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Why CBS Won't Cry Over 'Kid Nation'

Is all the heat generated by CBS's child-centric KidNation a case of be careful what you wish for, or exactly what network executives wanted?

CBS brass in recent years has bemoaned the lack of “buzz” surrounding its network despite drawing the most viewers of the big broadcasters.

Shows like Criminal Minds may have big numbers, but with all due respect to his fine work in USA Network's recent mini-series The Starter Wife, new addition Joe Mantegna is not exactly a paparazzi magnet. And network mainstays like the CSI franchise, Survivor and Without a Trace aren't getting any younger, or hipper.

But this barrage of media attention has turned Kid Nation—set to debut September 19—into the most talked-about new show of the fall. And while CBS can't admit it publicly, that's exactly what the network wanted—and needed.

During April and May, Kid Nation put 40 kids aged 8 to 15 into a deserted mining town in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico, and had them build a town with a working economy. No parents, no supervision. Well, no supervision on camera anyway, but we all know how loose the term “reality” is in television.

No one was voted off, but competitions took place that awarded real gold stars (value: $20,000) and determined which kids would spend some days laboring and which would be pampered.

While CBS has released only one five-minute clip of the show, the controversy began to heat up with reports that the children were “working” 14-hour days, and that New Mexico labor laws were allegedly being bent.

Most recently, the mother of one cast member filed a complaint after her 12-year-old daughter got burned while doing some cooking during the show's taping.

So CBS has a show with the kind of hype money can't buy. The question is: At what price? Sources at CBS say while they were expecting to generate some controversy, the level of attention has surprised them. They omit the term “pleasantly” in that sentence, but it can be inferred.

Once the phrase “child abuse” starts getting batted around in the press, the fun stops, but as of press time, there has been no irreparable damage to the Tiffany network. As long as that holds true from now until the launch, the controversy will be nothing but a windfall.

With the media wanting to blame someone for the ethical issues around the show, many have turned to the permissive parents of cast members—and rightfully so.

After all, CBS President Nina Tassler and show creator Tom Forman did not kidnap these kids. The participants went through multiple rounds of a casting process and their parents made the decision to let them go into this environment for one purpose: to be on television.

If the network gets cold feet, it could release the pilot to the media to give them some facts to go with the speculation. That strategy is under consideration at the network, according to sources.

That would be a terrible idea. CBS didn't send out screeners of Survivor, and the curiosity was crucial to its success. Even CBS execs quietly admit this feels like that same fascinated rhythm all over again.

With fall shows now playing like major motion pictures—if they don't launch big, they probably won't make it—the controversy gives Kid Nation a fighting chance.

And it returns CBS to a place it desperately wants—and needs to be: Buzztown.