There’s a scene in “Bruno” where Sacha Baron Cohen holds an audition for the “hottest baby photo shoot ever.” The intent is to reveal how fame-seeking parents will agree to anything -- including putting their babies in fast cars without a car seat or next to “dead or dying animals” -- to get their toddlers on camera.
It would be astonishing … if it hadn’t already become so common on the small screen.
On shows such as “Supernanny,” “Wife Swap,” “Denise Richards -- It’s Complicated,” “My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad,” and “Kid Nation” and others, the harmful effects that come from constantly being on camera at a young age is becoming a matter of concern to child-care professionals and even fans of some shows.
And did we mention “Jon & Kate Plus 8”?
Even in this tabloid era, the disintegration of the Gosselins’ marriage and the effect the TLC show and the media attention is having on the couple’s young sextuplets and twins has family and show followers warning that things have gone too far.
Kate’s brother and her sister-in-law, Kevin and Jodi Krieder, both of whom have appeared on the show, recently told CBS that they believed the children are “being exploited” by parents obsessed with “fame and the fortune.”
While empirical data to gauge the effect of nonstop media exposure on children is hard to come by, the anecdotal evidence doesn’t look good -- even if the ratings are great.
* Paul and Susan Young accused “Supernanny” producers of encouraging their five sons to exaggerate their unruly behavior for the cameras on the U.K. version of the series in 2005. "They left us with children that were more naughty than when they arrived," the mother told the British press. The fact that the Young’s house might have been burned down by one of the children in 2007 certainly didn’t help.
* “The Real Housewives of Orange County’s” Gina DeLeon believes that appearing on the show had "a devastating effect" for her children, who were not on the show initially. When series regular Laurie Waring hooked up with Gina’s ex-husband George Peterson on season 2, he wanted to the kids to join him in front of the cameras. "They begged not to be on it," DeLeon told TheWrap, but "George forced them to do it.” DeLeon added that the children “got teased and bullied at school, it was not a pleasant or growing experience for them."
* Professionals like Charlie Sheen and Pamela Anderson have consciously kept their children off their reality TV excursions. Sheen even fought an unsuccessful legal battle to keep his young daughters off his ex-wife Denise Richard’s E! series. (For more on celebrity reality TV shows and children, see accompanying story.)
“These shows can open the kids to a level of public scrutiny, of shame and of failure,” notes Dr. Drew Pinsky, host of VH-1’s “Celeb Rehab and co-author of "The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America." “You have to ask yourself if that is conducive to positive outcomes as they get older.”
Pinsky puts the responsibility on the parents and the producers. “Children can't give informed consent by definition, only the parents can do that -- and reality shows generally don't cast adults who have the highest level of mental health. They are severe narcissists who are obsessed with celebrity.”
“The permanency of the images of the children potty training, bathing and having temper tantrums on camera will open them up to derision and bullying as they get older,” says Paul Peterson, who starred in “The Donna Reed Show” in the late 50s and 60s.
For Peterson -- who with his nonprofit group A Minor Consideration has been a long-time advocate of safeguarding Hollywood’s on-camera children -- long-term pain is the likely consequence of short-term fame.
“Down the line, once the show is over and the cameras have gone,” he asserts, “there will likely be no help for them from predators and others seeking to take advantage of them.”
There is, however, some possible help on the way. “Jon & Kate Plus 8’s” treatment of the Gosselin children is now being investigated by the Pennsylvania Labor Department.
“We received a complaint, and an investigator has been assigned,” Department spokesman Troy Thompson told TheWrap. “Now we’re reviewing the case, which means interviewing the principles, interviewing anyone who has information and going over the company documents.”
At the core of the investigation is whether the Gosselins’ Wernersville, Penn., home constitutes a formal TV set, where the children are being instructed and directed. If so, it would bring the production under the state's child labor laws.
If not -- if it’s considered merely a domestic environment where they are being observed and filmed with little direct interaction with producers and crew – the state would have no grounds for violation, and the investigation will be closed.
The immediate consequences could be a fine -- which, according to the state’s laws, can range from $200 to $1,500 -- or “to undergo an imprisonment of not more than 10 days, or both, at the discretion of the court.” (For reality shows under fire, see accompanying story.)
TLC put out a statement on May 29, when the investigation became public, stating that it and Jon & Kate Plus 8 “fully complies with all applicable laws and regulations.” Attempts by TheWrap to contact Figure 8 Film and TLC were met with “no comment.”
This is not the first time that the regional authorities have taken a look at the realities children deal with on reality shows. In 2007, CBS’ “Kid Nation,” where children ranging from 8 to 15 competed in the establishment of a non-adult-supervised society, was investigated by a number of departments in New Mexico for playing fast and loose with the rules and safety.
The Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office, in whose jurisdiction an on-set grease accident occurred, followed up on the victim’s parent’s claim that the program reflected an unsafe environment and disregard for labor laws. The state of New Mexico itself threatened to get involved with the show for the hours that children were in front of the cameras.
Ultimately, the state dropped its efforts, citing not having received a formal complaint.
As for Jon and Kate, the show went on immediate broadcast hiatus after the couple’s separation announcement and divorce filing. It’s not expected back on the air until Aug. 4 -- if it reappears at all.
The couple did put on a united face on Independence Day for a family July 4th picnic at their home, seemingly unperturbed by their estrangement or the Pennsylvania Labor department’s investigation.
“No one can act like this is unknown, we have history here,” Paul Peterson told TheWrap. “When Danny Bonaduce, who knows the ways of this biz, allowed cameras into his life, it destroyed his marriage. It destroyed the Loud family back in the 1970s. Now it’s destroyed Jon and Kate's family.”
“If you these children get in trouble in 20 years you can be sure they'll be known as one of those kids from 'Jon & Kate Plus 8,' ” cautions Peterson. “That will define them.”