By Matt Schickling
Wire Staff Writer
Jon Gosselin had the full attention of a small group gathered at Upper Moreland High School last week, and it had nothing to do with his ex-wife Kate. It did, however, concern the welfare of the estranged couple’s eight children.
On Oct. 30, Gosselin, star of Jon & Kate Plus 8, a TLC reality television show and Paul Peterson, former child star who played Jeff Stone on The Donna Reed Show participated in a conversation led by state Rep. Tom Murt.
The three discussed problems regarding child labor laws in the film and television industry in Pennsylvania.
“Four years ago child actors working in Pennsylvania had no legal right to on-set teachers, had no way of protecting the funds they earned as minors and could work long hours with no on-set guardian to speak up for their rights,” Murt said. “Today, Pennsylvania’s child labor laws for kids in television and film productions are closer to the laws governing Hollywood, California than in most other states.”
Murt credited Peterson in helping him craft new laws in Pennsylvania, like House Bill 1458, which was passed into law in 2012. The bill ensured that children on reality shows would have the same protections as child actors in movies.
It also sets up trust accounts for child actors, limits work hours, ensures safe supervision of children and calls for on-set teachers if the children miss school. Murt has sought to reform the previous “antiquated” laws since 2009.
This event was meant to stimulate the conversation again, calling for even more protections for children working in the entertainment industry.
Peterson pointed to “horrifying stories” he heard about children working in entertainment whose rights were not protected by law. These children, he said, were exempt from federal child labor laws while working in certain jurisdictions, or even other countries. In the past, he continued, one of these unprotected jurisdictions was Pennsylvania.
“A new demon raised its head called the reality show, which utilized children.” he said, citing Jon & Kate Plus 8 and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo explicitly. “There are a group of people who think nothing of exposing the worst of the human condition” using children “as part of the lure.”
Gosselin recalled his own experiences with reality TV. In their first season on Discovery Health, Gosselin said the family only received $2,000 per episode, totalling to $16,000 over eight shows. As a parent of eight, he was barely making ends meet.
But, there were no laws to protect them at the time, he said. They created guidelines for themselves based upon their contract and their morals. In February 2008, Gosselin said he filmed every day except two.
“That’s when I put my foot down,” he said. “How, as a parent, am I going to tell my child ‘honey, I know you’re sick today, but we have to film today because, you know, we’ll get sued.’ ”
But problems continued. Gosselin said he received stacks of breach of contract notifications from TLC, and even was asked to “fake our marriage for the show” after Kate filed for divorce in 2009.
Peterson agreed with this notion of exploitation in his own experiences on The Donna Reed Show. “It upsets the priorities, the normal priorities of life,” he said.
“It was fun being rich and famous, but it’s like going to a great restaurant,” Peterson continued. “You get a bill, and you better be able to pay that bill.”
One of the major concerns of the three is background checks for those working with the child actors. Gosselin said that one of the editors on Jon & Kate Plus 8 was recently arrested for child pornography, though, apparently he was never in direct contact with the children on the show. This is one of the newer issues Murt will be taking to Harrisburg.
Gosselin said, at one point, the show was making TLC $186 million per quarter, and the network was still taking very little accountability for the welfare of the children.
“There’s morals and there’s business and sometimes those two don’t cross paths,” he said. “It’s really scary. You kind of forget who you are, and who the network wants you to be, and who the public sees you as.”
As for their fame, Gosselin said that his children are doing fine. The twins are well-adjusted, but the sextuplets initially had problems. He credited their private school in Lancaster as pivotal in facilitating a “normal life” for the eight.
“I was uneducated. I had no idea. All I knew is that I needed to put food on the table,” he said. “But my kids lean on each other, they can always depend on each other.”
He hopes that other families can be more educated before they jump into reality television. It does have its advantages, though. Gosselin was able to make trust funds for all of his children so that they don’t have to foot the bill themselves for higher education.
But still, Gosselin, Peterson and Murt are pushing to get more legislation across so that other families are protected.
“We need to educate people, in advance of the problems,” Peterson said. “I’m not telling anybody not to do this thing that gave so much meaning to my life, but I want them to do it carefully.”