The new show "Kid Nation" raises questions about child endangerment and exploitation.
Whether viewers were entertained by Wednesday's hour - in which the most thrilling line was "We got the Port-A-Potties. Yeah!" - remains to be seen.
But in its initial airing, the series drew an audience of 9.1 million, according to preliminary numbers released Thursday by Nielsen Media Research. This made "Kid Nation" the runner-up to NBC's "Deal or No Deal," seen by 9.7 million viewers. (During the first half-hour, Fox's premiere of the Kelsey Grammer sitcom "Back to You" had 9.4 million viewers, leaving "Kid" and "Deal" each with 8.5 million. And Fox's second half-hour, with the returning "`Til Death," had 7.8 million.)
Filmed over 40 days during April and May in a movie-set ghost town in the high desert just south of Santa Fe, New Mexico, "Kid Nation" gathered 40 children ages 8 to 15 and gave them the task of organizing and running their own lives.
From the start, the children are put through the physical and emotional wringer. They are told to drag supply wagons through the desert, while the youngest ones confront fears of being isolated and away from their families.
"I think I'm gonna die out here 'cuz there's nothing," one 8-year-old frets as "Kid Nation" gets the party started.
"There's no President (George W.) Bush. There's nothing," observes another dispirited youngster.
CBS kept the finished product under wraps and away from critics, allowing media speculation and criticism to help promote the show.
There were allegations that the production may have skirted New Mexico's child-protection laws and that youngsters faced unsafe conditions, which CBS and the show's producer denied.
No injuries other than the muscle pull were shown Wednesday. But one mother has complained to authorities that her daughter was splattered with cooking grease and that four other children accidentally drank bleach during production.
The show confirmed that the incidents occurred but said first aid was immediately provided. Parents and children made available by CBS praised the production as a safe, well-supervised learning experience.
As the "Kid Nation" kids begin to organize in the premiere episode, guided by the alternately comforting and menacing host Jonathan Karsh (he warns them of "rough" times ahead), rewards emerge in forms any red-blooded American child would treasure: candy, soda pop and the possibility of a TV set.
When the pint-sized four-member town council wisely picks outhouses over the television set, supplementing the one toilet that had been serving the town, the rest of the group breathes a collective sigh of relief.
Besides goodies they can buy with their earnings from chores, the kids compete for a weekly solid-gold star, worth $20,000 (14,255 EUR), that goes to the most deserving child.