CBS announced a competition show about activism. Some organizers already hate it.
CBS wants the next revolution to be televised.
The network on Thursday announced a new five-week series called “The Activist,” which will feature six activists from around the world competing against each other (in missions, media stunts, digital campaigns and community events) to promote health, educational and environmental causes. Their success, according to CBS, will be measured by online engagement, social metrics and input from the show’s hosts: Usher, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Julianne Hough.
In its news release, the show is described as one that “will inspire real change.” But some organizers criticized the show’s premise, accusing CBS of diminishing and profiting off the work of organizers and activists by making it more digestible and consumable for a larger mainstream audience.
“While Gen-Z and many 21st Century activists and grassroots organizations leverage the power of social media to make their movements known … social media does not, cannot and should not determine the success of any issue, or any human being at all,” activist Sofia Ongele, 20, told NBC News on Friday.
Ongele said she was approached for a show with this same premise in April, though she’s not sure if it was “The Activist.” She turned the opportunity down, she said, because “activism is neither a game nor a competition.”
The blowback comes as the role of social media in activism remains a topic of debate, particularly whether so-called “slacktivism” actually achieves anything substantial.
Adam Gismondi, director of impact at Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, which conducts non-partisan research on college civic education and participation, said the initial backlash is unsurprising.
“The marketing of this show amplifies the more cynical aspects of activism that some may see as performative,” Gismondi told NBC. “It emphasized the celebrity factor, it emphasized that it’s a competition and it made activism appear, in some ways, to be a zero-sum game.”
In reality, Gismondi said, activism is “hard, gritty work and not necessarily glamorous. It requires tenacity, perseverance and patience; it’s not easy to just put it in a box.”
“It crosses over with people of different communities, and it requires interdependent work among people — and the way they set up the show does not really square with that,” he added.
CBS and Global Citizen, co-producers of the show, did not immediately respond to an NBC News request for comment.
But Michael Rapino, CEO of Live Nation Entertainment, said in Thursday’s announcement that the show aims to “spread awareness about society’s most urgent issues while also giving every viewer the opportunity to be part of the solution.”
Hugh Evans, CEO and co-founder of Global Citizen, echoed similar sentiments.
“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,” he said in the news release.
But Ongele, and others who slammed the show on Twitter, feel CBS is missing the point of activism entirely by pitting social issues against each other.
“To diminish and capitalize on our causes reinforces the exact unequal systems we’re working to dismantle,” Ongele said.
“I’m confused,” Naomi Klein, Canadian author, journalist and social activist, tweeted. “Is this an advanced Marxist critique to expose how competition for money and attention pits activists against each other + undermines deep change? Or just the end of the world?”
Some progressive elected officials also weighed in. Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-NY, told his followers that he would block anyone who watched “this mess.”
In jest, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, responded: “lmaooo I’m gonna submit one in your name.”
Gismondi said the show may actually help elevate some issues and generate funding for them.
The show is expected to premiere on Oct. 22. The activists’ ultimate goal will be to advance to the G20 Summit in Rome, Italy, where they will “meet with world leaders in the hopes of securing funding and invaluable awareness for their causes,” CBS said.
“The finale episode,” CBS said, “will crown ‘The Activist’ and will feature a musical performance, notable activists, and heads of state from across the globe.”
But it’s unclear how many will tune in. Promotion around the show has been a “mess,” Gismondi said.
The money spent on the show, some argued, could have been instead donated directly to activists and grassroots organizations.
“To think that these timely and life-threatening issues are being exploited for entertainment is a truly bizarre concept, bordering on sadistic, and really undermines the importance of the people on the frontlines risking it all in hopes of a better world,” Ongele said. “Activism should never ever be depicted as a competition: we’re all working together to alleviate symptoms of the same systems.”