CBS’s The Activist edges closer by the day to becoming the biggest reality TV shitshow of 2021, a year that featured another competition series that got literally shut down by tides of uncontrollable shit. The backlash against the series—which pits teams of activists (and, implicitly, their causes) against each other in social media challenges in order to secure possible exposure in front of world leaders—has now reached the point where open letters are being lobbed at CBS, and co-host Julianne Hough has issued a statement admitting she’s “not qualified” to act as a judge on the series.
The Daily Beast has a new report today in which it quotes multiple people who interviewed or were sought out for the show, but ultimately either declined to sign on or didn’t make its cut, and the revelations are pretty grim: “They didn’t really understand it,” said Alicia O’Sullivan, an Irish climate change activist discussing producers’ understanding of activism. “I think their concept of activism is if you set up a charity, or if you’ve set up a huge organization. Activism is not just that, it’s not just about setting up these huge things. Activism is everything we do for the betterment of other people.” Another activist, Clover Hogan, says that interviewers asked her to repeatedly dumb down her commentary on climate change, and seemed most enthused about her performance when she broke down crying in frustration over their requests:
I just felt so much pressure in those moments that I literally reached a breaking point on the call and burst into tears. I guess that was the most horrifying moment because then there was this pleasure on his face like, ‘Yes, we finally got the shot, we finally got you breaking on camera.”
All of which is Reality Show Emotional Manipulation 101, of course, with the key difference being the heaviness of the topics that are being pitted against each other for potential televisual success. (We’re also grimly amused to note that the original pitch for the show sought out activists in the field of world hunger in addition to the “health,” “education,” and “environment” “teams” pitched in the original press release, suggesting that that particular angle just wasn’t sexy enough to make the competitive cut.)
Hough’s co-hosts (and, per the show’s rules, participants in its judging system), Usher and Priyanka Chopra Jonas, have yet to respond to accusations that they’re running the latest installment of the “Oppression Olympics”—a common refrain in activist circles that’s echoed in the open letter that’s been directed toward the show, which accuse it of pitting causes against each other instead of seeking a more holistic approach. CBS has also declined to address the backlash as of yet, despite apparently rising sentiments that any such attempt to turn activism into a winner-takes-all game show was fatally flawed from the start.
Update, 11:58 p.m., 9/15/21: CBS has now announced that okay, okay, Christ, it hears you. Per THR, The Activist is now being re-tooled by the network, which will removes the competition elements and instead broadcast the show as a “documentary” focused on the work of the activists in question. Here’s the full statement:
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.