The 'reality' of television

Posted: Monday, June 01, 2009

There's a loophole in our child labor laws that the recent brouhaha over the popular cable show, Jon and Kate Plus Eight, which airs on The Learning Channel, has exposed. Okay, more like finally made the state of Pennsylvania pay attention, which points out a nasty habit in this country. We tend to wonder how the kids are doing after things have gone a little too far.

In case this was your week to turn off all media, which is what it would have taken to miss the publicity juggernaut, Jon and Kate Gosselin are the parents of eight-year-old twins and five-year-old sextuplets who are filmed in minutiae as they go about their lives in Pennsylvania.

The filming began when the sextuplets, three boys and three girls, were about a year old and has only grown and become more invasive over time. Potty training, sibling rivalry and parental arguments have all been caught on tape.

The results appear to be a lot of swag for the parents, rumors of extramarital affairs, splits with extended family members and a possible divorce for the family. Great stuff for TLC, which saw a ratings bonanza for the recent premier of the new season. Ten million viewers tuned in to see if Jon would confess to dating a younger woman. Mostly, he pouted and complained about the downside of being a celebrity.

Lost in all of the adult mess was even a mention of what all of this living in a fishbowl was doing to their children. Both Jon and Kate stated over and over again how their first concern was their children but no one was willing to address what the affects of having a camera in your face every day for hours on end, work commitments to publicize the show or inflaming the paparazzi was doing to eight young children.

Child labor in the U.S. is very regulated and with good reason. We haven't been the best stewards of our youngest citizens and have allowed children to be used as cheap labor and even fodder around large and dangerous machinery in an effort to make a buck. As a populace we spent way too much time looking the other way as children missed school, were exposed to dangerous environments and were often literally worked to death. Most of that was put to rest with a lot of regulations that are generally stringently enforced, including in the entertainment industry, until now.

Children are suddenly the darlings of reality television. They're everywhere and particularly on The Learning Channel, or TLC, which is part of the Discovery Channel family. Besides the Jon and Kate show there is also Eighteen Kids and Counting about an Arkansas family that has 18 children, and a newer show, Table for 12 with 10 kids.

It all seemed charming at first and a brief glimpse into what it was like to be a part of a large family. TLC was gaining a reputation as a family friendly channel and everything was so upbeat. However, as the popularity of this type of family reality show grew the suits at TLC reacted like businessmen and not like good parents. They ordered up more shows and increased the amount of time each family was being filmed. That was probably to be expected.

The real root of the problem though, was that the parents didn't reassess the situation and put the children first, income second.

There's been a lot said about how it's necessary to provide for the future needs, which is laudable but it's the how you get there that in this instance stinks. While there is a clause in most state child labor laws that says children can work longer hours in family businesses, which was put there mostly for farming families, no one foresaw that reality TV would make it possible to once again put children on camera all day long as part of a unique family business.

There's also one other glaring loophole that's not being addressed yet by this new form of child labor. The California Child Actor's Bill was enacted in 1938 after Jackie Coogan, one of the first well-known child actors was first exploited by his parents with long hours on movie sets and then left penniless after they spent all of his earnings. That law states that 15 percent of a child's earnings has to be put aside and can't be touched by anyone without a court order until the child becomes an adult.

There's so much money and services being paid to the parents involved in the shows but there's no laws on the books that says how much of it has to be put into trust funds for the children who will have to live with the consequences. Stay tuned.

• Martha Randolph Carr's is author of " A Place to Call Home," a memoir about the reemergence of U.S. orphanages.

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