Dave Kitchell

Tonight marks yet another debut of a television show in a network lineup, and this one has a different storyline than sitcoms, Westerns, variety shows and news magazines.

“Kid Nation” on CBS will be a new twist on the recurring theme of reality show television. Sooner or later, there had to be a reality show involving children as a theme. Give the networks time. Eventually every angle of a formula will be exploited.

What makes this show a bit different is that it gives some primetime exposure to young people who are — to whatever degree a network television show would allow without being charged with child neglect — on their own. They are in their own community of sorts, albeit one that may be little more than a glorified boot camp or summer church camp without the church.

Maybe too much can be read into this show, but if the producers do this one the right way, they could be shooting episodes for a long time. Television has long had a love affair with cute children as a way to make money, but this concept goes a step further. It could actually be a teaching tool for young people who learn that being a citizen in a democracy is an active thing, not a passive one.

Sure, students get a healthy dose of government in their junior and senior years of high school, but somewhere in the curriculums of schools across this country, much of the knowledge of how democracy works is not taught or understood. If the 2000 presidential election served any purpose for young people of that generation, it educated them on the purpose of the Electoral College and how important it can be in determining the outcome.

On a smaller scale, “Kid Nation” can give younger viewers a chance to identify with characters on the show. I don’t expect them to dress up like the show’s stars on Halloween, but they likely will develop favorites like adults of the baby boomer generation adopted the Mouseketeers.

Living in a community entirely comprised of kids might turn out to be a cross between Munchkin Land and Boys Town, Neb. But for a little while every week, it will allow young people to think about what that community would be like if they lived there and had a chance to interact with the characters in it. It could actually teach children that the quality of life in a community happens by design and not by accident.

This type of programming could turn some channels from Buzz Lightyear and the Power Rangers to a community that is a grander version of the old “Our Gang” comedy episodes and playing before a much larger audience.

If “Kid Nation” exists purely for adult entertainment in that hard-to-hit 19- to 34-year-old age range, it might fail miserably. But if children really do influence adult decisions and the buying power that goes with them, “Kid Nation” could teach adults that they have something to learn about the workings of their own communities. For instance, I’d hazard a guess that most people could tell you the names of many of their public officials, but they might not know what a board of zoning appeals does or whether their community has one. They probably know there is a state income tax and a sales tax, but do they know what other kinds of taxes they pay? They probably know if they live in the city or in the fringe area outside it, but they may not know what that means in the level of services provided.

All my optimism in television programming is tempered by the reality I and several other members of one of my old Longfellow Elementary classes lived out under the tutelage of the late Terry Caughell. In a class of fifth- and sixth-graders, he once implemented a system for bringing students who violated rules to justice — through a student-run system. The most frequent violators were students who talked when they should not have been talking. The system had a prosecutor, a defense attorney, witnesses and, ultimately, penalties. After a while, the system bogged down so much that we had to give up recess just to try our cases. Soon, we all agreed it would be best to leave discipline up to the teacher and worry more about things like Batman episodes and the Friday afternoon popcorn sale. 

That experiment in democracy was a form of civic education that more students should probably have. I thought of that a few years ago when I taught a Junior Achievement unit on local government to a room full of students at Fairview Elementary School. I don’t know if any of those students remember anything from the course, but I know that young people have to learn about the government that governs them at all levels at some point. If they don’t, the form of government has won control of them by default. Activities such as Good Government Day at Logansport High School have been going on for years, but one day does not a real education make. For that matter, one television show is probably not enough either.

How will these young people on “Kid Nation” act when they are away from their parents and guardians? Some may become rebels without a cause. Some may become apples that don’t fall far from their parental trees, emulating the conduct they see at home.

In every instance, there will be a member of “Kid Nation” who is already part of our nation, and that’s the real point. Even kid nations go on to be Grown Up Nations.

Maybe we’ve already seen the sequel to “Kid Nation,” and that could make the case for a reality show that is a stark reality for all of us.

Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at davidkitchell@verizon.net

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