A new docuseries smashes the silence on the abuse child actors face at children’s TV channels - Hindustan Times

A new docuseries smashes the silence on the abuse child actors face at children’s TV channels

Apr 01, 2024 11:37 PM IST

Since the release of ‘Quiet on Set', many have called for accountability for the abuse many child actors have faced across the children’s TV industry

In her bestselling memoir, I’m Glad My Mom Died, former Nickelodeon child actor Jennette McCurdy recounts the moment her anorexia began to develop. At 11 years, when she begins to grow breasts, McCurdy panics — she can’t afford to embrace puberty in her line of work, not just yet. The smaller she stays, the longer she can be employed as a child actor; in fact, if she continues to have a small build, she can stand in for a child or a teenager even after reaching adulthood. Her mother, whose dream it was to be an actor and who had been living vicariously through her daughter’s life, trains McCurdy to count her calories and watch her weight. It took the ‘iCarly’ star years to realise that her body and her youth had become commodities for her family, and for the Nickelodeon channel where she was employed. As the breadwinner, she would bend over backwards to ensure that she toed the company line and would be given work, even though so much of it was questionable.

Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV PREMIUM
Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV

Recently, ‘Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV’, a documentary series looking into the abusive workplace culture at Nickelodeon through the 1990s till the 2010s was aired on the Investigation Discovery channel; it opened a can of worms that surprised very few people, especially since the release of McCurdy’s memoir in 2022. Directed by Mary Robertson and Emma Schwartz, the four-part docuseries focuses on the toxic environment that was fostered by the channel’s most successful producer, Dan Schneider, the man behind hit shows such as ‘The Amanda Show’, ‘Drake & Josh’, ‘iCarly’, and ‘Zoey 101’. Nickelodeon severed ties with Schneider in 2018 after allegations of sexual misconduct were made. The investigation at the time could not prove the charges but the producer was found guilty of verbal misconduct. Schneider’s name is all over ‘Quiet on Set’, which features testimonies from former child stars who have spoken up about how harmful and unsafe the children’s entertainment industry really is.

Nickelodeon, a channel known for having the highest number of successful female child actors, rarely hired women writers because Schneider didn’t think women were funny. Two women who made it to his writers’ room were subjected to sexist comments, and inappropriate jokes, and on more than two occasions, were asked to give Schneider a massage. The producer could make or break careers at Nickelodeon — many employees, children and adults alike, gave in to his demands, and some parents looked the other way because their child’s career was the single source of income for their families. The sketches the actors were pressured to perform were sexually suggestive and racially insensitive. For instance, in ‘All That’, Bryan Christopher Hearne, an African-American actor, was asked to play a rapper and sell drugs; in ‘On-Air Dares’, a show inspired by ‘Fear Factor’, child actors were made to lather themselves with peanut butter, lie on the ground, and not panic when dogs were set loose on them. Two adult employees, Jason Handy, a production assistant, and Brian Peck, a dialogue coach, were convicted on charges of sexual misdemeanours and sexual assault on a child, respectively; Ezel Channel, an animator, was sentenced to prison for sexually abusing teenage boys at the studio.

Only two former female child actors went on to become incredibly successful stars in Hollywood and the music industry: Amanda Bynes of ‘All That’ and ‘The Amanda Show', Ariana Grande of ‘Victorious’, and ‘Sam & Cat’. Neither has participated in the documentary; however, the last decade of Bynes’ life is peppered with nervous breakdowns, mental health crises, a bipolar disorder diagnosis, a conservatorship, and multiple stints at rehabilitation centres. Her peers, Drake Bell (who was sexually assaulted by Peck), also suffered from alcoholism, as did McCurdy, who was plied with alcohol by Schneider when she was underage, and Leon Frierson, who starred in ‘All That’. Since the documentary aired, viewers have shared a clip of Schneider sharing a hot tub with Bynes, who was then 13 years old.

‘Quiet on Set’ ends with a text from Schneider: “Everything that happened on the shows I ran was carefully scrutinized by dozens of involved adults. All stories, dialogue, costumes, and makeup were fully approved by network executives on two coasts. A standards and practices group read and ultimately approved every script, and programming executives reviewed and approved all episodes. In addition, every day on every set, there were always parents and caregivers and their friends watching us rehearse and film.” Since the release of the docuseries, viewers, actors, and media commentators have come together to point out that while Schneider and his team abused their privileges, the children’s entertainment industry, especially Nickelodeon, has to be held accountable for all the harm they have done.

It is not one man’s doing but an entire team of network executives who have chosen to exploit young people’s bodies and their lack of agency for ratings and awards. As children, we are taught that strangers are to be steered clear of, their intentions are unclear and cannot be trusted. At Nickelodeon or any children’s entertainment network, how can child or teen actors consider themselves safe in an environment where adults are not strangers but co-workers, and colleagues, and yet are the only ones with decision-making powers? Where proximity must be encouraged for a better chance at career longevity, but also where boundaries cannot be easily established? ‘Quiet on Set’ is hard proof that children’s entertainment rests on the exploitation of children on camera, which is then packaged and sold to children on the other side of the screen — and that is no laughing matter.

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