I began my career in youth media working at a non-profit magazine for girls called Teen Voices in Boston, MA. In addition to publishing the magazine, we ran youth programs for at-risk low income girls. This was right around the time MTV's Real World was going to film in Boston. They were dangling a lot of money in front of youth programs in exchange for letting cast members "work" on site. I remember being shocked that any youth program would actually apply for this money, hire inexperienced youth workers (who really couldn't care less about the job), and offer up their kids in their program as extras for a reality TV show. An after school program in East Boston took MTV's money and we all got to watch as one cast member was fired for abusing alcohol, two others fought in front of the kids and a third dated the mother of one of the parents.
I continue to be amazed at the lack of ethics that seem to permeate this genre of television when it comes to exploiting minors. Reality shows thrive on conflict -- real or frankenbited. The latest train wreck is CBS's Kid Nation, where "40 Kids [ages 8-15] have 40 days to build a brave new world without adults to help or hinder their efforts." The program is now being accused of possible child abuse for incidents such as kids drinking bleach that had been left in an unmarked soda bottle and an 11-year-old girl burning her face with splattered grease while cooking. There have also been accusations that the program violated child labor laws by having the kids work as many as 14 hours a day. These are just the charges where the show clearly screwed up. It doesn't even begin to include bigger ethical issues raised by a recent article in the Detroit Free Press like:
There are cash prizes. At the end of each episode, the children have a town meeting and award a gold star worth $20,000 to one child. (that's a lot of money for a kid)
What kind of support is going to be around for the kids afterward? What's going to happen once the show airs and the kids are subjected to a lot of scrutiny and possibly some negative scrutiny from TV critics, bloggers or friends?
CBS's goal was simple. They wanted a hit show that generated lots of buzz. It's like Survivor meets Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? I imagine it being pitched by someone akin to Entourage's Ari Gold character. CBS executive Ghen Maynard explained to the L.A. Times (paraphrased by Andy Dehnart at Reality Blurred):
"I thought it could be a way to try to get some attention on a broadcast level for a new kind of show, one that really put young kids to the test," he tells the Los Angeles Times. He also says that criticism from media scholars (who the paper talks to) and others is "reasonable."
The criticism is beyond reasonable, but we can't pin all of the blame for this fiasco on CBS. It's our fame-obsessed culture that somehow makes it ok for parents to agree to let their children participate in these shows and for us to watch them.