and wrapped in early December — the kids were assigned to “districts” and given jobs and spending money according to that class structure. They were encouraged to find ways to hone the rules of their society, and they participated in challenges that often saw them facing a choice of reward or prize – usually pitting a practical option against a luxury. They held town hall meetings where voting was encouraged, and they ended up discussing quite a few of the important topics Forman had hoped they would consider.
“They were taking the mission really seriously. These 40 kids really wanted to reach a consensus about religion and government and the environment, and watching them try to get there was so inspiring,” Forman remembers. “When they were kind, they were just so genuinely kind and good to each other, and that was beautiful to watch.”
However, they were still cliquey, and “when they were mean, they were meaner than any adults could ever be,” Forman acknowledges.
In addition to the controversy that arose from the liability waiver, the performers union AFTRA also took issue with the show and questioned how much autonomy the kids had to say and do what they wanted, versus being directed by the production staff. There were questions about fair compensation and whether the show was adhering to child labor laws. Comparisons to “Lord of the Flies,” which Forman himself didn’t deny at the time, also added to public concerns. Moments of bullying and tyranny dominated screen time, and some of the audience was disturbed by specific adult behaviors some of the kids exhibited (slamming soda like alcohol, wolf-whistling at girls who were walking by, speaking in broken dialects or affected accents to mimic other ethnicities).
“Kids are pathologically honest,” Forman says of watching their personalities play out in an extreme environment. “They were multi-faceted, and candidly, so much of that hit the cutting room floor because we had so much but also given the nature of reality television, we had to service the whole game construct.”
“Kid Nation” was never intended to be a show for kids, although it starred kids, though Forman does say that the idea of parents watching it with their children in order to continue the conversation about real world issues was a big driving factor for why he wanted the show to be on a broadcast network.
Ten years later, Forman isn’t sure if there is room on broadcast for the kind of documentary storytelling where “we’d put the kids together, see what happened, and then find our stories in post” like he initially wanted. “We talk about ‘Kid Nation’ all the time as we develop new shows,” Forman says of his team at his independent global content studio, Critical Content. “We talk about lessons learned about casting and group dynamics and how to run a big show. That was about the toughest show anyone will ever produce!”
Despite all of the backlash, Forman still looks back on “Kid Nation” as a highlight — and says he still has dreams of someday, somehow revisiting it. “Every couple of years I pick up the phone and lob in a call to CBS and see if we should do it again,” Forman says, noting that he still keeps in touch with some of the kids and follows many of them on social media.
But if he were to do it again, he says he’d want to have a bit more of a firm stance on the execution. “I’m talking less about season two or three with a new cast than a ‘Where Are They Now?’ with the kids we had originally,” Forman says. “I think it’s so interesting to see footage of them at eight or nine with snapshots of who they’ve grown into. They were really the best cast I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.”