Inside ‘The Activist’ Meltdowns as the Entire Shitshow Spiraled Out of Control

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Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

It took just a few hours for CBS’s new reality competition The Activist to be globally panned. A Frankenstein mashup of a Hunger Games-style dystopian world mixed with hints of Survivor and The Apprentice, the show places six activists into teams and pairs them with a “high-profile public figure” to duke it out in challenges to promote their various causes. At the end of the five-episode series, they will have the chance to pitch their cause at the G20 Summit in Rome. Whoever secures the most funding wins the show.

Instead of world leaders or any sort of mission-driven experts being tapped to host the show, Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Julianne Hough will serve as co-hosts and offer up advice to the contestants.

The Daily Beast reviewed the six contestants’ social media accounts—including TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram profiles—which were all created in August. One posted, “Help me win by commenting and liking my posts through the next few missions!” Another contestant thanked his followers for donating to his GoFundMe, which went towards covering the unpaid time off he took as an elementary teacher in order to compete on the show.

Needless to say, the announcement of a show that pits serious causes against one another and then relies on superficial social media metrics to determine which campaign is more successful—in the middle of global pandemic—did not go over well.

And by Wednesday night, Global Citizen and Live Nation, who are both producers of the program, announced the show would be restructured into a documentary special, completely removing the competition element.

“Global activism centers on collaboration and cooperation, not competition,” Global Citizen said in a statement provided to The Daily Beast. “We apologize 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.”

Prior to the Wednesday news, the calls to can the entire show had already been growing, as activists started sharing tales about how they were approached to compete, but quickly decided against it. Alicia O’Sullivan, an Ireland-based activist and speaker who works to raise youth awareness on climate change, told The Daily Beast that she was contacted about appearing on the show. By the end of her interview, she recalls, she got the sense that no one quite grasped the concept of activism.

“It's actually pretty offensive to the activism community in my opinion to shove everyone on a TV show and try and create a winner out of a situation where people are funding things like poverty, education, climate change—[causes] where people literally die every day, every minute, and every hour,” the Down to Earth podcast host says. “I think if they had any knowledge of the activism world, they would probably realize how grossly wrong this is.”

Clover Hogan, a 22-year-old London-based climate activist and founder of the youth-geared organization Force of Nature, recounted her nightmarish interview that resulted in her bursting into tears while on the call—a reaction that was met with enthusiasm. She admits to The Daily Beast that, while it’s unlikely, she hopes the show never makes it to air.

“In a dream scenario, they would redistribute resources,” she says. “But at the very minimum, I think we have to start a conversation about where action is needed, and why we can't turn activism into some kind of fetishization for people to think that they're engaging in the issues when they're just sitting at home watching this TV show.”

By Tuesday, nearly 70 people and groups signed an open letter to CBS and nonprofit Global Citizen, which helped produce the competition along with Live Nation, voicing serious concerns over the show’s format. They also took aim at its panel of celebrity co-hosts, who “are in no way equipped to dissect the complexities of ‘climate, social and health' issues.”

“Pitting activists against one another upholds the ‘oppression Olympics’ and perpetuates the belief that justice issues must fight over ‘breadcrumbs’ supplied by those with power, resources and large platforms,” the statement reads in part. “Ultimately, this results from the very oppressive systems which we are trying to dismantle. Our lived realities, struggles and traumas are not games, nor competitions for the consumerist gaze.”

The open letter calls for CBS and Global Citizen to make a public statement that addresses “the insensitivity and misguided nature of this idea,” and redistribute some of the funds that went into producing a show of this scale back to the causes its competitors are advocating for. The letter also offers to open a line of communication with the show on how it can “create accountability for the harm caused to frontline communities, with actions going forward.”

So far, only Hough has addressed the controversy. “I heard you say there was hypocrisy in the show because at the root of activism is a fight against capitalism and the trauma that it causes so many people and that the show itself felt like a shiny capitalistic endeavor,” Hough wrote in an Instagram post. “And because of this, there is a feeling of insult, dehumanization, insensitivity and hurt that is being rightfully felt. 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 added, saying she had raised her concerns with “the powers that be.”

While Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and CBS did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment about the criticism and whether the show would be making any adjustments ahead of its Oct. 22 premiere, Global Citizen told Deadline, “This is not a reality show to trivialize activism. On the contrary, our aim is to support activists everywhere, show the ingenuity and dedication they put into their work, and amplify their causes to an even wider audience.”

