How Responsible Should a Network Be for Its Child Actors?

What Women Really Think
Nov. 8 2012 4:01 PM

How Responsible Should a Network Be for Its Child Actors?

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Ariel Winter at Teen Vogue's 10th anniversary young Hollywood party

Photograph by Jason Merritt/Getty Images.

It's incredibly sad to hear that Ariel Winter, the talented young actress who plays intellectual younger daughter Alex Dunphy on ABC's hit sitcom Modern Family, had to be removed from her mother's care and is now living with her older sister after a judge ruled that she was being physically and emotionally abused. Winter's quiet, dry performance is one of the best things about the show she's on, and it's unfortunate when any young person's home life is in shambles. But her case is also an unfortunate reminder of how, in assigning young actors' parents sole responsibility for their child's well being, big entertainment companies can let talent down.

ABC, which airs Modern Family, is owned by Disney, which also owns the Disney Channel, whose president Gary Marsh earlier this summer described the network's approach to its child stars as a balancing act. "We're really clear on where our role begins and ends," he told the Hollywood Reporter. "We have things like a one-day seminar called Talent 101, where we bring in security experts, psychologists, showrunners, and life coaches. It's usually after the pilot but before the series launches. But at the end of the day, it's the parents who really have to be parents. We give them all of the tools they might need, but the network is not responsible for raising their children."

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This seems like an insufficient strategy to me, given that many of these actors are very young and spend a large portion of their time working for the network—time when most kids their age are at school, where teachers and administrators do not simply cede responsibility for their students' health and well-being (particularly when parents are actively undermining the welfare of their children). It's not yet clear what abuse Winter, 14, is alleged to have experienced, though the older sister she is living with now, Shanelle Workman, was also removed from their mother's care and ended up living with a foster family for several years.

If only for the sake of keeping their production schedules on track and for keeping their performers consistent, networks dealing with child stars need to support their young employees. And in an ideal world, a network's concern would go beyond the viability of its properties. Large corporations may not be suited to parent young children, but that doesn't mean they can't be powerful advocates for their minor employees. In an industry where young stars get cars and big signing bonuses, entertainment companies can probably afford to figure out how to step up in when less happy circumstances arise, too. Believing that the parents of young actors will be consistently suited to take good care of working children who make an unusual amount of money is as much a fantasy as Modern Family.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate’s “XX Factor” blog. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com.