A five-episode reality competition that’s already been filmed and was set to debut on CBS next month is now being put into the trash, as CBS admitted that the show’s format was a terrible idea. That decision to effectively cancel it came less than a week after its celebrity hosts were announced, and just over a month before it was set to premiere.
The Activist, hosted by Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Julianne Hough, was filmed as a competition between six activists. CBS’s description said:
“The activists will compete in missions, media stunts, digital campaigns and community events aimed at garnering the attention of the world’s most powerful decision-makers, demanding action, now. The competing activists’ success is measured via online engagement, social metrics and hosts’ input. The hosts will guide the activists through their journey, with plenty of surprises from high-profile public figures.”
CBS executive Jack Sussman said in a press release that the show would be “[c]ombining philanthropy and entertainment”—which is a phrase everyone at CBS apparently thought made perfect sense—while co-producer Global Citizen’s CEO Hugh Evans said the show would “inspire real change, as the series progresses from the United States to Rome for the Activists’ final challenge at the G20,” and show the activists “petition world leaders to take urgent action.”
Ironically, that format inspired immediate action—or at least a lot of condemnation. Here’s some of the criticism:
- We’ve reached the sad place where activism has turned into a reality show
- Performance Activism Personified: Why CBS’s New Show ‘The Activist’ Is Extremely Problematic
- CBS’s ‘The Activist’ seems to think doomscrolling equals activism
The Onion ran a piece, with fake quotes from fake people reacting to this very real show, such as “Well, I look forward to seeing some petty drama about saving the earth or whatever.”
Even one of the show’s own judges (eventually) criticized it: Julianne Hough posted a lengthy statement to Instagram that included this line: “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.”
Brittany Packnett Cunningham told MSNBC that CBS was spending millions on celebrity hosts and production of a show instead of just contributing directly to charitable causes, and noted that the concept is “undermining real activism and organizing,” including by turning collective action and community organizing into competition, and because it had a limited scope about what constitutes worthy causes. (CBS said the activists on the show were focusing only on “health, education and the environment.”)
“Hopefully the executives at CBS are paying attention,” she said. “I’m really hoping that they’ll pull the plug on this.” They actually did, and I am shocked—not at the show’s contents, but that CBS executives actually acted.
CBS actually responded to criticism
This is CBS, the network that basically dismissed and waved away criticism about the racism on Big Brother for years.
Years ago broadcast Kid Nation despite outrage over reports of a kid accidentally drinking bleach on set. (Vulture memorably described Kid Nation like this: “the fall TV season’s most anticipated child-abuse-based reality program, despite protests from critics who wouldn’t know comedy if it made them drink bleach and threw boiling grease in their faces.”)
More recently, after broadcasting a horrific season of Survivor that featured unwanted touching and the producers doing basically nothing about it, CBS finally got around to establishing some rules such as actually prohibiting sexual harassment, which apparently was not prohibited before that.
In a press release, CBS, Global Citizen, and Live Nation admitted that they screwed up, though not that directly, and said they’d air a one-off special instead:
“‘The Activist’ was designed to show a wide audience the passion, long hours, and ingenuity that activists put into changing the world, hopefully inspiring others to do the same. However, 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. The push for global change is not a competition and requires a global effort.
As a result, we are changing the format to remove the competitive element and reimagining the concept into a primetime documentary special (air date to be announced). It will showcase the tireless work of six activists and the impact they have advocating for causes they deeply believe in. Each activist will be awarded a cash grant for the organization of their choice, as was planned for the original show.
Activists and community leaders around the world work every day, often without fanfare, to advance protections for people, communities, and our planet. We hope that by showcasing their work we will inspire more people to become more involved in addressing the world’s most pressing issues. We look forward to highlighting the mission and lives of each of these incredible people.”
In a separate statement posted to social media, Global Citizen apologized more directly and forcefully: “Global activism centers on collaboration and cooperation, not competition. We apologize to the activists, hosts, and the larger activist community — we got it wrong. It is our responsibility to use this platform in the most effective way to realize change and elevate the incredible activists dedicating their lives to progress all around the world.”
“We got it wrong” is a phrase you rarely hear from Hollywood—and I suppose we’re still not hearing it from Hollywood, since Global Citizen had to release its own statement instead of just saying that as part of the joint statement. Change, especially in the entertainment industry, takes time.