EXCLUSIVE (refresh for latest): I’ve learned that egoist Les Moonves is talking out of both sides of his mouth concerning the erupting controversy over his CBS fall reality show Kid Nation. On the one hand, I’m told his CBS board of directors has been assured that the company is conducting “an internal investigation” into Kid Nation. “Everybody is being interviewed. All the footage will be watched. We will give the board a full report on what happened. This is of great concern,” I understand directors were told. But, publicly, CBS is denying all allegations it violated any laws or put any children in jeopardy during the production. So how can Moonves stand behind CBS’ denials when its own internal probe has barely begun? Or is there really no internal probe going on? Meanwhile, he hopes to ride the publicity from the scandal all the way to great ratings in September. For this and so many other reasons, Moonves needs to cancel the broadcast of Kid Nation.
I’m shocked by what I’ve just heard from CBS. A top company source said the CBS general counsel alerted the board about the allegations surrounding Kid Nation only because of a tough New York Times article coming out on August 18th. Of course, the New Mexico newspapers had been covering the controversy for weeks before that. And TV Week besides. An Albuquerque Journal article dated July 18th accused CBS of working kids up to 24 hours a day on the set and paying them only $5,000 for the experience and calling it legal. But the CBS board was kept in the dark about the problems then because presumably the company and directors only cared what the NYT said. Now that the Times went out with articles, “a couple of board members have asked Les questions, and he’s responded,” the CBS source told me just now. “What Les said to the board is that he’s confident there was nothing inappropriate done and the children were treated very well.”
While some board members were led to expect a serious internal investigation by CBS, I can only characterize what Moonves has done to look into this matter as perfunctory at best. “He’s spoken to the executive in charge of the show. He’s spoken to the people involved with the show. He’s seen the show,” a CBS source described to me Moonves’ only actions so far. “And if anything further comes up” he’ll involve himself.
Especially with children hurt (one girl was burned while cooking, four kids drank bleach from an unlocked container, and god knows what else), such a superficial look by the smart but smarmy Moonves into the circumstances surrounding the Kid Nation production is irresponsible at best and callous at its worst. After all, the marketing for the reality show as far back as May boasted how there’s “no adult supervision”. At the time, a Washington Post TV writer made the unfortunate joke, “Heck where I grew up in Colorado they call that ‘summer camp’.” Which is exactly what CBS wanted to fool everyone into thinking about the series — from New Mexico’s film office to the Screen Actors Guild. But to advertisers and TV writers, CBS was preening: Kid Nation showed how edgy the once stodgy network had become. (That was certainly the case when CBS hyped the controversy over its “Race Wars” version Survivor.)
Look, everyone in Hollywood knows that too many kids’ parents can’t be trusted to do what’s best when the bright lights of showbiz are involved. So CBS had a duty to take extra precautions to protect those kids, not just worry over corporate liability issues. Which leads me to ask: if CBS and therefore Moonves were as proud of Kid Nation as they’d have us believe, then why were such pains taken to shoot in such secrecy, and do it in a state that doesn’t protect children on showbiz sets, and in such a way that guild rules didn’t apply?
I’d like to put the controversy squarely on Moonves’ impeccably tailored shoulders even though he’d like to hide behind CBS’ lawyers. Now that the CBS board of directors does know, I implore them to demand from him a full investigation conducted beyond Moonves’ manipulation and to grill the CBS boss why he went ahead with this despicable show in the first place. It’s important to remember that CBS, split off from Viacom, still has a relatively new board. I’m told that six freshmen directors have come on just since January, and many of them were asked to serve by parent company Viacom boss Sumner Redstone, not Moonves. In fact, some of those directors are strangers to Moonves (…yet Les likes to describe the close and wonderful relationship he has with all the CBS directors…) CBS board members must know that shareholders are counting on them to do the right thing here. See my previous Moonves stories in LA Weekly, Screwing The TV Viewers (2006) and Les Should Be No More (2004)
On May 18th, the newspaper Albuquerque Journal reported: “How do you sneak 40 kids into New Mexico for a prime-time reality show and not have anyone notice? Send them to a so-called ghost town.” TV Week claimed CBS “kept news of the production tightly under wraps to prevent competitor copycats, and to surprise advertisers” when it was presented at the Network Upfronts. But more and more, the real reason is shamefully clear: the production didn’t want to raise alarm bells with either the media or the authorities or the Hollywood guilds. The local paper hadn’t even heard about the show shooting at the Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch, eight miles from Santa Fe, in April and May until after it wrapped filming. Only now do we know that the producers of Kid Nation were warned by the state attorney general’s office while the show was being taped that they might be violating the state’s child-labor laws, according to the NYT. Which leads me to ask: if CBS and therefore Moonves were as proud of Kid Nation as they’d have us believe, then why were such pains taken to shoot in such secrecy and do it in a state that doesn’t protect children on showbiz sets and in such a way that SAG rules didn’t apply?
The Journal reported that Carlos Castaneda, spokesman for New Mexico’s Department of Labor, “said his department received no complaints while CBS was filming at Bonanza Creek. But state officials said that could be because of the privacy of the set.” It was only afterwards, Castaneda told the Journal, that “we heard [kids] were working 24 hours in some cases. If that is the case, no doubt that is a serious concern. However, we wouldn’t have had the tools to go to CBS and say they were violating such and such a law.” The Albuquerque Journal noted that only on July 1st — after Kid Nation wrapped — did New Mexico finally enact legislation in the works for some time that specifies rules for how children are treated on television, film and theatrical production because of the show.
The paper also said Lisa Strout, director of the state Film Office, had the production described to her as “more like a camp” than work. And by calling it a summer camp, the network was able to avoid SAG guidelines, too. Again, the question has to be asked: if CBS and therefore Moonves were so proud of this Kid Nation production, why were great pains taken to use to CBS’ advantage every kid-protecting loophole?
To its credit, TV Week also started asking early and tough questions of CBS, in a July 16th story by James Hibberd. Even more troubling issues were raised — like why Kid Nation was filming during the school year yet no studio teachers were present, and why kids were were working on a major television production yet no parents were on the set? The trade also chastised CBS for choosing New Mexico because it’s “long been considered to have some of the most lenient labor rules governing kids on entertainment productions.” But still CBS didn’t inform its board of directors about any problems surrounding Kid Nation.
Of course, only once The New York Times started to raise questions about Kid Nation did CBS shift into PR crisis mode. Whereas the Los Angeles Times softpeddled it a day earlier but only got tough once the NYT pushed the envelope. Presently, both papers are competing with one another to beat up CBS, and rightfully so. And every New Mexico authority and Hollywood guild now looks to be investigating Kid Nation up the wazoo, the most recent being the AFTRA since the show was produced under the AFTRA National Code of Fair Practices for Network Television Broadcasting.