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When CBS announced “The Activist,” a reality TV show “combining philanthropy and entertainment,” on Sept. 9, a flurry of scornful headlines ensued. “Real Activists Express Disgust At Reality Series 'The Activist’,” reported Newsweek. “CBS’s ‘The Activist’ seems to think doomscrolling equals activism,” decried The Verge.
The premise of the show was problematic, but so was the media’s conclusion that the commercialized activism cannot be worthwhile. The one takeaway from the scandal should be that the pairing of activism and reality TV is a potent, inevitable match, one that — thanks to the conversation started by “The Activist” — can be executed more tastefully in the future.
As reality TV hosts, the trio of Usher, Priyanka Chopra and Julianne Hough seems perfect — that is, for something like “America’s Got Talent.” According to the network’s calculation with “The Activist,” the three would have made the perfect experts on education, health, and the environment, guiding the activists across three main philanthropic fields. As for the participants themselves, the five-week-long show’s format would have had a group of six compete against each other: According to the series’ announcement, “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,” and their success will be gauged by the hosts and the amount of social media engagement garnered.
As the Twitter backlash pointed out, any positive impact seemed at best a secondary consideration, with CBS blindly following a tried-and-true reality TV show recipe without thinking about the specific nature of activism or its unique role in society. The “tone-deaf” premise reduced genuine activism to not much more than performance and a background for a social-justice-flavored “America’s Got Talent.”
It’s hard not to focus on the offensiveness of what would have been a shamelessly inconsiderate show profiteering off of people’s goodwill, featuring a contest that doesn’t even guarantee actual support for the project but only, at most, a reality show platform. The show’s claims of actual philanthropic commitments were undercut from the get-go by the “cheat tweet” at the end of the announcement: “@usher hosts and @priyankachopra & @juliannehough co-host 5-week #CBS reality competition series #TheActivist from @GlbCtzn, premiering Friday 10/22 at 8 PM/PT.#GlobalCitizen.” The tweet didn’t bother to mention the series’ purported philanthropic links, intentions, or commitments.
But even though CBS framing the show as a charitable endeavor was disingenuous, it’s worth looking at what the indeed unprecedented series could, in theory, have been. “‘The Activist’ will spread awareness about society’s most urgent issues while also giving every viewer the opportunity to be part of the solution,” the show’s press release said. “The Activists’ ultimate goal is to create impactful movements and advance to the G20 summit … for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet with world leaders in the hopes of securing funding and invaluable awareness for their causes.”
The visceral discomfort some feel toward mixing commerce with altruism is understandable, but perhaps premature in light of its benefits. Exposure matters: There is a reason why plenty of people know who Priyanka Chopra is, but have no idea who their congressional representative is. For better or for worse, the massive platform of reality TV is indeed uniquely suited to promoting advocacy.
There’s nothing undignified about watching “90 Day Fiancé”or “RuPaul’s Drag Race,’’ but it’s not a stretch to think that significant parts of reality TV audiences are not educated on social issues or involved in tackling them. By using a medium typically focused on melodrama, action, and lowbrow humor to introduce elements of social commentary, a show like “The Activist” could expose large segments of the population to societal problems and potential solutions they would otherwise lack awareness of.
Granted, this platform is suboptimal despite its significant reach. Especially when the commitment to actual change appears half-hearted, as was the case with “The Activist,” a reality TV show premise includes tradeoffs that can force participants to focus on entertaining audiences and holding their attention. And yet even the limitations are not without their advantages. Who can say that they don’t have a favorite person on their show of choice? Who’s never been disappointed that “their” guy lost? Considering how attached viewers can get to their favorite contestants, it’s no stretch to think they could get attached to their favorite activists. And it would be hard to divorce participants from the good causes they represent, which in turn could boost support for the activist’s agenda.
Finally, there is the matter of prizes. In a Washington Post op-ed, Michele L. Norris highlights the fact that “The Activist” failed at providing support for the causes its participants were to represent. “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,” she says. But even if being able to promote a cause during a G20 summit seems like an inadequate reward, no one can deny that a more ordinary, say, financial prize wouldn’t benefit an advocacy group, and future shows could certainly offer those.
Meaning can easily get lost in the quest for publicity and high ratings. There are dangers to depicting activism in reality television, and “The Activist” didn’t avoid those pitfalls. But instead of using the show to decry the idea of “combining philanthropy and entertainment,” we should understand it as a lesson about the possibility of creating shows that can foster a more engaged society.
—Staff writer Zachary J. Lech can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @zacharylech.
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