Reality show creator rebuffs claims programs exploit minors

'Supernanny' and 'Heroes of Life' debated at Knesset Committee for Children's Rights.

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Top Israeli life coach Alon Gal was in the Knesset Wednesday to defend his new television series Heroes of Life against charges that it - and other reality-based shows - unfairly exploit minors. The hearing, which was sponsored by the Committee for Children's Rights, was called during the Knesset recess after MK Arye Eldad (NU/NRP) submitted a letter two weeks ago demanding the immediate removal of popular television program Super Nanny, arguing then that "the use of helpless children, in the goal of educating their parents and giving advice to the viewers, as wise at it may be, is extremely unethical and possibly even illegal." In the letter, Eldad called on MK Nadia Hilou (Labor), the chairwoman of the Knesset Committee on Children's Rights, to hold a discussion on the subject. And Eldad was apparently not alone - after Hilou announced that such a discussion would be held, around 70 different people representing television interests and children's and parents' groups submitted requests to be allowed to weigh in on the discussion. "In my eyes, more of these discussions should occur," said Gal, addressing the committee. "But we must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater." Gal said that the use of educational programs that ride on the wave of the "reality TV" trend should continue, but only when done by professionals with the intent to really help their young subjects - and not just to search for ratings. "If we wanted to do this for just ratings, we would do auditions for the show and hundreds of thousands of youth would volunteer for it," Gal explained, adding that "all of the scenes that could bring the highest ratings and the most drama remained on the editing floor out of concern for the subjects." In his program, which received sponsorship from the Israel 60th Anniversary Committee, Gal served as a life coach for 11 troubled teens who attend a boarding school. The treatment lasted for a full year, Gal said, with the oversight of the teaching faculty at the school, and helped the teens realize their goals and overcome their individual difficulties. "Television in Israel is one of the strongest tools to talk to our youth - whoever doesn't understand that is living in the 19th century together with Fred Flintstone," he argued. He said that teenager recognized him on street, but rather than requesting his autograph, turn to him for advice on how to increase their self-esteem. But many in the room were less than convinced by Gal's arguments. Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, the chairman of the National Council for the Child. said that he had been receiving complaints for years about the unfair use of children on reality shows. "We must look at the implications of the day after the show is aired," he said. "The use of children in this way does an injustice to them. It can harm them on the 'day after' and it doesn't just affect the child who was portrayed, but other children as well." Kedman compared the arguments made by Gal and the television franchise owners airing Supernanny to a situation in which children are "treated" for problems successfully - but using harmful methods. "Some say that electrical shock therapy is also very effective for teaching children, but we still don't use that," he said, calling for the establishment of "red lines" to prevent children from being degraded on the screen. "I propose that each of us ask himself or herself if they would want to be shown on television in such an embarrassing situation," he said. Ultimately, although the discussion ended without concrete conclusions, almost all of the speakers - both those opposing the popular shows as well as those supporting their content as "educational" - agreed with the proposal to tighten the language of consent forms signed by parents before their children appear on such shows.