All that ink spilled over CBS's "controversial" "Kid Nation"? It really wasn't necessary. Some observers and critics have reacted like it's the first time children have been used by a reality show for viewers' entertainment. Hardly. TLC's "Honey We're Killing the Kids" is a far more offensive, potentially damaging program for the way it shows how children might age (via a computer program) if they don't take up better dietary and exercise practices (a good end, but a bad means to achieve positive change).
Should there be concerns about using kids in a reality show? Absolutely. Children should be allowed to be children, not asked to "dance monkey, dance!" as it were. Allowing children to go on a reality show prostrates them before the public in a way that's different from a child who is an actor. A reality show production company can use footage of children in any way the company sees fit, which makes a reality show, where kids are being themselves, a far more dicey proposition than child actors who read lines from a script.
That said, I'm not sure the children on "Kid Nation" encountered anything different from what they would at summer camp, where a child could just as easily drink bleach and spit it out as on the set of a TV show.
Societal concerns aside, "Kid Nation" was pretty much like every other reality show out there. It's "Kids Survivor" as 40 children spend 40 days in a Southwest "ghost town" (also a former movie set). They do "Survivor"-style competitions, have to cook their own meals and govern for themselves through a Town Council.
There are the typical characters -- the leader, the bully, the tomboy -- that you would see in a scripted series about children ages 8 to 15. And there are faux dramatic scenes that smack of prodding by producers, particularly when 14-year-old Michael urges the others to get it together, saying, "You guys realize you're not just representing yourself, this is to prove that kids of all age groups like you guys can take control. Get organized and then you can actually work together cooperatively."
One posititve thing that sets "Kid Nation" apart from adult reality shows is a sense of compassion the kids evince. There are no evictions and the kids are free to leave anytime they want. In the premiere, when picking teams, the children make a concerted effort not to split up friends. And when an 8 year old goes off to cry on his own, an older girl tries to cheer him up. Was she prompted by producers? Perhaps, but I've seen kids behave this way without any encouragement and it's a welcome change to see that sort of positive behavior in prime time.
"I know you're upset because you don't have your family and mom," Laurel tells Jimmy. "I'm gonna try to substitute for them."
Interestingly, the kids on the Town Council proved to be as attuned to strategy as on an adult reality show. They even give a gold star, worth $20,000, to a girl who's been a thorn in their side, perhaps in a bid to win her support.
In the end, "Kid Nation" does not amount to a TV revolution. It's a mildly entertaining reality series designed to encourage controversy to draw viewers and goose ratings. Media scolds played right into CBS's hands.
How did Pittsburgh-set "Back to You" do in the ratings? I'll include the numbers in Friday's Tuned In column if they're available at press time, otherwise I'll post them here.
I sort of suspect it may get trounced by "Kid Nation." It also doesn't help that "Back to You" is a CBS-style show airing on Fox. It didn't work out so well last year when the NBC-style "The Class" aired on CBS. "The Class" lasted just one season.