The State of Reality TV: Kidding Around with Reality

January 26, 2011
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**This is the first in our new series: The State of Reality TV. Each Wednesday, and select Saturdays, one of our Antenna Contributors will provide analysis of a different reality television show. We encourage you to participate in this series with your comments.**

Looking back at Kid Nation, most observers probably find the industrial controversy preceding the 2007 reality series to be its most significant legacy.  Purporting to put children in a frontier town to fend for themselves, the CBS series drew fire prior to its premiere for both the supposed reality of the genre and the artifice of its construction.  Detractors who feared the endangerment of children stranded in the wilderness did not recognize omnipresent producer supervision and direction, while those who criticized CBS for violating child labor laws saw kids participating in the calculated fabrication of a television commodity.  Most viewers didn’t seem to care one way or another, and the low-rated show entered obscurity well before CBS declined a second season.

Yet it’s worth looking back at the text overshadowed by this industrial controversy.  Though not the most popular or influential entry in the genre, Kid Nation appropriately offers an elementary school primer both on the conventions of reality competitions and their negotiation of social structures taken for granted in the “real” world (enough so that I continue to rely on it in my TV courses today).

In the first thirty minutes of the series, the cast of forty 8-to-14-year-olds meet their “council” of appointed leaders, trek with provisions to the abandoned ghost town “Bonanza City,” and start trying to meet their basic food and shelter needs.  This opening suggests alternative social structures could emerge as children self-organize without the imposition of traditional parental order.  Like clockwork around the thirty-minute mark, however, host Jonathan Karsh appears to impose adult order on this fledgling kid nation, providing specific game-show rules by which their society must operate.  He divides them  into four “districts” that compete in challenges for class status to determine their unequal prestige and income as laborers, cooks, merchants, and the upper class.  Laborers on one end of the spectrum do the most work and get paid least, while the upper class on the other enjoys least responsibility and most pay.

Of course, some 2007 reviewers challenged this bald imposition of capitalism upon children. Systemic competitive social rules are not unique to Kid Nation–many other reality competitions in the Mark Burnett-model, from Survivor to Apprentice, allow a period of social experimentation before competitive structures are imposed by someone like Jeff Probst or The Donald.  By rendering reality television’s generic embrace of social capitalism as a child’s game, however, Kid Nation opens it to strangeness and play.  Seeing industrious child “laborers” unable to afford  candy sold by “merchants” in the general store calls class inequality at least partially into question (even if one child’s entrepreneurial response is to pull themselves up by their bootstraps as a panhandling street performer).   Just as the absurdity of domestic norms come into view when children play house, so too does this mimicry of adult class distinction open it to critique.

Class structures were not the only thing mimicked–these kids also “played”  as reality contestants.  Take Taylor, the 10-year-old girl who performed adult reality celebrity culture through catch phrases (“Deal with it!” being her version of  “You’re Fired!”), emphasis on beauty ideals (“I”m a beauty queen, I don’t do dishes”), and gravitation toward the outrageous (“the ugly animals should die and the pretty ones should stay”).  As Taylor explained a year later, producers fed her many of these outlandish lines.  So unlike, say, Toddlers and Tiaras, where we reel at what parents impose upon children, Kid Nation begs to be read in terms of what conventions reality producers ask kids–and all reality viewers–to take for granted and perform.   Kids are not just endangered and employed by the reality industry here, but also encultured.  What continues to resonate years later, however, is that “kidness” prevents these participants from unproblematically adopting the same positions adults do as reality contestants or social subjects.  Their imperfect mimicry instead makes reality strange.


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