Who Is Responsible for Reality Television's Littlest Stars?

With the boom in shows about real-life families, a discussion has sprung up about whether reality TV programs should abide by the same laws that govern child acting. But who will save them from their parents?

Reality shows live in the gray zone between scripted series and documentary productions, and because of that, they aren't usually unionized and their stars, while paid, aren't typically classified as actors. This opens up a world of debate about whether the children who appear on these programs—like Kate Gosselin's brood or the unwitting Duggar tots on 19 and Counting—should be forced to abide by filming restrictions, enforced school attendance, and the compensation guidelines that apply to professional child actors. The L.A. Times launched an investigation and found that the laws differ state to state and that many don't mandate that documentaries apply for the same permits as movies and TV shows. The investigation also discovered that shows that film in jurisdictions where permits are required didn't apply for them.

The biggest difference between children on reality shows and child actors is that reality kids are often dragged along by their parents. Sure, there are some vicious stage moms, but they aren't the ones calling the shots on the set. When the cameras focus on Kate Gosselin, she's not only responsible for bringing the drama and keeping the audience entertained, she is also the one who says what her kids can and can't do and what is acceptable behavior for them. When it comes to most laws regarding children, it's left up to the parents to decide what's best for them. The problem with this philosophy is that any parent who would stand in front of a camera with their kids is highly suspect in the first place. After all, the parent's success is contingent on their children's participation, and if that participation is decided by the parents then it's a Catch-22. Kate Gosselin needs the show to pay her bills. No kids, no show. What choice do you think she's going to make?

There are some reality mothers who manage to keep their kids out of sight. Look at Real Housewives Dina Manzo and Sonja Morgan, both of whom keep their daughters off-screen. They are the exception. This past year we've seen some parents endanger their children just in the prospect of getting a reality show. Balloon Boy wasn't really in the balloon but just think what the media spectacle did to the little Heene children. Abby Sunderland barely survived her round-the-world sailing jaunt but didn't sink her dad's reality show aspirations.

Filming a reality show probably isn't "work" like memorizing a bunch of lines, hitting the marks, and being cute on command like child actors have to, but it does seem like reality tots need at least a little bit of independent supervision that has no stake whatsoever in a project's success. Still, the protections given to child actors don't always work. But shouldn't we, a nation enthralled with reality television, give them the best chance possible? After all, anyone who can survive having Kate Gosselin as a mother is entitled to a little something extra.

[Image via Getty]