‘Kid Nation’: Looking Back on TV’s Most Disturbing Reality Show

Ever since the reality TV genre took off in the early 2000s, networks have been in an unspoken competition to put out the most unique, controversial, or just absurd programs. 2007 was a big year for reality, but Kid Nation was the clear winner. In Kid Nation, 40 children were sent to a privately owned town in New Mexico to create their own society, set up a government, and fend for themselves without adults. The children, ages eight to 15, had to do everything themselves — from doing their own laundry to slaughtering their own dinner — and, if they were lucky, were sometimes rewarded with a sack full of buffalo nickels. CBS thought this show was a good idea.

Predictably, this Lord of the Flies-like premise was immediately controversial. Reality programming was already starting to take a turn and the idea of placing young children into a potentially toxic, potentially dangerous, and potentially emotionally scarring environment for viewers’ entertainment (and CBS’ profit) didn’t exactly sit well with everyone. In (slight) defense of the show, the children weren’t completely alone, as contestant Michael explains in a Reddit AMA last year:

It was very apparent that we were involved in a production process. There were 12 camera crews. Each had a cameraman, an assistant to the cameraman, a sound technician with a boom mic, and an associate producer to direct what they should be capturing. In reality, we weren’t that “alone” at all. That being said, they offered very little guidance or scripting. Our actions were dictated by us alone for the most part.

Still, it wasn’t enough supervision. During the 40 days spent in Bonanza City, four of them drank bleach (off camera) and one 11-year-old burned her face with hot grease (on camera; she brushed it off). Based on the amount of lawsuits that are filed against reality shows all the time, you’d expect there were tons against Kid Nation but parents signed a pretty disturbing, 22-page liability contract that was reproduced by The Smoking Gun.

Parents “signed away their rights to sue the network and the show’s producers if their child died, was severely injured, or contracted a sexually transmitted disease during the program’s taping” and “gave consent to CBS and its production partners to make medical treatment decisions on the minor’s behalf (including surgery), though the network made no promises about the ‘qualifications or credentials’ of medical professionals.” In exchange, the child was given $5,000 (some also received “bonuses” of $20,000 or $50,000 during the show in the form of literal gold stars).

Rewatching the pilot episode, it’s both baffling that this show existed and easy to understand why it did. Reality television is generally based on desperation: the network’s desperation to get attention, ratings, and money, and the participant’s desperation for fifteen minutes of fame, money, and a story to tell. Kid Nation was as desperate as they come: an exploitative and occasionally horrifying reality program (that some claim bordered on child abuse) masquerading as a “social experiment.” The intention of the show, as the producers and host (Jonathan Karsh) constantly boasted was for “kids to succeed where adults have failed,” to show that children could work together and succeed without adult involvement, and to prove that our future was going to be A-OK.

The reality, of course, was that we got to watch a bunch of children do excruciatingly hard work (sometimes for 14+ hours a day), scream and compete against one another, cry about everything — there was so. much. crying— and hold meetings to figure out who to award money to and who to leave empty-handed. The pilot isn’t too bad, as the kids are excited to be somewhere new and make friends. They compete in one competition and have to choose between two prizes: seven outhouses or a television set.

vlcsnap-2014-08-27-15h49m30s201The reaction to the outhouses is priceless.

vlcsnap-2014-08-27-15h50m17s152The reaction to the TV set is even better. They are, after all, children but smartly go with the outhouses. I mean, if you’re working 14 hours a day, who has the time for television?

The second episode is where shit gets real. The kids realize that they need some form of protein (read: the Pioneer Journal, written by producers and left out every day, told them this) and the council decides they must slaughter a chicken. After much debate and protest — some of the kids stage a sit-in of sorts inside the chicken coop — the children gather around to watch as Greg, a 15-year-old with braces, chops the heads off of two chickens. I should note that this was preceded by a disclaimer that read “the following scene may be intense for young children,” remarking on CBS’ concern for the viewers but not the actual participants.

A later scene in the episode focused on two girls, an eight-year-old and a 10-year-old, who start a makeshift daycare center to take care of stuffed animals. The producers and editors of Kid Nation loved these “clever” juxtapositions that placed an emphasis on the conflicting elements that were at play throughout the series: the children being decidedly children (hyperbolic statements, candy addiction, “I love stuffed animals!”) vs the children playing adult (making practical decisions, cooking meals, “What is this, a Nazi regime?”).

vlcsnap-2014-08-28-13h48m20s223If nothing else, the scenes where the kids “play adult” are fascinating to watch. Children slam down non-alcoholic beverages at the saloon at the end of a tough week. They stay up too late partying while eating candy and have sugar hangovers that render them unable to wake up for work on time. Episode 4 includes a religious debate between children that nearly splits the town. In the finale, when the rules are abolished, the children loot the town stores, taking fistfuls of candy and boxes of soda. They act the way they have seen adults act, both on reality television and in real life. In Episode 3, they swear at each other so much that eight-year-old Mallory starts crying. In a bizarre scene in Episode 10, three boys sit on the side of the road and “compliment” girls walking by with wolf whistles, commenting on their outfits while speaking in affected Hispanic accents.

The children are trying to be adults because they have no other choice: a reality show is an inherently adult setting. The more you watch the show, the more you realize that Kid Nation isn’t about kids building a kid society — or about the kids at all. Instead, it’s about kids building an adult society in an adult environment as adults gently coach them, because adults have put them into this predicament to entertain other adults and adults will reap most of the (monetary) benefits.

This isn’t to say that the kids didn’t have a good time. Only three of them left before the 40 days were up (it was always clear that the kids could choose to leave at any time) and, after filming, a few stated that they would do the show again. Yet it’s still kind of unbelievable that we let it exist. (I’m part of the problem: even while revisiting it, I still found plenty of entertaining moments.)

I wouldn’t say it’s explicitly harmful but there is definitely something cruel and warped about it — I mean, in one episode they force the children to choose between ponies or letters from their parents — and ultimately, it proved to be pointless. There was no definitive conclusion to the “experiment” because much of the program was so contrived that it couldn’t prove anything. At the end of the day, the only thing about Kid Nation that really stuck is the image of an eight-year-old boy in the pilot sobbing and saying, “I think I’m too young to be doing this.”