by Jeffrey M. McCall
Congratulations to the viewing public for telling CBS that Americans don’t appreciate a network exploiting kids for crass financial gain. The controversial, misguided and misleading CBS show Kid Nation premiered in mid-September with modest ratings, but in subsequent weeks, the public has rightfully turned away from the show, sending the ratings into the tank. The show has consistently lost audience, down about 25 percent from its debut. In the key 18-49 demographic, the show now finishes last among major networks in the time slot.
The show may just be suffering from the Katie Couric effect – unable to meet lofty expectations created from an over-hyped build-up. More likely, however, is that the public is telling CBS that exploitation of children aged 8-15 in a contrived and bizarre spectacle is bad television, and worse ethically.
This show lost its moral compass while on the drawing board. Imagine you are a parent, and somebody offers you $5,000 to rent your kid for six weeks. You would call the cops. But that is precisely what CBS did with the 40 kids who joined Kid Nation. To get around child-labor laws in New Mexico, the site of Kid Nation, CBS called the operation a summer camp. The show was shot last spring when kids would otherwise have been in school. When the kids first arrived, there was only one outdoor toilet to take care of all of them.
Child-advocacy groups have criticized the show for obvious reasons. Animal-rights groups have complained about an episode in which the kids killed two chickens for dinner. Another show featured the kids chasing and tackling penned sheep to win a contest.
To get their kid on the show, parents had to sign agreements that they wouldn’t sue the network if the child died during the show and that the child would have no privacy except when using the bathroom. Parents also signed away the rights to their kid’s “life story.” Too bad if one of these kids becomes a U.S. senator or makes the baseball Hall of Fame.
The premise that the kids would run their own town is completely disabled by constant adult manipulation. The kids are herded into Survivor-like contests. An adult named the town council leads and orchestrates the town-hall gatherings.
As you would expect if this were television fiction, the kids are characterized and labeled into roles that make for the most drama. One kid is portrayed as bossy, another as lazy and irresponsible, another as a tough guy, another as a nerd, and the floppy-haired kid, of course, is the philosopher. The problem is that this show is not dealing with fake characters. This show is dealing with the lives of real kids. The kid who chose to leave Kid Nation early on will forever be the quitter in the dramatic machination of CBS. The 10-year-old girl who broke down in tears after being scolded and ridiculed by her peers will forever live with that very real humiliation in front of a national audience. The tough kid’s foul-mouthed outbursts, which thankfully were largely bleeped, might not be so funny when he looks back.
With any luck, the downturn in ratings for Kid Nation will persuade CBS to dump this show right now and not proceed with production of Kid Nation 2, scheduled to be shot later this year.
To see the public turning away from irresponsible programming such as Kid Nation is encouraging for all who want higher-quality television. American viewers have power. Public outcry persuaded NBC to cancel the ill-conceived Book of Daniel after just four episodes in 2006. A year ago, an angry public scared Fox network away from ever broadcasting the ridiculous offering of If I Did It, a planned two-part special about O.J. Simpson.
More viewer activism is needed to hold network executives accountable for the way they warp American culture. As consumers, Americans are great at demanding better service at restaurants, but when it comes to the media, we too often fail to voice our opinions. American media can only improve when the public speaks up and gets the attention of network executives in their sheltered board-rooms in New York and Los Angeles.
People who think it isn’t worth their time to speak up should note that the prevailing Supreme Court ruling on broadcasting indecent content was prompted some 30 years ago by a single listener complaint.
Jeff McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University and author of the book Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences