CBS Backtracks On 'The Activist' After A Backlash, Including From One Of Its Hosts

Sep 16, 2021
Originally published on September 16, 2021 5:14 pm

CBS thought it had a win when it announced The Activist, a reality show where six contestants would compete in a variety of activism-themed contests before appearing at a summit of world leaders in Italy — a format that press materials called "awe-inspiring," "ground-breaking" and sure to "inspire real change."

But in the week since the network's announcement, backlash has come from all corners — including an apology from one of the program's own hosts.

Now, the show's producers have announced they will dramatically reformat the show, dropping the competitive elements to become a one-time documentary special rather than a five-episode series.

"It has become apparent the format of the show as announced distracts from the vital work these incredible activists do in their communities every day," said CBS and its co-producers, advocacy group Global Citizen and entertainment giant Live Nation, in a joint statement emailed to NPR.

"Global activism centers on collaboration and cooperation, not competition. We apologize to the activists, hosts, and the larger activist community — we got it wrong," wrote Global Citizen in a separate statement. The group declined to comment further.

The change in format was first reported by Variety.

The Activist originally sought to combine activism and charitable causes with reality TV, starring six contestants taking part in a variety of challenges, described as "missions, media stunts, digital campaigns and community events" in CBS' original news release, with success based partly on online engagement and "social metrics." Three celebrities — Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Julianne Hough — would host.

Over the course of five episodes, the contestants — all of whom have histories in activism — would work toward addressing issues of global health, education and the environment. The finale was to take place at the Group of 20 summit of world leaders in Italy next month.

But after CBS' announcement, the backlash came both from TV heavyweights like Jameela Jamil and from activists themselves.

"Besides the fact that there will be millions of dollars spent on hair, makeup, travel, celebrity hosts and judges, production, distribution that could have gone to the activists and organizations that will be featured, this is deeply dangerous," said Brittany Packnett Cunningham, an anti-police-violence activist whose organization, Campaign Zero, has helped shape police-reform efforts around the U.S., speaking on MSNBC.

"This extends a societal belief about what a good activist looks like: someone who is ready for prime time, someone who fits a particular archetype and is great on social media and is perfectly marketable," Cunningham said.

Clover Hogan, a 22-year-old climate activist and founder of youth advocacy organization Force of Nature, wrote on Twitter that she had been interviewed by show producers and was ultimately offered a spot on The Activist, which she says she declined.

"I remember thinking I was in a Black Mirror episode. When the call ended, I cried & called my mum. The whole time, I was made to feel as if I was failing a test," she wrote.

On Wednesday, one of the program's hosts, former Dancing With the Stars performer Julianne Hough, weighed in with an apologetic post to her Instagram account.

"The last few days have been a powerful demonstration of real-time activism," Hough wrote. "I do not claim to be an activist and wholeheartedly agree that the judging aspect of the show missed the mark and furthermore, that I am not qualified to act as a judge."

The broadcast was originally scheduled to premiere on Oct. 22. It has now been postponed to an unannounced date.

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