More Kid Nation: From the Producers Mouth

Q&A: Kid Nation Executive Producer Tom Foreman
Lacey Rose, 09.18.07, 6:00 AM ETThe premise of Kid Nation, which debuts Sept. 19, goes something like this: A group of 40 8- to 15-year-old kids are dropped in a deserted New Mexico town and tasked with building an adult-free society.

CBS’s televised social experiment has been attacked on both legal and ethical grounds since its announcement at May’s upfront presentation. The criticisms range from the long hours to the hazardous conditions for the show’s underage cast, both of which the Tiffany Network denies.

Executive Producer Tom Foreman, a reality-TV veteran whose résumé also includes Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Armed and Famous, spoke about the value of buzz, the pitfalls of the genre and why his show just might surprise critics.

Forbes: Network schedules seem to offer many reality shows, but not too many American Idol-caliber hits. What’s the biggest challenge facing the genre today?

Foreman: Let’s back up for a second. It’s an exciting time for the genre, and here’s why: it’s grown up. Five, six years ago, I think a show could get on the air just because it was a reality show–because it was new, it was different and the genre was in its infancy and people were just excited by it. But the landscape has obviously gotten much more competitive over the last couple of seasons. And that’s actually a really good thing, because it means reality has come into its own alongside comedy and drama as a real and legitimate television genre that is here to stay.

Earlier this summer, CBS entertainment chief Nina Tassler said, “In order for a reality show … to really get out there and change the landscape of television, you have to sort of stir public debate.” What role should controversy play in a reality series?

Well, I don’t think any of us set out to be controversial, but I don’t think you can let it deter you from pursuing a good idea.

Many people seem to think this show went too far over the line. But since I’m presuming you’re not among them, I’m wondering what, in your mind, is too far for TV? Where is that line?

Look, I have no idea, except to say that the viewers will be the ones who set it. It is a ratings-driven business. People say that all of the time, like it’s a bad thing, but the truth is, I think it’s very
empowering for the viewer. If you don’t like something, if you think it’s gone too far, if it’s not the kind of programming you want to watch, then don’t, and that programming quickly disappears.

Television is extraordinarily responsive to the marketplace. It’s hard to think of another industry where you find out at 7 o’clock the following morning how you did the previous night. Ratings come in so quickly that if something isn’t working, believe me, the industry will turn on a dime and try something else. It’s also, unfortunately, one of the reasons you see so many derivative shows, because when something does work, it’s so easy to chase those numbers.

Others claim the industry adage–all press is good press–will apply to this show. What do you think?

Who knows? It really remains to be seen, but I will say this: I’m certain there will be people who tune in to watch the first show just because of all of the press. But if the show’s not good, they’re not coming back. And so we’re working very hard at making sure that every episode is good.

Look, I wouldn’t be talking to you and I wouldn’t be standing in front of this admittedly controversial
television show if I didn’t really believe in it. It’s awfully good, and so for all that has been written about the show and all that has been said about the show, much of it flat-out inaccurate–I’m sitting
in the editing bay watching it come together, and I was out in the desert for 40 days as we shot it, and I know what we did and I know what we got, and I know it’s excellent television on every level and,
more importantly, ethical and responsible television.

What do kids offer as reality-TV contestants that adults don’t?

Having watched this unfold over 40 days, the kids are brighter than you would ever think they could be, more articulate and, most importantly, more honest. They tell us what they think, they tell each
other what they think, and they are not looking at this as a way to land an acting gig or end up on a ketchup commercial.

They really went out there to try to build a world, and these kids in particular–remember we looked at thousands of kids across the United States and picked 40 of the best and brightest–really had something to say. These were kids that wanted to go and show adults a thing or two–and show them that they thought they could run a world better than we did. They went out there to prove that–not to play a game, not to win a prize and certainly not to advance their careers–and I think that was really refreshing for everybody.

Who do you think is the audience for Kid Nation?

I truly think it’s everybody. I think if you are a reality show fan, then this stands up as a terrific reality show with drama and comedy and emotion and real people doing incredible things, which is
why we tune in to reality shows. If you’re a kid, this looks like a dream come true. And if you’re a parent, it is some real insight into kids today and what they’re thinking.

Beyond its kids-only cast, what makes this show different from all of the other reality shows on the TV dial?

Look, the kids were a good jumping-off point to allow us to sort of rethink the way reality TV is done. This one’s different in almost every way. Lost in a lot of the debate is that this is a show that really does encourage cooperation instead of backstabbing, a show that leads to decisions instead of elimination, and a show about building a community instead of breaking one down. It’s a lot of the reality shows you’ve seen turned totally upside down, and it works.

We didn’t want elimination because that felt wrong. Kids coming together to vote each other out of the community wasn’t the kind of show I wanted to be associated with. So we said, “Look, we’re actually going to pose the question constantly, ‘Does anybody want to go home?’ ” And we worried
when we went in that half of the town was going to raise their hands and say, “I’m out of here.”

We didn’t know because nobody had ever done it before. And as you watch that kid try to decide whether this is something they want to keep doing or whether this is something they want to opt out of, it is every bit as dramatic as forced elimination, and then probably more so because it’s real.

Q&A: Kid Nation Executive Producer Tom Foreman – Forbes.com

QUESTION:

Why WILL you watch this show?

Why WON’T you watch this show?

Do you believe in all the BAD hype?

What kind of online experience do you think CBS should have to compliment this experience?

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