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Forman: Father of 'Kid Nation'

As a reality television producer, Tom Forman fills a role with a mixed reputation. On the one hand, reality television has become a legitimate segment of the television landscape—the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has been handing out a best reality show Emmy for several years. But the genre has endured its share of slings and arrows, and the strike by the Writers Guild of America cast reality in a negative light once again, with pundits decrying a nightmare scenario of hastily prepared reality filler.

Of course, talks between the sides beginning Nov. 26 could change things, but the debate over reality's merits still rages. As the executive producer of CBS' Kid Nation, the recipient of much early lambasting, Forman is no stranger to finger-wagging. As the show heads into its finale on Dec. 12, the vitriol has dried up. He talks to B&C's Marisa Guthrie about the impact of the strike, the reality shows he does watch and A&E's Dog problem.

What do you think about the notion that reality is inherently inferior?

I think reality has really come into its own as a legitimate genre, and it's here to stay alongside comedy and drama. That means just like comedies and dramas, there will be some really good shows that run season after season and there will be some crap. I started in reality at a really weird time, when it felt like anything anyone was putting on the air succeeded by virtue of the novelty of the genre. As a producer who actually cares about this stuff, that's frustrating. I'm actually really comfortable with a world where bad TV fails, be it scripted or unscripted.

It's funny—I think there is this myth that reality show producers are gleefully rubbing our hands together looking for empty time slots that we can fill with mediocre television shows. It's exactly the opposite. Good TV is good for all of us.

I don't look at scripted shows as the competition anyway. We're all in this together and the competition is the guy who shuts off his TV. We just need to keep people entertained.

There was much publicity preceding the premiere of Kid Nation accusing the show and CBS of exploiting children. And obviously some of that attention was advantageous. But at what point did all that publicity become bad publicity?

It was a feeding frenzy as newspapers competed to see who could write the most outrageous story with absolutely no regard for what was actually going on, and without seeing any of the material or talking to any of the people involved. And I'm not surprised it was provocative, because the minute we started talking about making this show with young people, we knew it was going to be.

But we had a tremendous responsibility to those kids and their parents. We had a huge responsibility to our viewers to make a show that was not just entertaining but ethical, too. And we knew it would be something that people would talk about.

I was shocked when people began to use phrases like “child abuse,” because having spent 10 years in the news business and covered countless stories of child abuse, that's a very real, very horrible thing, and frankly not a phrase that should be tossed around lightly, which in this case it was by respectable newspapers.

The ratings have been a little disappointing.

I am thrilled that families are watching this show together. Realistically it's probably not doing as well in 18-34 as I would like. Do I wish it were rating better than it is? Of course? Do I wish more 30-year-olds would give it a chance? Of course.

What reality shows do you wish you had done?

The no-brainer answer is Amazing Race, which is a big complicated show and yet manages to be a compelling character drama at the same time. It's probably the one show on television right now where I can't quite wrap my brain around how they produce it. I can look at a Survivor and at least sort of deconstruct it. It's big and it looks like a massive production challenge, but I know how I would make that show. I have no idea how they get Amazing Race on the air.

I am quietly a Hell's Kitchen fan and sort of loudly a Kitchen Nightmares fan, in part because I think Gordon [Ramsay] is a terrific piece of television talent. I don't care that much about cooking, which just goes to show you that the genre isn't about the talent on display in any given show or what people are competing in—it's about people.

I can't believe how delusional the people are who are running those restaurants.

Well, they're probably edited to seem more delusional than they actually are.

You're also at the mercy of these people when you create stars like, say, Duane “Dog” Chapman, who was recently revealed to be a serial user of the N-word in a phone conversation with his son. And although Dog is A&E's highest-rated show, they have suspended production and pulled the series from the air indefinitely, and possibly permanently. Do you think Chapman will ever be on TV again?

I think Dog invented himself once and will probably find a way to re-invent himself. But I understand A&E's decision. And while I'm sure it's financially painful and a difficult scheduling decision to make, it's probably the right call. It must be heartbreaking for the crew, for the producers and for Dog to know that what seemed like a personal conversation will have wide-ranging professional consequences.

But you know what, that's what happens when you put yourself on television. You are accountable for your behavior.