Children drink bleach on reality TV

It has been billed as a Lord of the Flies for the reality TV generation. And while that description may be something of a stretch, Kid Nation, the latest reality TV show to grace American televisions, does, at least, share something with William Golding’s 1954 classic: controversy.

With the show airing in the United States on Wednesday, its creators have been beset by a barrage of complaints after one child received a burn to her face while cooking with hot fat in an unsupervised kitchen and four children were given medical treatment after drinking bleach.
The concerns about the safety of the children, who were left to their own devices for 40 days, led the New Mexico state labour board to take an interest in the filming, which finished in May. But an inspector was refused entry to the site, near Santa Fe, on two occasions.

Kid Nation takes Golding’s formula and gives it a contemporary Wild West twist. CBS took 40 children aged 8 to 15 and deposited them in Bonanza City, a derelict mining town in the New Mexico desert. The challenge for the kids was to create a functioning society, complete with a system of government, laws, commerce and, naturally, a class system.

Producers divided the children into four teams, which then competed to end up as ‘upper class” winners, ‘merchants”, ‘cooks” or ‘labourers”. At the end of each week a child was voted the winner of a gold star worth $20 000.

But, while the programme-makers will have hoped to produce a life-affirming espousal of the American way, it has also led to controversy.

As well as the incidents with the bleach and hot fat, CBS and the series production company, Good TV Inc, also countered suggestions that they were violating child labour laws by arguing that the children were not performing specific work for specific wages. The children awoke at 6am every day and typically worked 14 hours per day; they each received a $5 000 stipend.

New Mexico officials have said that the programme-makers did not obtain the correct permit, typically granted to children’s summer camps.

‘We wanted to provide for the safety of children,” a spokesperson for the state labour department said.

The show’s producer, 34-year-old father-of-two Tom Foreman, told a news conference that the children were not subject to the state laws because, ‘they were not working, they were participating”.

CBS offered interviews with parents of some of the children to endorse the claim that the experience had been positive.

‘For her, it was just her normal every day,” the mother of one 12-year-old girl told the Los Angeles Times. ‘She feels like it was summer camp with cameras.”—