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CBS is coming under fire for an upcoming reality TV effort in which six activists compete against each other in a format that’s somewhat similar to NBC’s defunct The Apprentice.
In The Activist, six activists from around the world work “to bring meaningful change to one of three urgent universal causes: health, education and the environment. The activists will 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.”
The contestants’ success will be judged not by impacting real-world change, however, or even by raising money from the public for noble causes, but rather by measuring how much social media engagement they receive, plus the assessments of the show’s trio of celebrity hosts — singer Usher and actresses Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Julianne Hough. The show’s winners will attend the G20 Summit in Rome to meet with world leaders and try to raise money and attention for their cause.
While review copies are not yet available for the five-week series, which launches Oct. 22 and is produced along with Global Citizen and Live Nation, the very idea of blending reality TV capitalism, serious global issues and shilling for retweets into some sort of competitive woke-off is striking many as a rather dubious concept.
“Could very well be the worst idea for a TV show ever,” wrote Andy Wilson, who manages online campaigns for an environmental nonprofit, on BleedingCool.com. “Measuring the success of activism by engagement and social metrics is inherently wrong. 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. This is the same silly notion that if somehow we only get enough signatures on a Change.org petition that something will happen. Newsflash: that’s not how the world works … And it reinforces this zero-sum game ideology that we can’t deal with all of our issues together, that we have to pit the interests of the environment against health against education, as though these things are like The Highlander and there can be only one social ill we solve.”
Forbes writer Janice Gassam Asare described the idea as “performance activism personified” and noted, “Many people lose their lives advocating for the most marginalized. These individuals should be amplified, venerated, and celebrated — not the folks who join a show to win a competition. If you’re going into activism for fame and popularity, then is it really activism?”
The Washington Post writer Michele L. Norris wrote in an opinion column, “The contestants don’t compete for actual funds to do good works but merely for the right to crash an international conference and try to shake down world leaders for cash? Instead of a crown of glory, that almost sounds like the second circle of hell … A show that tries to exploit a wave of genuine social activism to create a culture of hazy (or lazy) online engagements is an unhelpful distraction from the real work going on and the real challenges we face.”
The Verge‘s Makena Kelly wrote that the show “seems to think doomscrolling equals activism” and added, “At its heart, The Activist buys into the liberal dream that simply raising awareness can enact radical change, a much easier task than approving laws or boycotting destructive companies. And when awareness itself doesn’t work, perhaps approaching Justin Trudeau as a venture capitalist for justice may do the trick.”
Writer and activist Joey Ayoub called the concept “obscene,” writing, “Such obscene shows make total sense in a disconnected, elite world where activists are nothing more than entrepreneurs-to-be. It’s dehumanizing.”
Even The Onion snarked in its eternal “What Do You Think?” mock opinion survey: “I’ll watch this show if I can write it off on my taxes.”
CBS had no comment about the blowback. But Hugh Evans, CEO and co-founder of Global Citizen, wrote in a statement, “The Activist is a first-of-its-kind competition series that will inspire real change, as the series progresses from the United States to Rome for the activists’ final challenge at the G20. The audience will see the activists’ passion and commitment for their causes tested as they petition world leaders to take urgent action to resolve the interconnected crises we face.”
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