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But … what about the children?

June 30, 2010

Just how real is reality TV, anyways? Its producers say very real — and for that reason, they say, child labor laws shouldn’t apply to them and their shows.

According to a June 26 Times article, “[D]ozens of kids are appearing on reality programs without legal safeguards because of widespread uncertainty about how to classify the shows.”

This gray area has given the majority of reality shows major leeway on providing protection for their child performers. They don’t see these children as actors; they see them as everyday kids just living their lives — and getting filmed in the process.Hence there’s no union or governmental oversight on set, and no guarantee of compensation.

But is reality TV really that real? And even if it is, should that be enough to warrant a complete dismissal of all child labor laws for child participants on reality shows?

First of all, no matter what, once you’re on a reality TV show, your life is no longer as real as it used to be. From whatever angle you look at it, even if you’re living your life as usual, it’s going to be in front of several cameras. Suddenly, family dinners become family portrait sessions and alone time means close-up time. Even if you were doing the same things you always did, it would be inherently different because the experience is no longer yours– it’s the viewers’.

Yes, most children get toilet-trained by their parents — but rarely is it video-taped. In an episode of Jon & Kate Plus 8, children were filmed as they were being toilet-trained, with skin exposed and zero privacy. Getting toilet-trained is an essential part of each child’s growing up process, and, yes, it is ultimately a “real life” event. But being filmed in the act makes it a different experience altogether. And how are these children being compensated? I’m not sure that the whole “higher ratings” argument holds the same kind of appeal for them.

Also, many of these “reality” shows have screenwriters who plan out episodes, create “real-life” scenarios and are essentially the puppet masters of these families’ lives. For those kinds of shows, the only thing that should be questioned is the reality of the situation, not whether or not the artificial scenario affects the kids enough to earn them a paycheck.

And even if, in some alternate universe, the overwhelming presence of cameras and a film crew in a person’s house didn’t disturb the family’s daily routine, why shouldn’t the kids get paid for their screen time? The last time I checked, the amount a person gets paid for their screen presence wasn’t inversely proportional to the year of their birth. If people are on-screen, then they should be paid for their time, whether or not they are going out of their way to be filmed. Age shouldn’t be a factor when dishing out paychecks — that should be decided by screen time. 

But these kids shouldn’t just have compensation — they should have supervision, too. Anyone who’s seen one episode of The Real Housewives of New Jersey knows the moms on that show are more concerned with their own issues than those of their growing children. Shouldn’t someone be there to offer these kids an alternative role model? Say, for example, someone who doesn’t throw tables at people with whom they are having a disagreement? It’s just a thought.

Ultimately, children aren’t adults, and they perform different roles in life and in “real-life TV.” But that shouldn’t mean that they receive different rights or that the law doesn’t apply to them. Even if kids are seen and not heard, they should be recognized properly for it: with a paycheck and protection under the law.

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