Jon & Kate and Child Labor Laws

Ken AshfordCourts/Law, Popular Culture1 Comment

First, a disclosure: I hate reality TV.  And I never even heard of "Jon & Kate Plus 8", the popular TLC reality series, until a week ago. 

Apparently, it is a reality show about Jon and Kate Gosselin, a Pennsylvania husband and wife, as they raise their eight young children, including 8-year-old twins and sextuplets who just turned 5.

An interesting legal question has come up regarding the show (and no, it doesn't have anything to do with their supposed extramarital affairs).  Depending on the outcome, it could spell trouble for reality shows in general.

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor says it's looking into whether the hit show "Jon & Kate Plus 8" is complying with the state's child labor law. TLC said Friday it "fully complies" with state laws and regulations.


The Labor Department received a complaint against the show and is "gathering information" from its representatives, department spokesman Justin Fleming told The Associated Press. Fleming would not say when the complaint was filed or who filed it.

The fact a complaint is being investigated doesn't necessarily mean the department believes the show did anything wrong.

"Any complaint we get, we investigate," Fleming said.

Here's the legal issue:

Child actors and other young performers are protected by Pennsylvania labor law, but it's not clear whether the law applies to reality TV. Investigators will have to decide whether the Gosselins' house in southeastern Pennsylvania is essentially a TV set where producers direct much of the action — in which case the law may apply — or a home where the kids aren't really working but are simply living their lives, albeit in front of the cameras.

What are the repercussions?  Forget about child labor — that's important as far as the Gosselin kids are concerned, but there are bigger issues than that.  Specifically, if it looks like, under the eyes of the law, reality shows are deemed to be "directed", with the "stars" being "employees" rather than, say, "subjects of documentaries", that opens up a whole host of legal issues in the areas of labor and employment law, actors unions, and other matters.

Put another way, this investigation has the potential to expose, if only a little bit, so-called "reality" shows for what they often really are: unscripted yet staged dramas with non-actors.  And, I hope, perhaps their popularity might diminish once people realize that what they're watching isn't really "reality".