There's a reason we're addicted to unscripted reality shows—they're designed to serve up the kind of conflict, competition, and controversy that we can't take our eyes off of. It's a delicious recipe for ratings, and an easy escape from our every day lives.
But once you add child exploitation and ethical quandaries, you get Kid Nation. The highly questionable CBS show can best be described as Survivor-meets-Lord of the Flies. The premise: unsupervised kids are left to their own devices in Wild West environs. It lasted for one season in 2007 but, despite its short life, it lives on in infamy on YouTube.
Kid Nation was a reality television show that premiered on September 19, 2007 on CBS. The program followed 40 kids between the ages of 8 and 15 as they spent 40 days in a New Mexico ghost town without their parents or any modern comforts.
The children, referred to as "pioneers", were expected to form a functioning society and government without any adult guidance. The children were divided into four groups, each with its own predetermined leader to enforce laws and set bedtimes. The pioneers were expected to cook their own meals, run their own businesses, and maintain their own outhouses, among many other tasks. At the end of each episode, everyone gathered at a Town Hall meeting and awarded one pioneer a "Gold Star" worth $20,000.
As expected, there was plenty of drama. When the kids weren't killing chickens or accidentally drinking bleach, they also had to contend with their own adolescent emotions in front of a national audience. Tears were shed and injuries occurred. But it wasn't enough to keep audiences tuned in. Ratings were flat and TV critics panned the show. After the New York Times published an exposé on potentially illegal and unethical production practices, Nikki Finke at LA Weekly called for CBS to cancel the show before the premiere date.
On May 14, 2008, CBS officially canceled the series. Blame it on equal parts bad press and poor execution.
Legal issues may have also played a part. According to the New York Times report, families were not allowed to contact their children during production. They were also required to sign a 22-page waiver agreeing that CBS and the producers "were not responsible for ensuring the medical credentials of someone who might treat, or perform emergency surgery on, the children." The New Mexico Attorney General pursued an investigation into whether or not production was in violation of state laws, and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists looked into whether or not the young contestants were subject to union rules.
In an effort to contain the fallout, CBS executives said that a medic and child psychologist were available during production. And they were certainly needed—during production, one contestant accidentally drank bleach from an unmarked container; another burned her face with hot grease while cooking.
It was a double-edged sword for CBS. If the kids were subject to little-to-no supervision, it was a serious lapse in judgment. If there was as much unseen help from adults as they clam, the show's premise was a myth. Either way, declining viewership over the course of the season sealed its fate.
Thirteen years later, the former contestants on Kid Nation are officially adults. As they look back on their moment in the spotlight, a few of them express zero regrets for their participation on the show.
In March 2020, Laurel McGoff told the AV Club that Kid Nation was "the ultimate best experience of [her] life." "It was really the most memorable part of my childhood," said the 25-year old. McGoff even discusses her time on the show on TikTok.
Savannah Sergent, who was 10 when she was on the show, has also talked about her experience on the show on TikTok.
Others were disenchanted by the experience. Anjoy Ajodha, who was 12 during filming, says he didn't feel the kids were abused. "But it was definitely a lot more exploitative than I remember it being back then," he said in the AV Club report. "The thing is, we weren’t fully formed people. We were kids."
Ajodha, who was previously the then-youngest person to ever compete in the National Spelling Bee, believes he won a spot on screen because he was typecast. "I’m sure there was an element of ‘Oh my God, we found a brown nerd,'" he said. "I mean, I had a bowl cut and transition lenses. I didn’t really have a chance at not being typecast."
Kid Nation executive producer Tom Forman isn't sure a concept like Kid Nation would get picked up today. But in a September 2017 interview with Variety, he reveals that he still follows the cast on social media and says they were the best cast he's ever had the pleasure of working with.
"Every couple of years I pick up the phone and lob in a call to CBS and see if we should do it again," he said.