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‘Kid Nation’ debuts amid criticism, speculation

"Kid Nation," the CBS reality show that fanned concerns about child endangerment and exploitation, subjected its young stars to nothing more dramatic than homesickness and a pulled muscle in its debut episode.
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Kid Nation,” the CBS reality show that fanned concerns about child endangerment and exploitation, subjected its young stars to nothing more dramatic than homesickness and a pulled muscle in its debut episode.

Whether viewers were entertained by Wednesday’s hour — in which the most thrilling line was “We got the Port-A-Potties. Yeah!” — remains to be seen.

But in its initial airing, the series drew an audience of 9.1 million, according to preliminary numbers released Thursday by Nielsen Media Research. This made “Kid Nation” the runner-up to NBC’s “Deal or No Deal,” seen by 9.7 million viewers.

(During the first half-hour, Fox’s premiere of the Kelsey Grammer sitcom “Back to You” had 9.4 million viewers, leaving “Kid” and “Deal” each with 8.5 million. And Fox’s second half-hour, with the returning “‘Til Death,” had 7.8 million.)

CBS President Leslie Moonves, in Boston on Thursday to speak to a business luncheon, said he was pleased with the “Kid Nation” ratings. “It wasn’t a blockbuster,” Moonves told reporters, “but it did well.”

He also defended the show against criticism from some child welfare advocates. “The controversy was unfounded,” Moonves said. “There was more attention paid to those kids than at any summer camp in America.”

Asked whether the controversy helped the show’s ratings, he said: “We didn’t start that buzz — some of the media did.”

Filmed over 40 days during April and May in a movie-set ghost town in the high desert just south of Santa Fe, N.M., “Kid Nation” gathered 40 children ages 8 to 15 and gave them the task of organizing and running their own lives.

From the start, the kids are put through the physical and emotional wringer. They’re told to drag supply wagons through the desert, while the youngest ones confront fears of being isolated and away from their families.

“I think I’m gonna die out here ’cuz there’s nothing,” one 8-year-old frets as “Kid Nation” gets the party started.

“There’s no President Bush. There’s nothing,” observes another dispirited youngster.

Kids say the darndest things. Oh, wait, that show aired with Bill Cosby nearly a decade ago, based on a 1950s Art Linkletter idea; consider this the modern version, with reality-show trappings galore to make it exciting for today’s presumably jaded young set and, CBS hopes, their parents.

CBS kept the finished product under wraps and away from critics, allowing media speculation and criticism to help promote the show.

There were allegations that the production may have skirted New Mexico’s child-protection laws and that youngsters faced unsafe conditions, which CBS and the show’s producer denied.

No injuries other than the muscle pull were shown Wednesday. But one mother has complained to authorities that her daughter was splattered with cooking grease and that four other children accidentally drank bleach during production.

The show confirmed that the incidents occurred but said first aid was immediately provided. Parents and children made available by CBS praised the production as a safe, well-supervised learning experience.

As the “Kid Nation” kids begin to organize in the premiere episode, guided by the alternately comforting and menacing host Jonathan Karsh (he warns them of “rough” times ahead), rewards emerge in forms any red-blooded American child would treasure: candy, soda pop and the possibility of a TV set.

When the pint-sized four-member town council wisely picks outhouses over the television set, supplementing the one toilet that had been serving the town, the rest of the group breathes a collective sigh of relief.

Besides goodies they can buy with their earnings from chores, the kids compete for a weekly solid-gold star, worth $20,000, that goes to the most deserving child.