Live Nation Entertainment CEO Michael Rapino also issued a statement, saying, “The Activist will spread awareness about society’s most urgent issues while also giving every viewer the opportunity to be part of the solution—an unprecedented example of how entertainment can change the world.”

The casting process began back in the spring, with O’Sullivan receiving an email out of the blue from a freelance casting director in late April. At the time, the show was under the working name The Global Challenge. A casting call poster reviewed by The Daily Beast said it was searching for applicants who were currently “making an impact in the areas of environment, health, education, and reducing world hunger.”

After an initial screening call, O’Sullivan says she had an interview with someone from casting and quickly realized that they didn’t share her sense of activism. “They didn't really understand it,” she says. “I think their concept of activism is if you set up a charity, or if you’ve set up a huge organization. Activism is not just that, it’s not just about setting up these huge things. Activism is everything we do for the betterment of other people.”

O’Sullivan says that in addition to the lengthy-but-vague release form she was asked to sign, there were several other red flags, including when she was asked to give an impromptu speech as if she was at London’s Wembley Stadium, trying to convince an impassive crowd to care about climate change—leaving her with the unsettling feeling that the show would be overly staged.

Hogan had a similar assessment of her interview, although she was at one point provoked to tears of frustration. “I realized that I was totally a character they wanted to manipulate and fit into their own story arc narrative—none of it was about understanding the issues,” she recalls. “The moment I started talking about climate psychology and the role of mental health in solving these big problems, I was repeatedly interrupted and told to talk like an American because what I was saying was too complicated or too nuanced and they wanted soundbites.”

“They kept pressuring me to answer questions in a very certain way,” Hogan adds. “When I was recounting my personal story, they very offensively told me that I sounded like a robot. I just felt so much pressure in those moments that I literally reached a breaking point on the call and burst into tears. I guess that was the most horrifying moment because then there was this pleasure on his face like, ‘Yes, we finally got the shot, we finally got you breaking on camera.’”

Both Hogan and O’Sullivan say aspects of the show were vague. “I was questioning everything, up to the legalities,” O’Sullivan says. “There were a whole bunch of things, red flags everywhere... I asked them about diversity on the show and what they were doing for efforts on that. I asked them about these challenges, this was my biggest concern. Everything just felt a bit iffy.”

“It felt very ambiguous,” Hogan agrees. “It definitely felt like they didn't want to speak too soon. They didn't want to reveal too much.”

While O’Sullivan says most of her questions were never clarified, she ultimately signed the release form. But she ended up being ghosted and never heard back. “I think I was asking too many questions,” she laughs. “I think they were sick of me.”

Meanwhile, Hogan says she was told that she had advanced to the final round, but she turned them down. “I was frankly really surprised when they reached out to say that I had progressed to the final round, and they wanted to invite me on to the show,” she says. “I politely declined and then they really just kept pressuring me. One of their [casting] producers messaged me saying, ‘This would be a mistake, this is a huge opportunity, we really want you to reconsider.’”

O’Sullivan has mixed feelings about The Activist, mainly out of concern for the contestants who made it on the show. “I think there were better ways they could have done it and helped the activists really showcase their causes and what they’re about,” she says. “I have no doubt in my mind [they] are actual, genuine, hardworking activists doing things for their community, for their causes. I think it would be a shame for those people to have been trapped in some situation where they didn't realize what they were going into.”

“I dodged a bullet, as far as I'm concerned,” she adds. “I think I would have been canceled and my whole career would have been over. I think it’s sad for the activists, they’re probably good people who do good things and it’s a shame… But unfortunately, this sort of ignorance with the show and the way it's been written and the way it's going to be produced, will unfortunately cause some problems [for the contestants].”

Hogan says that while she’s disappointed the show seems more akin to a Hollywood idea of who an activist is and what they do, rather than platforming issues or unpacking the problems society faces in a meaningful way, she’s grateful for the widespread pushback.

“I'm really relieved by the response that has happened and the fact people are talking about it,” she says. “I wish this was an isolated incident, but this kind of thing happens all the time. I think in this particular scenario, it felt kind of comical because it was so Hollywood. But we experience the tokenization of youth voices and underserved voices all the time, so I'm glad that people care and are speaking up.”

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