It's no time to 'Kid' around

CBS should ax new reality series

CBS thought it had a novel idea, one that would resonate with viewers in all demos. "Kid Nation," scheduled to premiere Sept. 19, features 40 children ages 8-15 who try to form a community without adults in a deserted town in the New Mexico desert.

But soon after the reality show wrapped production in May, problems began to crop up.

Government officials in New Mexico began to suspect that labor laws might have been violated. Reportedly, the kids had to put in 14-hour days with little supervision. One girl suffered burns on her face in a kitchen accident; others accidentally drank bleach.

Industry observers began to wonder why the parents of young children would send them to a New Mexico desert for 40 days, entrusting them to producers they barely knew. And they questioned the wisdom of turning youngsters into entertainment fodder before they are old enough to understand how much national exposure might change their lives — and not necessarily for the better.

Initially, CBS execs might have thought the criticism would subside. That hasn't happened. If anything, it has grown more intense. SAG and AFTRA also have raised concerns about how the kids were treated. With each new allegation and announced investigation, CBS and producer Tom Forman are looking increasingly insensitive.

This has all gone far enough. It's time for CBS to cut its losses, apologize for an idea that was well-intentioned but ill-considered and pull "Kid Nation" from the schedule.

It wouldn't be the first time a network scheduled an ambitious or provocative show and then thought better of it. Think Fox's O.J. Simpson exposé or CBS' own miniseries "The Reagans."

As for the expense of pulling the plug, sometimes it just has to be done. The CBS network recently acknowledged as much by reaching a reported $20 million settlement with Don Imus, this after years of encouraging the radio talk show host to be controversial.

Allowing this show on its schedule could further tarnish the public perception of the Tiffany network.

People will want to know why the parents of the "Kid Nation" participants had to sign a 22-page, single-spaced contract that effectively gags them from speaking about the program or risk a $5 million penalty. People will ask why parents would sign a contract that essentially absolves the producers from any responsibility for their child's well-being. (Others, however, might take to task the parents themselves for being overly eager to turn their children into potential celebrities.)

In any case, people will continue to ask why an experience that Forman describes as similar to a summer camp takes place in an area that the contract calls "inherently dangerous."

CBS says that critics are giving the show a bad rap and that safety precautions at the production site rivaled any at the best schools or camps. For one thing, various producers as well as child psychologists and other support staff were on hand throughout the shoot.

But if the support systems were so good, why did CBS and Forman refuse in the contract to take any responsibility for the children's health and safety? And why did they set up shop in New Mexico rather than film under California's more restrictive and protective child labor laws?

In short, there are legitimate questions about whether those in charge put a higher priority on producing a program than on the welfare of the children who were in it.

Whatever might be the ratings for such a show, "Kid Nation" should go if CBS is to avoid getting a black eye.