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) (more…)