While CBS' "Kid Nation" is under scrutiny for its handling of underage performers, another broadcast reality series featuring even younger participants just wrapped production.
Like "Kid Nation," NBC's upcoming "The Baby Borrowers" was shot in a state with relatively lenient child-labor laws that eased shooting the series.
The show is based on a U.K. program where teen couples who are considering parenthood test their caregiving skills. In three-day increments they're given an infant, then a toddler, a pre-teen, a teen and an elderly adult, creating a rapid simulation of parenthood.
Before the original version of "Borrowers" debuted in January, the show caused a furor in the British media, similar to the current "Nation" debate, which has CBS defending itself against claims it exploited New Mexico's lax child-labor laws to produce its show featuring youngsters fending for themselves. Some child-care experts in the U.K. blasted the "Borrowers" concept as putting young children into physical and psychological jeopardy.
But "Borrowers" executive producer Richard McKerrow said his show is a safer production than the CBS program, which featured 40 kids being looked after by show staffers for 40 days. On "Borrowers," the teen caregivers focus on one child at a time, for only a few days at a time. Also, proper childcare is a primary theme of "Baby Borrowers."
"We take extreme care and caution," said Mr. McKerrow of Love Productions, which also produced the U.K. version of the series. "It's an incredibly safe environment. ... It's safer than [daycare]."
"Borrowers," tentatively scheduled to premiere midseason, filmed in Idaho this summer. The state has the same labor-law exemption for entertainment productions involving kids that allowed "Nation" to film in New Mexico last spring. New Mexico passed legislation July 1 to close the loophole, limiting the hours a child can work on a production.
Idaho is considering tightening its laws as well. Those sort of limits would have made filming "Borrowers" in the state more difficult, as the kids in the show were on camera at odd hours.
With CBS under fire for "Nation" and industry insiders split on whether that show's ratings will compensate for its pre-release controversy, the NBC series could take one of several dramatic paths: "Borrowers" could become the second big kids-home-alone reality series to resonate with viewers next season, or it could become another rallying point for critics accusing reality television of overstepping ethical bounds. Or both.
"Borrowers" shot under the code name "Neighbors" in an Idaho suburb where the producers commandeered a cul de sac. Five couples lived in a house rigged with cameras and raise the kids they are assigned. The U.K. version included underage couples, but in NBC's they are all 18 or over.
In addition to stationary cameras in the house, a crew follows the mock family wherever they go. A nanny watches nearby with instructions to take over if something goes awry. The footage is monitored at a nearby command house manned by producers and the borrowed child's parents.
The parents are allowed to re-claim their child if they feel the temporary caretakers are not doing an acceptable job. In the British version of the show, the parents halted the process at least once, though Mr. McKerrow said there were no injuries on either version of the show.
"The parents are the judge and jury of how the kids are doing," Mr. McKerrow said.
Mr. McKerrow said his original "Borrowers" was inspired by Briton's high rate of teen pregnancy. He selected teen couples longing for a baby in order to show young people how difficult parenthood can be.
"You want an adult life?" Mr. McKerrow asked rhetorically. "We'll give it to you. But with it comes responsibility. We give them an adult life on fast-forward."
The first big question Mr. McKerrow faced was whether anybody would be willing to lend their child -- particularly an infant -- to inexperienced teenagers for a television show.
"We wanted people who believed in the educational nature of the show," he said. "We immediately found lots of parents, teachers and psychologists who were willing to help, and we worked with them to design the safety and health measures for the show."
The production mandated that infants be at least 6 months old and have previously experienced some separation from their parents.
After the U.K. show wrapped, it received a storm of press. There were accusations that the children on the show were mistreated, while childcare experts criticized the concept as unnecessarily risky.
Mr. McKerrow said the press embraced the show after the premiere and that "Borrowers" episodes have since been shown in U.K. schools. The show was a success for BBC3, with a second season on order.
"What's fantastic about the series is the teen couples go on these emotional journeys where they start out being quite arrogant and they find out just how hard parenting is," he said. "Hopefully by the end of the show they're a bit more informed about when they want to have babies -- and whom they want to have babies with."
NBC ordered five episodes of the series in March. Craig Plestis, executive VP of alternative programming at NBC, said he liked the show because of its parenting theme.
"I'm not concerned at all," Mr. Plestis said about a possible "Nation"-style backlash. "The producers truly complied with all the state laws. We encouraged all parents to be on set at all times. And it's a big hit in the U.K."
Mr. McKerrow said he set the U.S. version in Idaho because a real estate developer was willing to lend a cluster of houses to the production for free. Labor laws also were a factor, he said.
"Our lawyers said, 'Pick the best location first, because there are 50 states and we don't want to research all of them,'" he said. "Then we looked into whether it was possible or not."
Idaho relies solely on federal standards for child labor, which include an exemption for kids working on entertainment productions that permits long hours. Most states have supplemented the federal laws with their own regulations.
"We rely on the feds to do our child-labor law enforcement," said Craig Soelberg, a program supervisor at the Idaho Department of Labor.
Mr. Soelberg said a committee is in the process of making recommendations to the Idaho state legislature to update child-labor laws.
The changes have nothing to do with "Borrowers," but are simply long overdue, Mr. Soelberg said. The last time Idaho updated its child-labor laws was in 1911, he added.
"Our [entertainment labor] laws haven't been changed since vaudeville," said Kathleen Haase, a film industry specialist at the Idaho Film Office. "For now, they can have at it."
Ms. Haase, who described the "Borrowers" shoot as "very hush-hush," said she has received no complaints about the production. Mr. Soelberg said the same.
Another aspect of the "Nation" controversy involved what participants were paid. On "Borrowers," the production did not pay participants.
Labor laws are set up to protect employees; one factor in determining if a person is employed -- and therefore covered by the law -- is whether he is compensated. By not paying participants, "Borrowers" can argue the show is essentially a documentary.
"We weren't employing them. It was totally voluntary," Mr. McKerrow said.
"Borrowers" doesn't have an air date yet, but NBC said it likely will debut sometime in midseason.
Mr. McKerrow said he's hopeful U.S. audiences will see past the potentially inflammatory description to embrace the show.
"What's really exciting about it is that I don't think there's been a [reality] show on American network television which hasn't gotten an elimination and where people don't get paid," he said. "For all those people who think, 'Oh God, it's another terrible reality show,' I'd say it's got soul to it. It's got a real emotional journey to it."