The Founding of 'Kid Nation'
How CBS Navigated Legal, PR and Logistical Shoals to Produce Key Show
CBS encamped 40 kids in an abandoned New Mexico ghost town for more than a month. The kids performed on camera for more than 14 hours at a stretch, seven days a week, making their own meals.
They were filming during the school year, yet no studio teachers were present. They were working on a major television production, yet no parents were on the set.
The show is CBS’ upcoming reality series "Kid Nation." When rivals first got wind of the concept, they declared the production an impossible endeavor: From a legal, labor, public relations and logistical standpoint, this show should never have worked.
Yet CBS, long considered the most conservative of the broadcast networks, quietly and without mishap shot the first season of "Nation" before the media had even a whiff of what’s become one of the most talked-about series of the fall—and seemingly stayed within the lines of applicable labor laws in the process.
How’d they do it? By literally declaring the production a "summer camp" instead of a place of employment; by taking advantage of a loophole in New Mexico labor rules two months before the state legislature tightened the law, and using a ghost town that wasn’t exactly a ghost town.
Emmy-winning "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" executive producer Tom Forman was bored with the existing crop of reality shows when he had the inspiration for "Kid Nation." Every new series seemed to fit firmly into worn-out templates.
There was nothing that felt like that first season of "Survivor," a head-turning social experiment that changed the rules governing television entertainment.
Moreover, with the viewership of reality veterans "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race" dropping each season, the network that housed Mr. Forman’s production deal, CBS, needed a buzz-worthy new title to complement its more risqué fall dramas.
Networks had produced reality shows with kids before (Disney Channel had a show called "Bug Juice" set at a summer camp that’s not entirely dissimilar to "Nation"). But Mr. Forman and CBS reality head Ghen Maynard wanted to go further than any production had previously attempted in terms of isolating children from adults and the outside world.
"It’s hard to find good adult reality characters. They all know what they’re supposed to do," said Mr. Forman, giving an interview on "Nation" for the first time since CBS’ May upfront presentation to advertisers. "You need participants who didn’t grow up on this stuff."
The network immediately recognized the appeal—and difficulty—of the show. There were a million "what if?" disaster scenarios, such as a child getting injured on the set.
In a television genre known for breakneck turnaround times, "Kid Nation" spent six months in development at CBS as lawyers, labor and production experts vetted the plan.
One key point: Finding the right location. According to the CBS preview, "Nation" charges 40 kids with "fixing their forefathers’ mistakes" by rebuilding the "completely dead ... former mining town" of Bonanza City, New Mexico, into a functioning community.
"Nation" shot at the Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch, a privately owned town setting that has been featured in films such as "Silverado" and "All the Pretty Horses." The ranch was built on the ruins of Bonanza City by various production companies. Although a few original structures remain, the bulk of the town was constructed during the past few decades.
Using a set built for filming not only made it easier for the "Nation" crew, but also was a safer environment for the kids (who ranged from 8 to 15 years old).
But even more important was the state housing the town.
New Mexico has long been considered to have some of the most lenient labor rules governing kids on entertainment productions. Two years ago, TNT ran afoul of Native American groups after extras claimed adults and kids were overworked and mistreated on "Into the West."
On July 1, New Mexico passed legislation closing a federal loophole that had exempted television and theatrical productions from child labor law restrictions.
"We didn’t have anything in our statutes that said they can’t work a child 10 hours a day, so we had hoped that [productions] would operate in the best interests and do what’s best for the children," said Tiffany Starr-Salcido, who specializes in child workplace rights at the New Mexico Department of Labor.
Today New Mexico (like California, New York and most states) has strict limits on the number of hours children can work on a production (18 hours during a school week, and no shooting after 7 p.m.). Many popular filmmaking states also require the presence of studio teachers and a parent or guardian, as well as regular meals.
The New Mexico labor law changes weren’t prompted by "Nation," but they likely will prevent a second season from shooting there.
On "Nation," kids were on camera from dawn till dusk, and then some.
"We would wake up the kids at 7 a.m. and were shooting them until sometimes midnight," said a member of the production crew.
Kids were on the show for seven days a week, for up to 40 days, and were responsible for cooking their own meals. Though there were no teachers or parents (aside from a few at the start of the shoot), an array of physicians and an emergency medical technician were available at all times.
In addition to shooting in a state that didn’t govern child labor on TV shows, the producers legally characterized the show in a unique way to avoid complaints that kids were overworked.
"We were essentially running a summer camp," Mr. Forman said. "They’re participants in a reality show. They’re not ‘working.’ They’re living and we’re taping what’s going on. That’s the basis behind every [legal] document for the show."
Unlike summer camp, however, these kids were paid a $5,000 stipend for completing the production, along with lucrative "gold star" awards won during the shoot.
The summer-camp argument is similar to contract logic on some reality shows shot in a documentary style. There have been lawsuits by reality show participants that hinged on whether they were "employees" or not.
The biggest difference with "Nation" is that such long-form and immersive reality show productions usually cast adults.
As for the number of hours on the set, Mr. Forman said the kids decided their own curfew.
"We were basically camp counselors that followed the kids instead of led," Mr. Forman said. "We were the safety net if things had ever really got out of hand."
Sources agreed that, aside from a minor cooking burn, things never did get out of hand, and that no kids were harmed in the making of the show. In fact, crew members took pains to emphasize that they, and the kids, had an uncommonly positive experience on the set.
"The kids loved it," one crew member said. "Some have been depressed returning to normal life."
As for Mr. Forman, he and CBS are confident "Nation" will attract audiences, and sources said production is already scouting for a second-season cast.
"I expected a lot of off-camera hand-holding, but they just didn’t need it," Mr. Forman said. "The kids were better human beings than you’ve ever seen on television. And when they decide to be mean to each other, they’re horrible. You’re seeing kids at their absolute best and worst."