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CBS’ ‘The Activist’ to be retooled from competitive series into documentary special after backlash

Usher, Julianne Hough and Priyanka Chopra Jonas were announced as hosts late last week.
Usher, Julianne Hough and Priyanka Chopra Jonas were announced as hosts late last week.
Usher, Julianne Hough and Priyanka Chopra Jonas were announced as hosts late last week.Getty Images

"The Activist,” a CBS series that had itself become the target of online activism in recent days, is being reconfigured in response to the firestorm of criticism, and will now become a one-time documentary special instead of a five-episode competition series, Variety has learned.

Although footage for the original incarnation of the series had already been shot, this version of “The Activist” will be entirely new, with filming expected to begin from scratch.

The show, originally set to premiere as a series on Oct. 22, had faced serious heat since Usher, Julianne Hough and Priyanka Chopra Jonas were announced as hosts late last week. Social media users, bloggers and opinion writers had laid into the competitive nature of a show meant to celebrate and encourage activism, among other concerns.

n a joint statement, CBS and producing partners Global Citizen and Live Nation announced the format switch, saying: “‘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 show as announced distracts from the vital work these incredible activists do in their communities every day. The push for global change is not a competition and requires a global effort.

“As a result, we are changing the format to remove the competitive element and reimagining the concept into a primetime documentary special (air date to be announced),” the CBS/Global Citizen/Live Nation statement continues. “t will showcase the tireless work of six activists and the impact they have advocating for causes they deeply believe in. Each activist will be awarded a cash grant for the organization of their choice, as was planned for the original show.”

The joint statement concludes by saying: “Activists and community leaders around the world work every day, often without fanfare, to advance protections for people, communities, and our planet. We hope that by showcasing their work we will inspire more people to become more involved in addressing the world’s most pressing issues. We look forward to highlighting the mission and lives of each of these incredible people.”

Global Citizen released its own separate statement that included an apology. “Global activism centers on collaboration and cooperation, not competition. We apologize to the activists, hosts, and the larger activist community — we got it wrong,” the philanthropic org said. “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.”

The concept for “The Activist” had been announced in May but, with no celebrity names attached, drew almost no notice at the time. The info about the show hadn’t changed when the hosts were announced last week, but this time, it got attention — the wrong kind, with the competitive aspect provoking ire and accusations that the use of social media metrics in judging the winners amounted to a celebration of “click-tivism.”

A considerable outcry was being directed not just at the three hosts but the activists participating in the show, who haven’t been announced by the network but are known to some in the community of activists after having used social media to promote their causes during the filming of the show. Sources involved with the series say the participants are not beginning or junior activists but figures who are already well-known in their fields.

The now-abandoned format for the series had six activists representing three causes — health, education and environment — completing challenges to raise awareness about those issues during the initial four episodes. For the fifth and final episode, three of the six activists were to have been chosen, one representing each area, to go to the G20 summit in Rome at the end of October and meet with world leaders to personally press their causes. Performances from well-known musicians also would have figured into the climactic episode.

The documentary version is expected to focus on the same activists but without the “challenges” or evaluations.

Representatives for the network and producing entities declined to address creative aspects of the show’s reconfiguration, indicating that practical matters of restarting production with a more straightforward documentary concept would be addressed after the initial word gets out that critics of “The Activist” have been heard.

Hough had already addressed the show’s growing legion of detractors, posting a four-part message to her Instagram account Tuesday that said in part: “After the press release announcing ‘The Activist,’ I heard you say that 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.”

She continued, “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. ... I do not have all the answers yet. I’ve shared your concerns as well as my own with the powers that be, who I believe have listened. I have faith and confidence in the beautiful people that I’ve worked with will make the right choice and do the right thing moving forward. Not just for the show, but for the greater good.”

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