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Kid Nation

        Exhibiting all the scripted smarminess of its genre, “Kid Nation,” the new CBS “reality” show has distinguished itself by prompting an investigation into its compliance with child labor and safety laws.   CBS recruited 40 children between the ages of 8 and 15 and planted them in an abandoned New Mexico town for an experiment in civilization building.  The You Tube promo for the show promises to show us “40 kids with no parents, no teachers, anywhere” coping with “hot button” issues.  Can these “incredible kids” succeed where adults have failed and build a better society, the pitchman asks.  Disney meets Deadwood. 

        The “Kid Nation” story, still unfolding, is being widely reported, and now that CBS is under investigation for exploiting children, it’s “trying to have it both ways,” the New York Times observes; the network is “taking pains to assert that ‘Kid Nation’ was, in fact, crawling with adults: child psychologists, pediatricians and paramedics, all of them closely watching over the children.”  

        Whatever.  CBS’s shamelessness is unsurprising.  I’m more interested in the alacrity with which people sign away their own autonomy (or that of their children) for a shot at celebrity.  Civil libertarians should take note of how little some Americans value what might quaintly be characterized as inalienable rights – the right to speak freely about your own experiences and tell your own life story – or contradict someone else’s version of it.
Consider the terms of the contract signed by the parents of “Kid Nation” contestants, described in the New York Times:

        It “imposes extensive confidentiality requirements on the parents and the children, including that any interviews they grant must be approved by CBS. Those confidentiality conditions extend for three years beyond the end of the show, not the individual 13-episode cycle in which a child participates but the entire series, however many cycles it includes. The producers of ‘Kid Nation’ have already begun interviewing children to take part in the second installment.”
       
    “Violating the confidentiality agreement carries a $5 million penalty. CBS and the production companies, Good TV Inc. and Magic Molehill Productions, retained the rights to the children’s life stories “in perpetuity and throughout the universe.” And that right includes the right to portray the children either accurately or with fictionalization ‘to achieve a humorous or satirical effect.’”

       
        Parents also “agreed not to hold the producers and CBS responsible if their children died or were injured, if they received inadequate medical care, or if their housing was unsafe and caused injury.” 
      
    This, in a society obsessed with child abuse: for a lousy $5000 stipend and the possibility of winning an additional $20,000, CBS purchased from parents immunity from liability for killing or injuring their children as well as the right to broadcast outright lies about their kids, forever, in this or any other galaxy:  “in perpetuity and throughout the universe.” Objecting publicly to CBS’s portrayal or commercial use of your child will cost you $5 million dollars. (Do the numbers: The cost of violating the contract is 1000 times the reward for complying with it.)   

    Apparently, at least one parent complained to New Mexico authorities about abusive conditions on the set anyway, but, remarkably, like a child, he or she remains under CBS’s control: According to the Times, “CBS declined to allow a reporter to speak to the parent who complained to New Mexico authorities about the conditions at the production site.” 
   
    Kid Nation indeed.  This is, in part, a story about the infantilization of adults, and its political implications are unsettling.  Only a nation of grown-ups can be free.

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