CBS Announces Change to 'Cursed Idea' Reality Show

'The Activist' was set to have activists compete; after backlash, it will be a documentary special
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 15, 2021 2:28 PM CDT
Updated Sep 16, 2021 7:45 AM CDT
Activist Reality Show Slammed as 'Inherently Cursed Idea'
Global Citizen describes the show as a "first-of-its-kind competition series that will inspire real change."   (Getty Images/Halfpoint)

Update: The people spoke, producers listened. A CBS reality show focusing on activism is undergoing a format change after intense criticism. The Activist, which had been set to be a competition, is being transformed into a primetime documentary special, Rolling Stone reports. "The push for global change is not a competition and requires a global effort," noted CBS, producer Global Citizen, and Live Nation in a statement. "As a result, we are changing the format to remove the competitive element and ... [to] showcase the tireless work of six activists and the impact they have advocating for causes they deeply believe in." Variety notes the program will be shot from scratch, even though filming for the original format had already wrapped up. The new airdate isn't clear, per People. Our original story follows:

If you think pitting activists against each other in an X Factor-style reality show is a terrible idea, you're not alone. CBS is being widely criticized over The Activist, a show set to premiere Oct. 22 in which six activists from around the world focusing on health, education, or the environment will "compete in missions, media stunts, digital campaigns and community events aimed at garnering the attention of the world's most powerful decision-makers," according to a CBS release. The winners will get a chance to lobby world leaders at the G20 summit, with "The Activist" crowned in the fifth and finale episode. The judges will be Julianne Hough, Usher, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas. More:

  • "Truly horrific." The idea's many critics include writer Stephanie Yeboah, who called it "truly horrific," the Guardian reports. "A reality competition show on who can be the next Insta-activist?" she tweeted. "It’s performative at best, and kinda makes light of the hard work a lot of grassroots organizations do on the ground, on a daily basis. Gross.”

  • An "inherently cursed idea." Andy Wilson, who manages online campaigns for an environmental nonprofit, calls the idea of pitting activists and causes against each other "cynical and inherently cursed" at BleedingCool. He also takes issue with the show's plan to measure success by social media engagement. "Measuring the success of activism by engagement and social metrics is inherently wrong," he writes. "I have seen campaigns do incredible, powerful work that isn't quantifiable by how many retweets it got. And I have seen apparently incredibly popular things on social media fizzle and not take hold, never affect change."
  • "Failure is part of the equation." Michele L. Norris calls the show an "unhelpful distraction" that doesn't reflect the real nature of activism. "This Darwinist touch runs counter to the core work of activism," she writes at the Washington Post. "Failure is part of the equation. Effective activism requires solidarity with Sisyphus. Setbacks don’t stop warriors for change from trying to push that rock up the hill. And they don’t get voted off the hill or made to feel like a loser."

  • Hough addresses backlash. Hough—a former judge on Dancing With the Stars—said in an Instagram post that the backlash has been a "powerful demonstration of real-time activism," CNN reports. Hough said she was listening to critics with "an open heart and mind." She also addressed renewed controversy over her 2013 Halloween blackface costume, saying it was a "poor choice" that she regrets to this day.
  • Producers deny trivializing activism. The show is being co-produced by international advocacy group Global Citizen, which is defending it as a way to put the spotlight on activists. "This is not a reality show to trivialize activism. On the contrary, our aim is to support activists everywhere, show the ingenuity and dedication they put into their work, and amplify their causes to an even wider audience,” the group said in a statement, per Deadline.
(More reality TV stories.)

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