From reality show to documentary, The Activist producers respond to backlash

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Usher speaks onstage at the iHeartRadio Music Awards. Usher was set to be one of the judges on The Activist (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia)
Usher speaks onstage at the iHeartRadio Music Awards. Usher was set to be one of the judges on The Activist (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia)
  • The Activist was an upcoming CBS reality show that pits activists promoting social justice against each other.
  • Like many things in the age of likes being a currency, their success was to be determined by their social media engagement. 
  • In response, social media users have accused the show’s producers, Global Citizen of trivialising activism. Now producers are changing their format to distance the show from the problematic narrative. 

On Wednesday, 16 September 2021, television network CBS announced that their upcoming reality show is being reimagined into a documentary special. 

Produced by governmental organisation Global Citizen, The Activist was first described to the public as a reality show that would pit activists promoting social justice against each other to raise awareness with the hopes of securing funding for their respective causes. When the show first received publicity, CBS released a statement explaining how six activists working in health, education and the environmental sectors would have to "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."

Since the show would be taking on the format of a competition, the activists' success would be measured via online engagement, social metrics and the input of celebrities Usher, Priyanka Chopra and Juianne Hough. 

Described by CBS as a "groundbreaking" reality show that would hopefully inspire its viewers to work at social, economic, and environmental justice in their capacity. 

The decision to flip The Activist from a reality show to a documentary special comes after the public labeled the programming tone-deaf and performative. 

Writer and founder of Intersectional Environmentalist, Leah Thomas asked, “They have budget to bring on huge celebrities, why do they make them compete for resources?” Remarking on how nonprofits and activists are already underpaid and underfunded as is, Thomas critiqued the show saying “a better show would be celebrities raising funds for grassroots efforts.”

Then, considering how the show’s format encourages its viewers (and competitors) to measure progress by centering individuals, public forums were confused by the decision to make Hough one of the celebrity judges because she was embroiled in controversy after donning Blackface for a Halloween costume in 2013. 

A few days after the backlash began, Hough addressed her Blackface memory resurfacing and the public questioning the role of celebrities on the show through Instagram. Referring to the response as real-time activism, Hough said she was “deeply listening with an open mind and heart” instead of rejecting the critique. 

“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.”

She then added how she agreed to be a part of the show because she wanted to be a part of something that highlighted social justice because "many worthy causes need attention, funding, and most importantly, the power to effect real change. "

Her fellow judges Usher and Chopra are yet to release statements

In one tweet, a user by the name Tasty Raps went as far as likening The Activist to America's Next Top Model to highlight how absurd it was. Attached to a screenshot of Tyra Banks addressing the models before eliminations, their caption reads, “your plan defund the police did not receive enough Tik Tok likes… please pack your things and leave activist island.”

The mockery is fitting especially considering how activists are jailed, maimed, and killed around the world. 

Accompanying the plan to pivot the show into a documentary, Global Citizen, CBS, and the show’s producer Live Nation responded to the negative reception with this explanation. 

"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," read the statement. "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."

In its new docuseries format, The Activist will attempt to show “the tireless work of six activists and the impact they have”. By participating, each activist will be awarded a cash grant for the organisation of their choice. 

Independent of its partners for the show, Global Citizen’s statement went as follows: "Global activism centers on collaboration and cooperation, not competition. We apologise 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."

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