The Activist: CBS Tries to Save Face As New Show Gets Cancelled by Twitter Before Its First Airing

In the CBS Corporation Mission Statement, the company describes itself as “leading the edge of media”. Over a month ago, the company announced that it would be leading the pack in . . . activism reality shows? On Sep. 10, CBS announced the premiere of their new show, “The Activist”, which was set to air on Oct. 22 and feature celebrity hosts Usher Raymond IV, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Julianne Hough. Many were bewildered and annoyed by this announcement, and the blowback that CBS and those involved in the show got was so severe that they decided to change the original format of the show entirely.

After the show was announced, Deadline attempted to give a description of the show to clear up some confusion. Their description reads as follows:

“Activists go head-to-head in challenges to promote their causes, with their success measured via online engagement, social metrics, and hosts’ input. The three teams have one ultimate goal: to create impactful movements that amplify their message, drive action, and advance them to the G20 Summit in Rome, Italy. There, they will meet with world leaders in the hope of securing funding and awareness for their causes. The team that receives the largest commitment is celebrated as the overall winner at the finale, which will also feature musical performances by some of the world’s most passionate artists.”

The backlash after the announcement was swift, with many activists weighing in on the performative nature of the show. Brittany Packnett Cunningham, the founder of the police reform non-profit Campaign Zero, called the show “deeply dangerous.” She said that the show, “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.” She also highlighted that the money spent making the show could have gone directly to activists and organizations.

22-year-old climate activist Clover Hogan said she declined an offer to be on the show. She spoke on her experience being interviewed by the show’s producers. “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.”

On Sep. 16, CBS addressed the backlash with an announcement that the show would be undergoing some changes. The following is their official statement on these changes:

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 shows as announced distracts from the vital work these incredible activists do in their communities every day.”

Global Citizen, an advocacy organization whose main goal is to be “a movement of engaged citizens who are using their collective voice to end extreme poverty by 2030,” apologized for their decision to partner with CBS for the show. “Global activism centers on collaboration and cooperation, not competition. We apologize to the activists, hosts, and the largest activist community – we got it wrong,” their apology reads.

The producers of the reality show have already filmed footage for the series. Following the changes, they will completely reshoot the new and improved version of the show, which will now be shot as a documentary series. The new premiere date for the show has yet to be announced. 

In a lengthy Instagram post, Julianne Hough addressed the backlash, calling it “a powerful demonstration of real-time activism”. “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 said. She also apologized for her 2013 Halloween costume in which she wore blackface to dress up as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, portrayed by actress Uzo Aduba on the hit Netflix show “Orange Is the New Black.”

Co-host Priyanka Chopra Jonas took to Twitter and Instagram to say, “I have been moved by the power of your voices the past week. At its core, activism is fueled by cause and effect, and when people come together to raise their voice about something, there is always an effect. You were heard. The show got it wrong, and I’m sorry that my participation in it disappointed many of you.” She also said that she is “proud to collaborate with partners who have their ear to the ground and know when it’s time to hit pause and re-evaluate.” This statement comes after many pointed out the actress’ decision to invite Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to her and Nick Jonas’ wedding. Modi, who is a member of India’s right-wing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) was previously under fire for his “complicity in genocide”  when over 2000 people, most of which were Muslims, were murdered in Gujarat under his leadership.

Usher has yet to address the controversy of the show, but, given his most recent scandal, a statement on the matter may be coming from him. The singer was called out for throwing fake currency at a sex worker. Some even go as far as to say that this was “sexual assault” since the sex worker did not consent to perform her services without monetary compensation. A picture of the fake money, now dubbed “Ush Bucks,” quickly circulated on social media and has since become a meme.

Though many have made it clear that they will not be tuning in to the program, whether or not “The Activist” will survive its Twitter cancellation has yet to be determined. Given the trouble the show has already caused them, it may be in CBS’ best interest to actually cancel the show and shelve the project entirely. I, for one, would not complain if they did.

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