Is 'The Activist' the Worst Idea for a Reality TV Show in History?

AP Photo/Jason DeCrow

Television, the “vast wasteland,” has seen its share of really, really bad TV shows. Remember “Cop Rock”? How about “AfterMASH”? 


We all have our favorites for the worst TV show. But any argument about “the worst,” or “the dumbest,” or “the most unintentionally funny” idea for a TV show begins and ends with the new CBS reality show “The Activist,” set to air on October 22.

Hollywood Reporter:

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.

When CBS announced details of the show last week, it set off a social media firestorm.

The Hollywood Reporter says that 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.”


Indeed, one activist, Andy Wilson, wrote: “This is the same silly notion that if somehow we only get enough signatures on a petition that something will happen. Newsflash: that’s not how the world works.” Wilson added, “Could very well be the worst idea for a TV show ever.”

Forbes writer Janice Gassam Asare asks, “If you’re going into activism for fame and popularity, then is it really activism”? My response would be: Why not? Modern activists want the rest of us to see them as selfless do-gooders, battling evil and working for “change.” It’s simple-minded and foolish — just like the TV show.

The pushback became so intense that CBS relented. The network reformatted the show and made it into a one-night special instead of a five-episode series.


Now, the show’s producers have announced they will dramatically reformat the show, dropping the competitive elements to become a one-time documentary special rather than a five-episode series.

“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,” said CBS and its co-producers, advocacy group Global Citizen and entertainment giant Live Nation, in a joint statement emailed to NPR.

“Global activism centers on collaboration and cooperation, not competition. We apologize to the activists, hosts, and the larger activist community — we got it wrong,” wrote Global Citizen in a separate statement. The group declined to comment further.


Global Citizen is being extremely disingenuous when it claims that “[g]lobal activism centers on collaboration and cooperation, not competition.” Of course organizations compete. Who does Global Citizen think pays the bills? Without donations, the activists would be dead in the water. And most organizations compete by scoring points with the public at large and, especially, the donor class. This is done by putting on splashy campaigns that highlight an organization’s central purpose.

And if they exaggerate the danger, or the wrongdoing, or just make stuff up? Well, it’s all for a good cause.

The activists hate to be exposed like this, but the fiction that they are selfless heroes working to make things better must be maintained. Their self-image and self-esteem depend on it. A TV show that  revealed the truth about their fundraising wouldn’t be allowed to go on the air.

Related: Systemic Racism’ Smuggles Its Way Into 127 TV Episodes


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