With the Writers Guild on strike in Hollywood, the forecast for so-called "reality" TV shows has probably never looked brighter. The networks keep attempting to find new programming schticks, and perhaps no "reality" show had a stranger buildup than CBS's "Kid Nation," which drew a pile of negative early publicity for being an alleged labor camp or sweatshop for youngsters in New Mexico.
The publicity put the show on the TV map, but it also largely scared advertisers away from the premiere. But the program itself wasn't exactly "Stalag 17."The show's "reality" plot issimple. In a ghost town called Bonanza City, four different teams of children perform different chores like cooking or doing dishes, and they elect their leaders so we can hear kiddie campaign rhetoric.Each week, the elected team leaders decide which child will win agold star worth $20,000. The whole formula has found a ready-made audience among the 2-to-11 Nielsen ratings demographic.
That doesn't mean it doesn't feel like child exploitation on some occasions. When "reality" show contestants break down and cry on a show like "The Bachelor," lamenting a lost love of the last 17 days, it can be easy to cast a skeptical eye on the emotion-wringing process. But when a 9-year-old girl on this show cries and wants to go home, you feel for her -- and then resent the people fueling their Cadillac Escalade hybrids by manipulating these sob scenes for TV.
Often these "Kid Nation" cast members seem older than their years, sometimes in all the wrong ways. For example, Greg, the show's surly, long-haired bully, unleashes profanity-laced tirades on camera, which the producers bleep out. So why is bleeped profanity necessary? It's not live television. Instead, it's carefully edited into the show. One of the show's girls was shown cursing as well, but at least she apologized for it. It would be nice if the producers apologized for making sure the outburst was broadcast. This is TV about kids, for kids. Would it be so unreasonable to scissor the bleep scenes?
"Kid Nation" is not alone. Other "reality" shows have used bleeped profanity to underline how children are out of control. "Wife Swap," "Supernanny," and "Nanny 911" have all featured bleeping as a plotting exclamation point, an Instant Brat Alert. Bleeping expletives have become so routine on its trip into the cultural mainstream from MTV shows like "The Osbournes" that many parents probably don't even pause when they watch the children on TV spew them.