Hosts Priyanka Chopra, Usher and Julianne Hough have weighed in on 'The Activist' controversy
Getty Images

Entertainment

The Controversy Surrounding Ill-Conceived 'Activist' Competition Series, Explained

A reality competition pitting social causes against each other will be reworked into a documentary after instantaneous backlash.

Just one week after its controversial announcement, CBS’s new reality show The Activist has been cancelled. The series — which intended to pit activists, and their causes, against each other for money — was met with instantaneous backlash. According to the log-line, The Activist would feature six contestants from around the world competing to “bring meaningful change to one of three urgent universal causes: health, education, and the environment.” But in the end, only one cause would win, deeming the others less urgent and affording a one activist a rather hollow prize.

Twitter had a field day with the concept, comparing it to a twisted blend of America’s Next Top Model and The Hunger Games. Many called the series distasteful and exploitative, citing its attempts to commodify social movements, while others pointed out the disrespect in letting celebrities rank causes that don’t affect them. This last point hits especially considering that community leaders are already doing the (underfunded) work.

In response to the widespread disdain, CBS pulled the series, but they’re not getting rid of it entirely. Instead, the network will produce it as a primetime documentary (release date to be decided).

A joint statement from the show's producers (CBS, Global Citizen, and Live Nation) apologized for their oversights. “It has become apparent the format of the show as announced distracts from the vital work these incredible activists do in their communities everyday,” they wrote in a statement. “The push for global change is not a competition and requires a global effort.”

The Activist was going to be hosted by Julianne Hough, Usher, and Priyanka Chopra. In the wake of its cancellation, Hough — whose past use of blackface on Halloween added an extra layer of insult — and Chopra have both released public apologies on Instagram.

Hough wrote, “After the press release announcing The Activist, I heard you say the show was performative, promoted pseudo-activism over real activism, felt tone-deaf, like Black Mirror, The Hunger Games, and that the hosts weren’t qualified to assess activism because we are celebrities and not activists....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.”

Hough hasn’t confirmed if she’ll be a part of the documentary, but Chopra remained hopeful about the rebrand. “I have been moved by the power of your voices over the past week,” she wrote. “The show got it wrong, and I’m so sorry that my participation in it disappointed many of you. The intention was always to bring attention to the people behind the ideas and highlight the actions and impact of the causes they support tirelessly. I’m happy to know that in this new format, their stories will be the highlight, and I’m proud to collaborate with partners who have their ear to the ground and know when it’s time to hit pause and re-evaluate.”

Usher hasn’t provided his two cents, but he still appears to be on board. As for the activists, they’ll all reportedly receive a cash grant at some point in the documentary. And for the rest of us, we can rest easy knowing activism isn’t the newest television genre.