OpEd Columns

Pity the kids as reality TV sinks to pubescent level (Indianapolis Star 9/29/07)

The kids have hit the fan. Kid Nation is on the air.

A shot-for-shot clone of Survivor, reality show #954, Kid Nation sinks to sewer depths previously reserved for gawking at obese losers and laughing at not-so-average Joes.

Call it Survivor Harry Potter. Forty kids (ages 8-15) are dropped off at a New Mexico ghost town for forty days. Sounds biblical.

Meanwhile, their reality-impaired parents head off to work for two months leaving Taylor and Sophie and Kelsey and Blaine at CBS summer camp. One outhouse. No supervision. Sounds irresponsible.

The parents weren’t videotaped. The kids were. And they perform well, as if their absentee guardians clearly taught them the three R’s…Reading, Writing, and Reality TV.

When asked a question, offer a clean sound bite. Hold that reaction shot long enough for the camera to catch you. Always act emotionally immature.

The reality is, like the majority of its predecessors, there‘s nothing real in Kid Nation. It sticks faithfully to the reality recipe for the human zoo genre.

Stick a bunch of personality mismatches alone in a desolate land with beautiful sunsets (or a penthouse pad with bountiful hot tubs). Conjure up a carnival Midway goal attached to a monetary reward. Cleverly edit a phony narrative from testimonial sound bites. Soak it in a passionate musical score. Make sure one poor soul tosses in the towel early. Twist and turn for 13 weeks.

The twist here is that Kid Nation applies adult reality show conventions to the Nick Jr. generation. And that’s where it reeks of exploitation.

It’s one thing to watch a grown adult, who voluntarily abandons his job for six weeks of mosquito infested living, suffer because his teammates choked on the tribal challenge. It’s another to witness eight-year old Jimmy weep uncontrollably on Day Two of Kid Nation, because he just wants to go home and be with Mom and Dad.

At that moment, the herd of field producers in Bonanza City should have gone on strike. Cameras powered off. Kids shipped back to their parents.

Instead, Jeff Probst doppleganger Jonathan Marsh questions Jimmy’s fortitude at the Town Meeting. “This decision is irreversible Jimmy. You can’t change it.”

Sound familiar? Somewhere, Regis Philbin just got a royalty check.

The fact that CBS has taken its reality recipe to prepubescent levels shouldn’t be shocking.  Ask ESPN/ABC/Disney how the ratings for the Little League World Series did. Isn’t fun watching cute kids suffer?

Close up of Japanese pitcher crumbling on the mound after giving up the winning home run.

In adult games, winners and losers are mature enough to handle having their emotional breakdowns documented during prime time. Or at least they signed the release.

For the under sixteen crowd, it’s pure exploitation. And the parents signed the release.

Kid Nation will surely launch a landslide of reality ripoffs. Imagine the future.

Fox commences auditions for Delinquent Daycare. Blissful newlyweds drop their firstborns off at the new chic daycare facility in town, where the lights are on, but nobody’s home.  Not a nanny in sight.

With no supervision, ten-month old Tyler struggles to find his first footsteps as toddler Tasha takes charge. She changes diapers the best she can. But when Tyler cuts his forehead on the table leg, Tasha‘s shaky first aid skills come into question. Tune in next week to find out which infant wins the stack of lottery tickets.

Indeed, the concept of taking adult based reality shows and substituting children as cast members could pay big dividends for reality show producers combing dumpsters for their next hit.

NBC premieres “Diaper or No Diaper”.  Naked two-year olds are fed a glass of prune juice, then let loose on stage as their parents gain big bucks by choosing briefcases (held by scantily clad women) with dollar amounts inside them. Keep going and gain a bundle. But lose it all if Emily goes doodoo before you shout “Diaper”.

CBS may even jump genres with the slick crime scene spinoff CSI: Preschool. ABC begins casting for the seedy “Dancing with the School Janitor”. And MTV features our favorite train wreck in “Britney’s Babies Know Best”.

Reality TV rolls on.

Ted Mandell teaches in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.
Copyright 2007 Ted Mandell

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