Kids advocate: Show not a 'Nation' of laws


Well, "Kid Nation" premiered on schedule Wednesday night despite the vehement protestations of TV critics and child advocates, and the republic still stands. CBS no doubt got an audience bump from the summerlong controversy that shrouded the reality hour that finds kids age 8-15 recruited to create their own pioneer society from a barren ghost town in New Mexico. But starting now, it's on its own.

The ratings for the opener were solid, if unspectacular, with "Nation" winning the 8 p.m. hour with adults 18-49 and kids 2-11 with a 3.0 rating and 9 share, according to Nielsen Media Research overnight numbers.

Yet despite the seeming tameness of the debut, some who watched it are hardly appeased. And it should surprise no one that those ranks include Paul Petersen, the former child actor who played Jeff Stone on "The Donna Reed Show" in the early 1960s and who has spent most of his adult life crusading to assist onetime child stars who have fallen on tough times. The crown jewel of his efforts is A Minor Consideration, a nonprofit that Petersen formed in 1991 to provide emotional and financial assistance for "young performers past, present and future."

Petersen has not been shy in sharing his feelings about "Kid Nation." And watching it on Wednesday merely served to fuel his rage over a show that he calls "despicable," "shameful" and "a celebration of exploitation and abuse."

It is Petersen's contention that no matter the claims of CBS and creator-executive producer Tom Forman, "Kid Nation" is hardly representative of "reality," taking advantage of the less stringent child labor laws in New Mexico to hire child "performers" who were then "worked 17 hours a day for 40 straight days and paid the mighty fee of $5,000."

"Watching the show on Wednesday only reinforced my disgust and disdain," he says. "It could have been a worthwhile project if the production company had treated these children like the performers they were and allowed them to really do what we were told they were doing -- which is practice nation-building in a controlled setting."

What perhaps rankles Petersen most is how the production was mounted in New Mexico to avoid the more rigorous California child labor restrictions, a fact the producers don't deny.

"You have kids who were taken out of school for six weeks and weren't even provided with a tutor on-set," he charges. "Is that legal? Of course not. Yet somehow, they were able to get it waived. It's also standard industry practice that a parent has to be within sight and hearing of their child at all times during a shoot. It's the law in California. But they didn't bother with that.

"And then I saw on the first show how they're giving away a $20,000 award every week, which in essence turns children who aren't professional into rampant mercenaries. The level these people have stooped to was staggering," he says.

In his and CBS' defense, Forman has contended that the furor is entirely media-created and without merit and that all applicable laws that apply in New Mexico to working kids were adhered to. The network has stood behind the creator.

Petersen promises to keep sounding this particular alarm on behalf of kids "whose parents sold them out." And he's further perturbed by preparations being made for "Kid Nation 2" that's set to go before the cameras by year's end.

"We've got to stop this," he warns, "before more kids are victimized."